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Ecological determinants of women's status among hunter/gatherers

Abstract

Women's status in preindustrial communities has been the focus of a number of studies in the past two decades. However, very few of these studies deal exclusively with hunter/gatherers, and none of the hunter/gatherer studies combine empirical tests with explanations. Because of a number of differences with settled agricultural villagers, hunter/gatherers can be viewed as the focus of distinctive substantive ecological theory. A cross-cultural materialist approach to the problem of why women's status is high among some hunter/gatherers and low among others indicates that several factors are strongly related to differences in women's status. Frequent and severe resource stress is the most strongly associated with low female status in the domestic and political domain, while warfare exerts an independent but lesser effect. The importance of hunting constitutes a third and still more weakly associated variable. Thus, women's political and domestic status among hunter/gatherers predominantly appears to have resulted from techno-ecological conditions. In contrast, technoecological conditions appear to have had no strong influence on women's status in ritual roles, including shamanism. Several possible ways that women's status might be linked to techno-economic conditions are proposed. The results of this study demonstrate that Leacock's assumptions of systematic bias in the ethnographic record, and of ubiquitous female equality among band level societies are unjustified.

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Hayden, B., Deal, M., Cannon, A. et al. Ecological determinants of women's status among hunter/gatherers. Hum. Evol. 1, 449–473 (1986). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02436620

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Key words

  • ecology
  • women
  • status
  • hunter/gatherers