Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Ethnoarchaeology of Gender-Specific Foraging among Martu in Western Australia

Project: Research project

Project Details


In collaboration with Dr. Douglas W. Bird, Mr. Brian F. Codding will examine the material (i.e., archaeologically visible) residues that result from variability in gendered foraging activities among Martu, an indigenous group who live in remote communities in Australia's Western Desert. Today, many Martu hunt and gather on a daily basis. A typical foraging bout begins with a foraging party travelling together to a temporary day-camp from which men and women usually operate separately, engaging in mutually exclusive foraging activities that occur in different habitats (e.g., men may target hill kangaroo while women focus on sand monitor lizards). After several hours, the party regroups at the day-camp to cook, process, share and consume most of the food acquired during the day. The group then typically returns to the community, leaving behind the material remains of the day's activities.

Because gender differences in labor are common in almost all human societies but are rare among other primates, questions about why humans have such differences and why they vary lie at the heart of many influential arguments about the evolutionary origins of human family formation and cooperative social organization. Yet despite its importance, there is little agreement among anthropologists and archaeologists about when and why gendered occupations became prominent features of human social arrangements. Addressing these issues requires an understanding of how archaeological residues represent the gendered foraging decisions made by individuals. However, since the archaeological record is an accumulation of individual behaviors, materials do not read as a straightforward window to individual subsistence practices. In order to work towards a solution to this problem, this research will quantify observed foraging behavior and the linked material remains deposited at each camp. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the archaeological consequences of foraging behavior and how these are related to gendered decisions about resource use. By combining observational data with the analysis of its material residues, this work aims to provide the tools necessary to examine gendered foraging decisions in the past through the residues of foraging alone. Developing such clear archaeological signatures of the gender division of foraging labor will contribute directly toward understanding a wide range of issues in human prehistory, from the emergence of the genus Homo to processes of economic and political intensification.

This research also has the potential to provide a broader impact on the public's understanding of these issues. Specifically, this work provides the funds to train one PhD student and Martu research assistants who will help with the duration of the project in archaeological survey and excavation techniques. This training will provide an important background for Martu who are actively involved in the management and preservation of their cultural heritage. Working directly with Parnngurr Community School and the Parnngurr Community Council, the results of this research will also be publicized through collaborative websites. In so doing, this work aims to provide a deeper public understanding of the range of variability in family dynamics and their material expressions.

Effective start/end date6/1/0911/30/10


  • National Science Foundation: $14,810.00


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