Sexual division of labor: Energetic and evolutionary scenarios



This article examines comparative energetic data on hunter–gatherers in the context of evolutionary scenarios of the sexual division of labor, with respect to both specific task allocation and overall levels of daily physical activity. The division of labor between men and women, well marked in contemporary foraging societies, was once posited as the “true watershed” for the evolution of the genus Homo. Some research on brain-wiring even links sex differences in cognitive and spatial abilities to sex-specific foraging activities. Most recent evolutionary arguments posit that men focus on hunting and women on gathering activities to realize potentially conflicting mating and parenting goals. A range of cooperative strategies (male/female and female/female) for child provisioning is also under investigation. Attention to energetic and reproductive trade-offs has usefully challenged the proposition that women are excluded from big-game hunting due to constraints of foraging ecology and reproduction. Simplistic assumptions about gender roles are thus increasingly questioned in anthropology, as well as in archaeology. Current models in behavioral ecology explore ways in which foraging practices vary with ecological circumstances, aiming to derive testable hypotheses from fine-grained data on the behavior of contemporary hunter–gatherers. Data on overall physical activity levels (PAL) can also serve to evaluate relative male/female workloads in modern groups, reconstruct hominid energy requirements and activity profiles, and examine changes with subsistence intensification. Male/female PAL ratios show that a task-specific division of labor does not readily extrapolate to 24-hour energy expenditure and that male/female differences in workloads were not necessarily reduced with the transition to agriculture. With respect to gender roles and PAL, a shift away from facile stereotypes of human behavior is evident. The challenge is to incorporate a range of behavioral responses to ecological circumstances in reconstructions of our evolutionary past. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 14:627–640, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.