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TRENDING SCIENCE: Prehistoric women warriors? Move over man, big-game hunter

Researchers uncover evidence of ancient women hunters.

Fundamental Research

Since the 20th century, the predominant view about early humans has been that men were the hunters while women were the gatherers and keepers of the dwelling. The recent discovery of women hunter remains is challenging the long-standing idea of ancient gender roles.

Does gender equality go back to ancient times?

According to recent archaeological findings published in the journal ‘Science Advances’, up to half the women in the Americas were big-game hunters. “An archaeological discovery and analysis of early burial practices overturns the long-held ‘man-the-hunter’ hypothesis,” lead author Randy Haas, assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Davis, commented in a news release by the same institution. “We believe that these findings are particularly timely in light of contemporary conversations surrounding gendered labor practices and inequality.” He added: “Labor practices among recent hunter-gatherer societies are highly gendered, which might lead some to believe that sexist inequalities in things like pay or rank are somehow ‘natural.’ But it’s now clear that sexual division of labor was fundamentally different — likely more equitable — in our species’ deep hunter-gatherer past.” “It took a strong case to help us recognize that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behavior,” Prof. Haas told ‘CNN’. “Among historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers, it is almost always the case that males are the hunters and females are the gatherers. Because of this -- and likely because of sexist assumptions about division of labor in western society -- archaeological findings of females with hunting tools just didn’t fit prevailing worldviews.”

A woman’s place wasn’t always in the home

At a burial site in Peru’s Andes Mountains in 2018, Prof. Haas and his excavation team unearthed the remains of a young woman who lived around 9 000 years ago. He automatically assumed the body was male because it was close to a hunting toolkit. An analysis of the bones and protein from teeth confirmed the sex. She was probably between 17 and 19 years old when she died. The teen was one of six bodies found in five burial pits at the site. The stone tools nearby suggest she hunted with a spear. The tools include stone projectile points for killing large animals, heavy rocks to strip hides and crack bones, and tools to scrape, tan and preserve hides. A total of over 20 000 artefacts were found. To determine whether the discovery was an exception, Prof. Haas examined 429 skeletons spread across 107 other burial sites in North and South America from around 8 000 to 14 000 years ago. Of the 27 individuals buried with hunting tools, 11 were women. The study estimates that somewhere between 30 % to 50 % of hunters were women during that time. The study indicates that exploring more burial sites elsewhere could play a key role in understanding how division of labour developed amongst hunter-gatherer societies. “Our findings have made me rethink the most basic organizational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups, and human groups more generally,” Prof. Haas concluded in the same ‘CNN’ interview.

Keywords

hunter, hunting, big-game hunter, gender, hunter-gatherer