Female hunter remains have been unearthed in Peru. Find out why their discovery challenges our ideas about gender roles in tribal societies.
A friend of mine has an idea of which he’s very fond. He somewhat facetiously insists that the squabbling he perceives among his wife and her girlfriends comes from evolutionary differences between the genders.
According to him, men naturally work together in teams, while women prefer to go it alone. He attributes this team spirit among men to the fact that “in caveman days,” the men went out together into the wilds to hunt and gather. At the same time, the women stayed home caring for the kids.
Of course, he has no particular evidence to support his pet theory about male bonding and female ill-will. As comedian Bill Maher jokingly puts it, “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.”
Anthropologists Call It the “Man the Hunter Hypothesis”
There’s a grain of legitimacy behind my friend’s flippant explanation. Anthropologists call it the “man the hunter hypothesis.” It comes from a symposium back in 1966. Its participants reached the conclusion that men in prehistoric groups hunted animals while women gathered plant-based food.
There was sad news for my friend and the man the hunter hypothesis this week. A study published in the journal Scientific Advances contradicts my friend’s amusing if fact-free, notion, and the more reputable man the hunter hypothesis.
A research team from the University of California – Davis has unearthed a 9,000-year-old hunter in South America’s Andes Mountains. That hunter was a woman.
Unearthed a 9,000-Year-Old Female Hunter in the Andes
Assistant Professor Randy Haas is the lead author of the study. He put it this way, “An archaeological discovery and analysis of early burial practices overturns the long-held ‘man-the-hunter’ hypothesis.”
The team unearthed the female hunter’s remains back in 2018. They had set up a dig at a place high in the mountains of Peru called Wilamaya Patjxa.
They found a burial site, and in it was a hunting toolkit. The kit included projectile points and tools for skinning and butchering animals.
Those Who Buried Her Considered Her a Hunter
Wherever we find graves, the objects buried with people are items their loved ones remembered them carrying. So, it seems safe to assume that those who buried someone with an elaborate hunting kit considered them a hunter.
The other half of the female hunter story came from examining the remains themselves. The team identified the bones and the teeth of the specimen as those of a woman. The researchers also determined that she’s the earliest example of a hunter burial in all of the Americas.
Pattern of Prehistoric Female Hunters in the Americas
All of this unanticipated information piqued their curiosity, and they decided to do some further research. The team wanted to determine if their unexpected discovery was unique or part of a pattern of female hunters in the prehistoric Americas.
They combed through the records of 429 people found in 107 burial sites in North and South America. They were all from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras.
Out of their research sample, they found that 27 of them had been buried with big-game hunting tools like their specimen in Peru. They were taken aback to learn that 11 of these people were female hunters.
30% to 50% of the Hunters of the Period Were Women
That’s about 40% of the sample. Statistical analysis told the researchers that their estimate had a confidence interval of about 10%.
The math tells us that it’s reasonable to project that somewhere between 30% and 50% of that period’s hunters were women. That was completely unexpected.
It’s remarkable not only because many people share the pet theory on which my friend enjoys expounding. It also contradicts what anthropologists find when they look at contemporary hunter-gatherer societies.
Hunting is Very Much a Male-Dominated Activity
In all of those cultures, hunting is very much a male-dominated activity. Researchers never see female hunters making up anywhere close to 30% of indigenous hunting parties. It’s unusual to see female hunters at all in any society, including agricultural or capitalist cultures.
This leaves us with a mystery. Why would female hunters be commonplace in the prehistoric past but unusual today, even in tribal cultures?
Some challenge the female hunter hypothesis. For one thing, we can’t prove that the grave goods we find in a burial site belong to the deceased.
Can’t Prove that Grave Goods Belong to the Deceased
How do we know that husbands didn’t place hunting kits in their wives’ graves? It could be an expression of sorrow or an offering to the gods.
They could also be there to support their wives on their journey to the land of the dead. We can’t rule out any of these other explanations.
Also, the researchers included two individuals on the list of female hunters who were children. Isn’t it more likely that the hunting kits buried with them belonged to adults such as their fathers?
“Early Big-Game Hunting Was Likely Gender-Neutral”
Professor Haas remains confident in his team’s conclusions. He insists, “Early big-game hunting was likely gender-neutral.”
Given that, it seems that there were conditions where female hunters played a larger role than in other situations. The research calls into question the conventional wisdom about the division of labour between the genders and how it may have changed over time.
Over the last 150 years or so, the roles of women in contemporary society have changed dramatically. Victorian society’s patriarchal structure has been gradually dismantled, and gender is an ever-diminishing factor in the roles we play in our lives.
Gender Roles Are More Fluid and Socially Constructed
Discovering that female hunters were typical in prehistoric cultures, at least under certain conditions, suggests that gender roles are more fluid and socially constructed than we’ve realized. Our 9,000-year-old female hunter seems to be sending that message to both men and women in the 21st century.
The researchers’ next steps involve learning more about how gender roles in the division of prehistoric labour changed over time and place. They’d also like a better understanding of the consequences of those changes for the cultures involved and perhaps for our modern society.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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