Why women hunt: Risk and contemporary foraging in a western desert aboriginal community

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An old anthropological theory ascribes gender differences in hunter-gatherer subsistence to an economy of scale in household economic production: women pursue child-care-compatible tasks and men, of necessity, provision wives and offspring with hunted meat. This theory explains little about the division of labor among the Australian Martu, where women hunt extensively and gendered asymmetry in foraging decisions is linked to men's and women's different social strategies. Women hunt primarily small, predictable game (lizards) to provision small kin networks, to feed children, and to maintain their cooperative relationships with other women. They trade off large harvests against greater certainty. Men hunt as a political strategy, using a form of "competitive magnanimity" to rise in the ritual hierarchy and demonstrate their capacity to keep sacred knowledge. Resources that can provision the most people with the most meat best fit this strategy, resulting in an emphasis on kangaroo. Men trade off reliable consumption benefits to the hunter's family for more unpredictable benefits in social standing for the individual hunter. Gender differences in the costs and benefits of engaging in competitive magnanimity structure men's more risk-prone and women's more risk-averse foraging decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)655-693
Number of pages39
JournalCurrent anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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