Dec 7, 2020
A recent study published in the November 4, 2020 journal Science Advances calls in question the “Man-the-hunter” hypothesis. The study is based on the 2018 discovery of a grave in the Andes Highlands in southern Peru. The grave contained a 9,000-year-old partial skeleton with stone projectile points and animal processing tools neatly stacked alongside the skeleton. In other words, a big-game hunter’s toolkit.
“Oh, he must have been a great chief. He was a great hunter,” exclaimed one of the archaeologists after excavating this 9,000-year-old skeleton. James Gorman and his colleagues were excited to find this burial. There was only one problem with their discovery.
After the skeleton sat in a museum for a year, bio-archaeologist Jim Watson looked at the bones and found they were too thin to belong to a male. Oops! The research team that excavated the grave then had to perform more studies on the skeleton to definitively determine its gender.
After using a relatively new test for gender that analyzes dental enamel proteins, the discoverers of the “big” man, as they had been calling it, found it was in fact female. A young female who probably died between the ages of 17 and 19.
The scientists had assumed it was male because it was found with hunting tools. And prehistoric women didn’t hunt—or so that is what they thought. But was this find the exception or the rule?
The team, a mixture of anthropologists and archaeologists from the University of California and Arizona, began to reexamine other reports of burials hypothesized as belonging to male hunters and found that an additional 10 had been incorrectly recorded as male. Out of over 400 burials discovered, only 27 were found with big-game hunting toolkits. Eleven of the 27 were female! The team concluded that their 9,000-year-old female big-game hunter was not exceptional. Prehistoric women hunted.
“The message [of the new finding] is that women have always been able to hunt and have in fact hunted,” according to Bonnie Pitblado, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma.
Conventional thinking in anthropology has it that prehistoric hunting was an activity reserved for males, while females did the gathering. The new research is throwing these preconceived notions about prehistoric gender roles into serious doubt. The idea of women hunting has been widely held as biologically impractical in foraging societies because hunting is presumed to be incompatible with maternal responsibility.
Scientists based their assumptions on studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers where in most cases the men hunt and women gather. Comparing modern groups with ancient groups is problematic. For one thing, the technology is less advanced in ancient societies. While both the modern and ancient peoples made stone tools, modern groups had made many profound advances. It is literally the difference between throwing a spear versus using a bow and arrows.
Moreover, there are examples of modern hunter-gatherers where women regularly hunt. One notable example is a group living in the Philippines known as the Aeta. Most Aetas are trained for hunting at age 15, including women. While men and some women use a bow and arrows, most Aeta women prefer knives and often hunt with their dogs in groups with other women. When they hunt this way, they have a 31% success rate as opposed to 17% for the men. Their rates are even better when they combine forces with men. Mixed hunting groups have a 41% success rate.
Essentially, the authors of the study are saying that this prehistoric woman was buried with her stuff, which is a reasonable assumption. Grave goods are strongly associated with an interred person’s societal status and role. Warriors, for example, are often buried with their swords and shields. In fact, this exact association was recently used to show that some Viking warriors were women.
Early subsistence economies that emphasized big-game hunting would most likely have encouraged participation of all able individuals. Alloparenting (parenting by group members other than the mother), which appears to be very ancient in the human species, would have freed women of child-care demands, allowing them to hunt. Communal hunting, which also appears to be quite ancient, would have encouraged contributions from females, males, and children, whether in driving or killing large animals.
Moreover, the primary hunting technology of the time—the atlatl or spear thrower—would have encouraged broad participation in big-game hunting. Pooling labor and sharing meat are necessary to mitigate the risks associated with the atlatl’s low accuracy and long reloading time. Peak proficiency in atlatl use can be achieved at a young age, potentially before females reach reproductive age.
The researchers admit their assumptions were based on “classic sexism.” Unfortunately, even scientists are not free of the biases they are raised with. Scientists had the blinders of sexism on, which allowed them to see female remains as male because they were buried with hunting tools. Acknowledging that women hunted smashed their world view that men go out and work and bring home the bacon and women stay home and raise the kids—a notion just as wrong today as it was in prehistory.
It turns out sexism is a luxury prehistoric groups did not have. They were too busy trying to survive.