Here's an article form this week's New Scientist [Modern women are excellent gatherers]. I'd be curious to know what our adaptationist friends think about it. Is this a good example of how to do research?
Men hunted, women gathered. That is how the division of labour between the sexes is supposed to have been in the distant past. According to a new study, an echo of these abilities can still be found today.The news report refers to a paper that will soon be published in Proc. Roy. Soc. B [New et al. 2007]. Here's the abstract.
Max Krasnow and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have discovered that modern women are better than men at remembering the location of food such as fruit and veg in a market.
The researchers led 86 adults to certain stalls in Santa Barbara's large Saturday farmer's market, then back to a location in the centre of the market from where the stalls could not be seen. They were then asked to point to each stall's location. This requires dead reckoning - a skill that men may once have used to return from hunting, and one that men today still usually perform better than women in experiments. Despite this, the ...
We present evidence for an evolved sexually dimorphic adaptation that activates spatial memory and navigation skills in response to fruits, vegetables and other traditionally gatherable sessile food resources. In spite of extensive evidence for a male advantage on a wide variety of navigational tasks, we demonstrate that a simple but ecologically important shift in content can reverse this sex difference. This effect is predicted by and consistent with the theory that a sexual division in ancestral foraging labour selected for gathering-specific spatial mechanisms, some of which are sexually differentiated. The hypothesis that gathering-specific spatial adaptations exist in the human mind is further supported by our finding that spatial memory is preferentially engaged for resources with higher nutritional quality (e.g. caloric density). This result strongly suggests that the underlying mechanisms evolved in part as adaptations for efficient foraging. Together, these results demonstrate that human spatial cognition is content sensitive, domain specific and designed by natural selection to mesh with important regularities of the ancestral world.As indicated in the news report, 86 adults (41 women and 45 men) were tested for their ability to remember the location of food stalls in a farmers market. The women were 9% better at this than the men.
The result confirms the authors' hypothesis that women are genetically superior at this task because of adaptation during our hunter-gatherer past.
Silverman & Eals (1992) argue that the female advantage on pencil-and-paper and desktop measures of object location memory reflects a selective pressure on ancestral women for plant-foraging efficiency. But their measures did not involve foods, tested spatial memory on a very small scale, and included no measure of vectoring; as a result, a female advantage on their measures is open to many alternative interpretations. For this reason, we deemed it important to examine whether a female advantage could be demonstrated on a task that closely resembles foraging for plant foods. From this theory, we predicted that women should remember the locations where they have previously encountered immobile resources (e.g. plants, honey) more accurately than do men.The authors don't explain exactly how this adaptation might have happened. Presumably it went something like this ...
At some time in the ancient past all humans had a single allele for the (unknown) gathering gene. A mutation in this gene arose producing an allele where the ability to gather food was improved. Since women were the principle food gatherers, this mutant allele conferred a selective advantage on women who carried it: presumably because they didn't share their food with their friends who carried the old allele. Over time, the new allele became fixed (or very frequent) in women but men did not benefit.
The first three authors are in Departments of Psychology and the senior author is in a Department of Anthropology.
New, J., Krasnow, M.M, Truxaw, D. and Gaulin, S.J.C. (2007) Spatial adaptations for plant foraging: women excel and calories count. Proc. Roy. Soc. B. DOI 10.1098/rspb.2007.0826.
[Photo Credit: The drawing is "An artist’s impression of early Hunter-Gatherers" from Manx National Heritage]