Men hunt and women gather. But not always

Scientists may have to rethink the prevailing view that prehistoric hunting was exclusively the domain of men.

The 9000-year-old remains of a young woman have been found buried with a well-stocked big game hunting toolkit at the Wilamaya Patjxa site in Peru, and subsequent analysis of 27 individuals at sites associated with big-game hunting tools suggests she was not a lone wolf.

In fact, researchers led by Randall Haas from the University of California Davis suggest in a paper in the journal Science Advances that 30-50% of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene big game hunters in the Americas may have been women.

“[This] presents an unusually robust empirical test case for evaluating competing models of gendered subsistence labour,” they write.

Excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa. Credit: Randall Haas

While some scholars have suggested a role for women in ancient hunting, others have dismissed this notion even when hunting tools were uncovered in female burials.

In the recent project, researchers from the US and Peru, in collaboration with the local Mulla Fasiri community, discovered the remains of two prehistoric hunters and identified them through bone structure and dental peptide analyses as a 17- to 19-year-old female and a 25- to 30-year-old male.

The female’s burial included a comprehensive array of hunting and animal processing tools, including stone projectile points for felling large animals, a knife, flakes of rock for removing internal organs, and tools for scraping and tanning hides.

To determine whether the female was an anomaly or one of many from her era, the researchers conducted a review of 429 Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene individuals buried at 107 sites in the Americas, finding that 16 of those buried with big-game hunting tools were male and 11 were female.

The researchers tested these data against models of the sexual division of labour, ranging from zero to 100% female participation in hunting, and determined that females were unlikely to have constituted such a large proportion of hunter burials unless early women did, in fact, broadly participate in hunting.

“Among historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers, it is almost always the case that males are the hunters and females are the gatherers,” says Haas. “Because of this – and likely because of sexist assumptions about division of labour in western society – archaeological findings of females with hunting tools just didn’t fit prevailing worldviews.

“It took a strong case to help us recognise that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behaviour.”

Related reading: Do we have a choice about eating meat

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