I am currently reading Our Oriental Heritage by William Durant.

In Chapter IV. The Family, Durant writes of woman:

In the hunting stage she did almost all the work except the actual capture of the game. In return for exposing himself to the hardships and risks of the chase, the male rested magnificently for the greater part of the year. The woman bore her children abundantly, reared them, kept the hut or home in repair, gathered food in woods and fields, cooked, cleaned and made the clothing and the boots.

Here he refers Müller-Lyer's Family as a resource which I do not have at hand. He then adds:

Because the men, when the tribe moved, had to be ready at any moment to fight off attack, they carried nothing but their weapons; the women carried all the rest.

It was that latter part that struck me as odd and brought me to thinking. How can we know that? If I am indeed being ambushed, and I carry a spear and, say, a bowl of fruits, I can just drop the bowl and defend myself.

I remember that I was taught in school that in "The Hunting Stage", women did domestic work and men hunted and I accepted it without skepticism. Durant himself states that, in early days of human history, the physical difference in strength and endurance between the sexes was perhaps more or less neglectable but I can accept that men might have a more natural inclination for gruesome work (and a greater innate aversion to domestic work)

But Durant describes the customs of these early days in great detail. How can we know for a fact that women carried most things? How can we know, even, that women played no part in hunting or fighting? If I look at early cave paintings, I, being no expert, would not dare to state for a fact that absolutely no women are depicted here.

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    We can look at primitive societies today. How do they divide the workload? Most of the time it's not as black and white as Mr. Durant describes. In most primitive societies the men do a lot more than just hunt and rest.
    – Jos
    Sep 11, 2018 at 9:32
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    Important to remember also that Our Oriental Heritage was published in 1935, and consequently makes many assumptions that have been disproved since then. The Durants did good work, but were limited by the knowledge of their time. Sep 11, 2018 at 15:29
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    My understanding is, contra M Geerkens, that the Durants' project and their execution thereof have been rejected as insufficient for their time, and fundamentally flawed, not merely outdated. AFAIK their project included moral edification based on judgemental content. Fails Ranke test. Sep 12, 2018 at 6:38

2 Answers 2


The Durants' work is not history, or anthropology, or archaeology. The claims made are unknowable, in part due to bad theory and method on the part of the Durants; and, in part as the elements of the claims are unknowable.

Scholars can use burials or camp structures to look at the gendered division of labour in preliterate societies. To the extent that ritual objects in burial can be associated with non ritual objects some elements of the gendered work process can be divined. Similarly middens.

Then, through comparative anthropology based on contemporary preliterate societies we can guess at the likely proportions of divisions of labour in past gathering societies.

For example, in most gatherer societies women are responsible for the majority of hunting: the hunting of small game. We ought to expect then that, if the comparative method holds water, that the majority of past gathering societies had the majority of hunting conducted by women.

But with social analysis there are always exceptions.


There's likely no such thing. Different societies have different ways of doing things, regardless of how relatively "primitive" they are. That's why we call them "cultures".

Take your topic of the roles and status of women. It varies by culture, and is ultimately fairly random. There will usually be a division, as men will likely insist on taking the more dangerous work (eg: hunting large game and war), but otherwise it can be fairly arbitrary what roles get assigned to what genders, and how strict the segregation is.

For instance, in North America, farming was viewed by most tribes as "women's work", which ended up being a huge cultural barrier once Europeans arrived on the continent.

Marriage standards (eg: linearity, level of official monogamy) also appear to be a cultural thing. Many societies outside of the Eurasian sphere were/are matrilineal, while similar neighbors are not. Within Eurasia, European societies tended more to very strict monogamy, near east societies to polygamy, and Chinese society to a kind of middle-ground.

Point being it really doesn't make sense to try to talk about specifics of gender roles solely based on societal development, because all evidence we have points to it not being based on that at all.*

* - Of course we could do something silly like arbitrarily call our own culture "advanced", and then start to reason all about other societies with other systems like they are inferior entities who simply have yet to achieve our own level. But we wouldn't do that, would we?

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