Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

It s Camping Season, Don t Forget to Menstruate! Or, Man the Hunter and Woman the Menstruator


The idea for this post came from a question I received when a guest on Skeptically Speaking: is menstrual blood an attractant to bears? Scicurious has since covered that paper in her usual delightful way, and I’m going to focus more on cultural issues and deer. Yes, deer.

* * *

That’s right ladies, it’s time to set up your red tents and enjoy the great outdoors. A whole world awaits you without limits! You can do anything!

A group of people partying, two with fists in the air

Awesome, let's fist pump to celebrate! Image by leuwam via Flickr Creative Commons.

Wait, you did say you were a lady, didn’t you? Of the menstruating variety? Not now though, surely? Oh, you are? Menstruating, I mean?

Sign that reads "Danger of death keep out"

Danger! Caution, you menstruating fools! Image by mjtmail via Flickr Creative Commons

A world of dangers awaits you with many limits! If you go in the water, sharks may bite you! Bears could attack you in the forest! And don’t expect to enjoy nature (or eat it), because the deer will run from your very scent.

Why don’t you just crawl back into that tent and wait for it all to be over, k?

* * *

This post was supposed to be about menstrual odor and wild animals, really it was. But the more reading I did on the topic, the further the material lead me to think more deeply about the cultural meanings around menstruation, particularly related to the idea of menstrual blood as polluting.

The concept of female pollution is one I’ve covered before from a medical perspective. And this idea pervades many cultures, across many contexts. The situation is complicated: some populations have a more mixed rather than negative perspective, and some seem to see menstruating women as downright powerful. Or, as Balzer (1985) suggests regarding the Khanty (an indigenous Russian population), men tend to find menstruation uniformly negative, where women may often describe it in positive terms and use menstrual confinement to their advantage.

Balzer also contends that the concept of female pollution is prevalent in populations where male dominance is “significant but not secure (given contrasting values of female worth, cooperation, and autonomy)” (1985:128). If I’m understanding this correctly, she is suggesting that patriarchal populations that have at least some aspects of equality or female power are the ones who are going to work hardest to define menstruation as bad. And it seems like these same populations are also ones with strongly defined male and female roles – or at the very least, that men have something at stake in maintaining these roles.

This all ties back into whether menstruating ladies make deer skedaddle in an important way: if we can document that deer do not like menstrual blood, we can provide a biological explanation for cultural divisions of labor. Most people understand humans to divide our labor in a gendered way: men hunt and women gather, men provision and women care for the kiddos, men look to the outside world and women to the domestic one.

Since we like to think this is all biological because it exempts us from thinking about any cultural issues that may create this division, having a potential food source run away from women would be a nice way to justify men as the sole hunter.

There are two problems with this: first, the scant evidence doesn't support deer being afraid of menstrual blood, and second, there are populations where women hunt and contribute to hunting activities in contexts that directly contradict some early hypotheses for the conditions that support man-only hunting.

The evidence for deer fear

There are several older papers that maintained not only that women don’t really hunt (at least, not when it really matters) and that the main reason for this is the deterrent menstrual and other female odors serve for prey.

One hypothesis is that when meat is a very important part of a population’s diet, menstrual taboos against hunting should be stronger (Dobkin de Rios and Hayden 1985). This is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the first hypothesis mentioned on patriarchal culture (Balzer 1985). The rationale of the menstrual taboo hypothesis is that a population should do everything it can to maximize its chances of hunting success. Since, to their minds, menstrual, pregnant and lactating odors are all rather noxious, that means developing taboos against menstruating women touching men, their weapons, or even casting a shadow over a man as he prepares to bring home the bacon (or antelope). Of course, if the taboo is primarily towards menstruating women, but all of these odors can turn away game, it is hard to see how they are related. But hey, lumping many more reproductively aged women into this category of stinky sure is fun!

But what about male odor? I think my husband’s workout clothes contribute (almost) equally to our laundry hamper’s stink! The authors anticipate this, and contend that even though men’s sweat tends to smell more, AND they are more hairy and thus trap more smell, it is easier to disguise men’s smells compared to those of a woman (Dobkin de Rios and Hayden 1985).

None of this was actually tested, of course. But the burden of evidence wasn’t nearly so high in the 80s as it is today, so perhaps that’s why they felt it appropriate to leave these odor differences as untested assumptions.

A few authors did test the deer avoidance hypothesis, however. March (1980) contaminated the feed of deer on a game reserve with menstrual blood and human urine (which was a mix of “nonmenstruous” female – thank you, March, for introducing me to a new word – and male urine). She found that the deer approached the menstrual blood feed first, but fed only from the urine feed. They sort of replicated this by trying to hand-feed the deer apples with menstrual blood or urine on them, to the same effect.

The problems with this study are many, though the author does state the work is preliminary. No male scent was used as a control (Kelly 1986 also notes this). The sample was on a game reserve with partially domesticated deer who are presumably used to the scent of humans. Not many hunters lure deer with feed, that I know of. Oh, and the deer actually approached the menstrual blood feed FIRST. Maybe they didn’t eat it, but being aversive to eating menstrual blood isn’t the same as being aversive to it being in one’s presence. Heck, I don’t mind menstruating but I certainly wouldn’t eat it.

Nunley (1981) repeats the experiment with a bit of a twist: the feed is contaminated with men’s venous blood, versus nonmenstruous/male urine, versus cow blood. The deer were quite inquisitive (again, this doesn’t strike me as aversive!) but fed only from the regular feed, or the cow blood- or urine-contaminated feed, depending on the herd and the day. Nunley concludes that male veinous blood has no lesser effect on deer than menstrual blood, though he did not actually test menstrual blood.

Finally, Kelly (1986) makes an important observation about menstrual taboos that puts the final nail in the coffin regarding whether deer avoidance of menstrual blood explains labor divisions. As it turns out, the menstrual taboos in some populations are POST-HUNT, not pre-hunt (related to how the game is brought back to the household or group). Menstrual contamination after the animal is dead probably has little influence over the hunter’s previous success at killing it. Unless you own a time machine or something.

So why do men hunt?

Men nearly universally hunt more. But what conditions drive variation in labor divisions? Waguespack (2005) uses the early Paleoindian archaeological record to test this question and understand where our assumptions about Man the Hunter came from. This is a useful sample because they were large game hunters (including Pleistocene megafauna, cool!), and so it’s likely a large portion of their diet came from meat. However, the author describes significant archaeological remains for hunting and almost none for gathering, which has led past researchers to assume men were hunters (ethnographic evidence in modern American Indians corroborates this instance) and women largely absent or invisible from any important work in that culture. It’s easy to forget what women do if we have little record of their work, and easy to create strong gender divisions when information is this incomplete. Without archaeological remains that help us understand gathering behaviors, we won’t always know if past populations relied more on hunting versus gathering, and who was more likely to practice these skills.

Waguespack (2005) also makes another important point: the activities of women in populations that rely most heavily on meat are often unknown. What are women doing with all that time that, in other groups, they would fill with gathering? In a cross-populational comparison, Waguespack (2005) found that many women are actually helping with the hunting, by making weaponry, participating in driving game to hunters, and helping with the transportation issues like making and moving houses so important to game-driven populations.

If that’s not good enough evidence that women are hunters too, consider this: among Aka foragers in Central Africa women do more net-hunting than men (Noss and Hewlett, 2001). Noss and Hewlett (2001) also point to another thorough account of women hunters in the Agta of the Phillipines, and descriptions of women hunters among the Woods Cree, Matses of the Peruvian Amazon, and the Ache of Paraguay. The authors also mention the Ju/’hoan (!Kung) of northeastern Namibia, who not only have occasional joint tracking and gathering outings, but husband-wife hunting pairs (Biesele and Barclay, 2001). Other examples can be found of women who frequently hunt small game, and occasionally large game, in the Western Desert of Australia (Brightman, 1996).

An evolutionary imperative for humans, predators or prey?

At the end of the day, there is little mechanistic or evolutionary support for the hypothesis that deer avoid menstrual odor, or that the gendered division of labor seen in forager societies has anything to do with it. Menstruation is far too infrequent – 50 to 100 times across the reproductive life span of a forager woman, compared to the 400 of industrialized women (Strassmann, 1997) – for it to make sense as a pheromonal signal to predators or prey of humans in the first place.

Men certainly hunt more than women among hunter-gatherers, but the simplest and most common biological explanation – that women, being the childbearers, are more likely to be busy with pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the raising of small children – is the best one. This explanation also allows for variation – it is possible for women to choose the hunt if they aren't poisoning it with their lady stink. Further, the variation we see in how much women hunt seems to be environment- and culture-dependent. If more hands are needed, women step up. And if men are clinging to their higher status, they might push women down.


Balzer MM. 1985. On the Scent of Gender Theory and Practice: Reply to Child and Child. American Anthropologist 87(1):128-130.

Biesele M, Barclay S. 2001. Ju/'hoan women's tracking knowledge and its contribution to their husbands' hunting success. African study monographs Supplementary issue 26:67-84.

Brightman R. 1996. The sexual division of foraging labor: Biology, taboo, and gender politics. Comparative studies in society and history 38:687-729.

Dobkin de Rios M, Hayden B. 1985. Odorous differentiation and variability in the sexual division of labor among hunter/gatherers. Journal of Human Evolution 14(3):219-228.

Kelly R. 1986. Hunting and menstrual taboos: A reply to Dobkin de Rios and Hayden. Human Evolution 1(5):475-477.

March KS. 1980. Deer, Bears, and Blood: A Note on Nonhuman Animal Response to Menstrual Odor. American Anthropologist 82(1):125-127.

Noss AJ, Hewlett BS. 2001. The contexts of female hunting in Central Africa. American Anthropologist 103(4):1024-1040.

Nunley MC. 1981. Response of deer to human blood odor. American Anthropologist 83(3):630-634.

Strassmann BI. 1997. The biology of menstruation in Homo sapiens: Total lifetime menses, fecundity, and nonsynchrony in a natural-fertility population. Current Anthropology 38(1):123-129.

Waguespack NM. 2005. The organization of male and female labor in foraging societies: Implications for early Paleoindian archaeology. American Anthropologist 107(4):666-676.

Additional reading

Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, edited by Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb. (Prof. Gottlieb is in my department, and this is a simply lovely book.)

Oh, hey, you're still here, that's awesome! Why don't you leave a comment while you're here? You only need a valid email address and only I see it, so pseuds are fine.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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