Actually ancient big game hunters were women

Prehistoric hunting wasn't just a man's game.

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Ancient men are traditionally imagined as hunters, while women are gatherers. But this stereotype may be just that, according to a new study.

The idea that ancient male ancestors roamed the land with spears in hand while the women stayed behind at home to care for children and prepare meals appears to be baseless in fact. Rather, the ranks of ancient hunters living some 10,000 years ago may have actually been closer to 50 percent female, the study suggests.

This discovery opens up exciting new possibilities of what the life of these ancient women was really like.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science Advances, a team of archaeologists explain that deeply cemented ideas of gendered roles in ancient societies have held the science back.

"[A] number of scholars have theorized that such division of labor would have been less pronounced, altogether absent, or structurally different among our early hunter-gatherer ancestors. [But] despite such theoretical considerations, some scholars have been reluctant to ascribe hunting functionality to tools associated with female burials."

Essentially, the field has largely resisted theories about ancient female hunters in favor of the existing narrative that ancient women stayed home to have or care for children.

The archaeologists partially attribute this oversight to "contemporary gender bias." However, remains they discovered in Peru in 2013 may offer too great evidence to the contrary for others to ignore.

Randall Haas, the study's first author and an assistant professor of anthropology at UC Davis, said in a statement that these findings completely changed how he pictured these ancient societies.

"Our findings have made me rethink the most basic organizational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups, and human groups more generally,” Haas said. “[L]ikely because of [historic] sexist assumptions about division of labor in western society – archaeological findings of females with hunting tools just didn't fit prevailing worldviews. It took a strong case to help us recognize that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behavior.”

"Early big-game hunting was likely gender neutral or nearly so."

All in the accessories — Unlike our more modern ancestors, who may leave behind written evidence to help us reimagine their lives, scientists studying Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene peoples (about 9,000 to 12,000 years ago) have significantly less to go on.

See also: The archaeological record reveals something strange about diseases through history

To figure out what these ancient people were like, the accessories they lived with — and were buried alongside — can be key.

"[T]he objects that accompany people in death tend to be those that accompanied them in life," the study authors write.

Excavations of the burial sites in Peru.

Randall Haas

At the site in Peru, the team uncovered the remains of what dental, bone, and protein analyses suggest to be a 17-19-year-old female individual. Buried alongside this individual were a variety of items traditionally found in a big game hunter's toolkit, including pointed projectiles, chopping tools, and a knife.

In total, they found 24 artifacts at this burial site related to hunting and processing big game.

To be sure the discovery wasn't just a fluke, the team conducted a review of 107 archeological sites dating to the same era in the Americas — some 10,000 years ago.

Based on the tools found at these various burial sites, the team found that they contained the remains of 16 male, and 11 female big game hunters.

"[P]lausible models range between 30 and 50% female participation, suggesting that early big-game hunting was likely gender neutral or nearly so," the authors write.

An artist rendering of what these female big-game hunters may have looked like.

Matthew Verdolivo (UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services)

Breaking the mold — While the discoveries support a new theory of gender equity among male and female hunters living in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holestene, the authors say more work is needed to reconcile these findings with more recent evidence suggesting these roles were divided upon sex lines. Was hunting once engaged in by both ancient men and women, before men took a leading role in this labor?

Scientists speculate that the cruder technology ancient hunters used in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holestene may have meant all capable bodies (male, or female) would need to be called upon for hunting for the sake of efficiency. More advanced prehistoric societies may have only needed the men to hunt.

To answer these questions and more, the scientists hope to complete more comparative analyses to discover why these ancient female hunters may be outliers — or if archaeologists are missing more of the picture as a result of modern norms.

Abstract: Sexual division of labor with females as gatherers and males as hunters is a major empirical regularity of hunter-gatherer ethnography, suggesting an ancestral behavioral pattern. We present an archeological discovery and meta-analysis that challenge the man-the-hunter hypothesis. Excavations at the Andean highland site of Wilamaya Patjxa reveal a 9000-year-old human burial (WMP6) associated with a hunting toolkit of stone projectile points and animal processing tools. Osteological, proteomic, and isotopic analyses indicate that this early hunter was a young adult female who subsisted on terrestrial plants and animals. Analysis of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene burial practices throughout the Americas situate WMP6 as the earliest and most secure hunter burial in a sample that includes 10 other females in statistical parity with early male hunter burials. The findings are consistent with nongendered labor practices in which early hunter-gatherer females were big-game hunters.

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