IT is a scene that will be repeated countless times in supermarkets today. A male shopper roams the aisles in a desperate search for an item. His wife moves methodically around the aisles filling her trolley and never missing anything on her list.
Women may not have discovered Australia or the Americas, but new research by scientists shows they can be better navigators than men if they have visited a place before.
Men may still be the superior map readers, but women can get there quicker because they remember landmarks.
It all goes back to the Pleistocene epoch — which began more than 2.5m years ago and ended almost 12,000 years ago — when our skills at route finding were honed differently for the distinct tasks of hunters and gatherers.
The scientists used the population of a Mexican village to test their theory. The results of an experiment to see how much faster women could find mushrooms will be echoed in the fruit and vegetable sections of Tesco and Sainsbury today.
Researchers fitted with GPS (global positioning system) navigation systems and heart-rate monitors followed villagers to see how many mushrooms they gathered and how long it took. The GPS system mapped all the routes taken, and the heart-rate monitors detailed the energy expended.
The results, which are to be published in Evolution and Human Behaviour, the scientific journal, show that while there was no significant difference in the amount of mushrooms collected, there was a marked contrast in the effort expended.
The men climbed higher, travelled further and used 70% more energy than the women, who made more stops but seemed to know where they were going.
The scientists say the study reinforces the idea that male and female navigational skills have evolved differently over time. The male strategy is the most useful for hunting down prey — chasing an antelope on foot, for example, would mean running a long way over a winding route — and has led modern man to navigate by creating a mental map, then imagining their positions on it.
Women, however, are more likely to recall their routes by using landmarks if they are retracing paths to the most productive patches of plants.
Luis Pacheco-Cobos, who led the research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, said: “These findings show that women perform better and more readily adopt search strategies appropriate to a gathering lifestyle than men.”
It follows similar research using 140 volunteers at Queen Mary, University of London, which showed that while men were better at discovering hidden objects, women were more successful in tests requiring them to remember where objects lay.
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University,said: “I don’t think it’s necessarily about women having better navigational skills than men. But I think women develop a certain intuition and do make better judgment calls when it comes to managing domestic chores.
“Men make a big thing about it and turn the most basic tasks into a very big deal. They tend to overcomplicate it.”
Annabelle Bond, the British mountaineer who is the fastest woman to climb the “seven summits” — the highest mountains on each continent — said: “If I have been somewhere before, then I can definitely find that place again very quickly. But I don’t trust my map-reading skills, and on a mountain I would always rely on a man for that.
“We are programmed to do things in different ways. That is why men can get lost in a supermarket and women can speed around it in minutes. Of course, most men have no interest in being there and that is why they get lost in the aisles.”