Notes Toward a Marxist Theory of Gender [III]

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It is a generally accepted notion that prehistoric man hunted, whilst prehistoric woman collected berries. This denotes – at least what is conceived as – 1 of the 1st social divisions of labour. Equally, it is an established notion that the traits of the “sexes” allowed them to perform their allotted task with a greater degree of skill than the other would be able to. The woman is nuturing, hence her affinity with plants. The male is strident & heroic, even naturally violent, & thus a skilled hunter. This is a conception that may even be traced to Marx.

‘Within a family, and after further development within a tribe, there springs up naturally a division of labour, caused by differences of sex and age, a division that is consequently based on a purely physiological foundation‘. (Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, ch. 14 (1867). Italics mine.)

Toward arguments of “biological sex”, we must turn our attention at a later date. For the present it is most important to separate reality from fiction. An important feature to be observed is that the ideological colouring of these social functions (hunter as masculine; gatherer as feminine) is propounded & compacted by bourgeois hegemony. It is, from all available evidence, impossible to pinpoint how early hunter-gatherer societies developed & understood notions of gender in correspondence with their growing mastery of Nature. It is certain that the paradigm is utilised to reify the bourgeois family unit: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (Marx, The German Ideology: Part I (1846).)

In this equation, man is generally conceived of as dominant: ‘The hunting of big game in prehistory has always been thought of as an activity that would be carried out by strong and able men, who would have the role of meat winners (since there was no bread at the time), while women were busy taking care of young children and picking up some berries and a few other sundries that would then complement a diet based primarily upon big game meat. Hence the importance of “Man the Hunter,” and the less regarded and dependent role of “Woman the Gatherer.”‘ (Marta Camps, ‘Review of Distorting the Past‘, PaleoAnthropology (2008), pp.91-92.) This is patently absurd.

1stly, this does not take into account any form of variance. It is a simplistic, but necessary, observation that toward the equator plant biomass is higher than at higher latitudes (lower temperatures). Several historical realities stem from this:

  • Hunter-gatherer societies toward the equator were more reliant upon foraging than on hunting.
  • Hunter-gatherer societies at higher latitudes were more reliant upon fishing.
  • There is a very slim window in which hunter-gatherer societies were predominantly reliant upon big game hunting for their food. (All from Carol R. Ember, ‘Hunter-Gatherers (Foragers)‘, Human Relations Area Files.)

It should hardly be surprising that the variance in these material conditions led to variance in how these societies were organised. For example, there are clear indicators that family relations were governed by dominant economic forms: in societies where foraging was dominant, families were matrilocal; the inverse is true of societies where fishing or hunting were dominant. Most important amongst these concerns is that roles were not kept within a strict binary relation: ‘In higher quality environments (with more plant growth), men are more likely to share fathering with women.’ (Ember.)

A final piece of concrete evidence that bears discussion is the relationship between women & hunting. At 2 archeological sites, evidence has been discovered which suggests women were not only engaged in hunting, but the dominant hunters of prehistoric societies during the Ice Age: ‘human survival […] had little to do with manly men hurling spears at big-game animals. Instead […] it depended largely on women, plants and a technique of hunting previously invisible in the archeological evidence – net hunting.’ (Heather Pringle, ‘New Women of the Ice Age‘, Discover (1 April, 1998).)

What these examples demonstrate is that ideas of masculine hunters & feminine gatherers are a myth. Whilst a form of gender binary was certainly in formation during the prehistoric period, it was by no means rigid. Instead, gender roles were fluid & allowed for their societies economic needs & concerns.


Part I | Part II

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