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  • Hunter-Shoppers October 5, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Prehistoric , trackback

    Beachcombing’s nickname at High School – concrete comprehensive school somewhere in the lush north – was Caveman. And Beachcombing’s peers – with that preternatural perception that adolescents still have before soap operas, nicotine and 9-5 set in  – were onto something as the Stone-Ager was always close to the surface. Even now, it is enough for Beachcombing to feel a gust of wind in the woods in the early evening and his gait widens and his eyes start flicking nervously around for sticks to spear squirrels with.

    Given this peculiar atavistic bent Beachcombing – who hastens to add that he never kills squirrels – has long been interested in articles and studies that show neolithic hardwiring in modern man and woman: memories and hangovers from the African Savannah a couple of hundred thousand years ago. And he has been particularly interested in attempts to reduce gender differences to the fact that early man and women took on respectively hunting and gathering roles in those early nomadic societies. For virtually all our modern and historical records suggest that it was man that went out and bagged ‘big protein’ for the tribe, while women plodded around getting the less interesting but more vital daily bag of staples with their digging sticks.

    Beachcombing has gathered together a small collection of these reports. There is, for example, the moden study that claims that women spend many times longer shopping than men: eight years of an average life. This is supposedly the result of women repeating their careful gathering exercises of prehistory: while men rush out, fail to find a good buy (a mammoth in neolithic hunting terms) and then skulk back home with a bag of fries.

    Then there is the mushroom study (5/1 Econ) that traced mushroom collectors in Mexico. Men and women collected the same amount of mushrooms in the same time. But men had to expend much more energy – walking faster, climbing etc – than women, who were more systematic. The hunter’s ambition versus the gatherer’s nouse.

    Another study was carried out by Yale, Santa Barbara and the Uinversity of California (Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, Krasnow) that dealt with that old saw that men are better at navigating. The study took about fifty men and women who had just finished shopping at a farmer’s market (!) and asked them to indicate with a compass where they had bought various foods.

    Men did worse than women by several degrees suggesting that they are good at the macro ‘getting there’, again in prehistoric terms, chasing a herd across the plain. But women seem to be better at the ‘boring’ but vital task of remembering more exactly where particular foods were stored: recalling a patch of blackberries or a place where a termite nest is.

    Women became more accurate the more calories were involved: so they were consistently better at finding the doughnut stall than the bearded guy selling celery. This Beachcombing can understand.

    Beachcombing’s favourite, however, is naturally the most difficult to pin down in bibliographical terms. There is the much quoted observation – is this anecdote rather than science? – that women in a supermarket take a trolley and walk up and down the rows collecting systematically. Again the prehistoric interpretation would have them repeating their Stone Age habits and slowly but carefully gathering in the day’s goodies. Men, however – and this exactly mimics Beachcombing’s own behaviour – often leave their trolley and run off to various corners of the supermarket getting the most important things first. Again in prehistoric terms they are out after ‘big protein’ – in Beachcombing’s case avocados and strawberry icecream –  and though they bravely grab these most important buys, they ultimately spend more energy completing the shopping list.

    Beachcombing hopes to give his students a paper on this next year: any other suggestions for modern hunter-gatherer studies would be gratefully received. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    1st Nov 2010: Gaelic Dennis sent in this excellent site along with some thoughts on flyting and mice in Irish legend. Beachcombing quotes here extensively: ‘These are the kinds of sex differences that we share with all other mammals. What intrigues me, though, is the possibility that human beings have other sex differences peculiar to themselves and derived from uniquely human habits of more recent origin. Take the cliché of the golf-playing husband and the shoe-shopping wife. Not even an evolutionary psychologist would claim to find monkey equivalents to this. Yet the obsession with the trajectory of ballistic objects is as baffling to most women as the obsession with searching and re-searching every store for the perfect shoe bargain is to men. (I know there are exceptions, but admit it: Marriage surprises most people by revealing the truth of such clichés.) In all hunter-gatherer societies there is a sharp difference between the foraging strategies of the two sexes. Men generally travel far in search of mobile prey that they need to bring down with well-aimed projectiles. Women generally go out in groups and search for good sources of roots, ripe berries or nuts, which they use their acute powers of observation to spot and collect. Without knowing it, golf-course designers are setting up a sort of idealized abstraction of the hunting ground, while shoe retailers are setting up a sort of ersatz echo of the gathering field.’ Thanks, Dennis!!!