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Difference between Male and Female Hunting Patterns Revealed

NSF Award:

The Ecology of Production, Reproduction and Cooperation among the Mardu  (Stanford University)

Mardu Foraging, Food Sharing, and Gender  (University of Maine)

Mardu Food Acquisition and Distribution  (University of Utah)

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In the remote reaches of Australia's Western Desert, an Aboriginal people called Mardu (or Martu) gather wild food from the bush. Since 2000, NSF-supported anthropologists Rebecca Bliege Bird and Douglas Bird of Stanford University have studied the Mardu as they collect desert fruits and honey and hunt kangaroos and large desert lizards. They have discovered that gender labor division arises from differences in men's and women's social lives and goals, not from innate disparities in ability.

Mardu women, especially grandmothers, are active hunters.  Mardu women usually bring in more meat than men. Mardu women and men also strategize their hunting differently. Women focus on animals producing reliable harvests (lizard hunting), while men work for more unpredictable rewards (including kangaroo hunting). The Mardu say that successful hunters of larger animals are pressured to be generous and share the meat. Hunting large animals is less a subsistence choice than a political strategy that increases male social status. In contrast, hunting lizards is necessary to feed children and sustain cooperative relationships within a small social network. Women have the skill to hunt larger animals, but normally forego this activity. However, when occasions such as funerals arise, women, too, seek reputations of generosity and turn to large-game hunting.

The researchers suggest that sensitivity to variable rewards accounts for the disparity in work hours between men and women. These results underscore a social, economic and ecological model that is applicable to the broad context of gender difference. Women's participation in politics and other high-variance work is a matter of dynamic tradeoffs between social and reproductive strategies, not of ability.


  • Illustration of aborigines
An artists rendering of Australian aborigines with kangaroo carcass
© 2010 Jupiterimages Corporation
Permission Granted

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