Female Hunters May Have Been More Common Than Thought In Prehistoric Americas

Illustration of a female hunter who may have appeared in the Andes 9,000 years ago. Matthew Verdolivo / UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services

Archeologists have identified a female hunter who was buried some 9,000 years ago in the Andes Mountains of South America. Inspired by the discovery, they went on to find that a surprising number of ancient hunter burials across prehistoric America were likely female, dismissing the old myth that men always hunted and women gathered in ancient hunter-gatherer societies. 

The story begins in 2018 during archeological excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa in present-day Peru.

"We've actually discovered a number of burials at the site. But perhaps the most interesting was Individual 6," Randy Haas, study author and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, told IFLScience. "[They were] interred with a big-game hunting toolkit that included stone projectile points, sharp stone flakes (presumably for butchering), a possible flaked stone knife, hide-scraping tools, and red ocher presumably for tanning animal hides."

Much to their surprise, one of the team's experts who specialized in the study of bones, James Watson of the University of Arizona, started to strongly suspect the individual was a female. In a new study, reported today in the journal Science Advances, the researchers explain how they then used dental protein analysis to confirm that this individual was a female aged between 17 and 19 years old.

It was common practice in the ancient world to bury people alongside the objects they used during their life; warriors were buried with weapons, and rulers were buried with displays of their wealth and power. Based on the big-game hunting tools and large animal bones found with the burials at Wilamaya Patjxa, the researchers are fairly confident the young female was a proud hunter — strongly challenging the idea that only males hunted for big-game in ancient hunter-gatherer societies. 

Excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa in present-day Peru. Randall Haas

However, only a limited amount of insight can be squeezed from a single grave, leaving the researchers to wonder whether this was a one-off case or if female hunters were common in prehistoric America. 

To find out, the team looked at previously published records of 429 individuals buried during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene in over 100 sites across South and North America. Out of all the people buried with big-game hunting tools, at least 16 of the individuals were male and 11 were female. Statistical analysis suggested that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of hunters in these populations were female.

"I was quite surprised. I was operating under the model that I think most scholars do — that hunters in hunter-gatherer societies tend to be male. I therefore expected to observe that most burial-associated hunting tools would be largely associated with male individuals. This turned out not to be the case," explained Haas.

"Hunting tools did indeed occur with male individuals but they were just as likely to be observed with female individuals as well. I don't think it was a mistake to work from the original hypothesis. After all, the sexual division of subsistence labor is pronounced in more recent hunter-gatherer societies. But archaeologists learned long ago to check their assumptions against archaeological evidence when possible. And the evidence here just didn't match up with the model," he continued.

A handful of other recent archeological work has challenged old views of the sexual division of labor in the ancient world. Earlier this year in Russia, researchers unearthed a troop of ancient Scythian women who were buried around 2,000 years ago alongside dozens of weapons and ornate headdresses, leading them to believe they were once warriors. 

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