Women Hunted as Much as Men in Prehistoric Americas, Anthropologists Say

Paradigm change: Young woman buried with big-game hunting gear 9,000 years ago in the high Andes wasn’t an isolated incident, team writes

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Illustration of a woman hunting.
Illustration of a woman hunting.Credit: Matthew Verdolivo / UC Davis IET
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Man the Hunter would stomp out of the cave beating his hairy breast with one hand and spear in the other hand, while the little woman would gather roots and berries. Or not. The earliest burial of a hunter found so far in the Americas was of a woman, says anthropologist and lead author Randall Haas, with a team from the University of California, Davis.

The young woman was buried with big-game gear 9,000 years ago at Wilamaya Patjxa, a site high in the Andes mountain range in today’s Peru. Her grave goods included stone projectile points and butchery tools, write Haas and the team in their paper “Female Hunters of the Early Americas,” published in Science Advances on Wednesday.

The paradigm of men hunting and women gathering in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies doesn’t mean it was always that way, the researchers stress.

“Labor practices among recent hunter-gatherer societies are highly gendered, which might lead some to believe that sexist inequalities in things like pay or rank are somehow ‘natural.’ But it’s now clear that sexual division of labor was fundamentally different – likely more equitable – in our species’ deep hunter-gatherer past,” Haas stated.

But was this hunting woman an “isolated incident” or the norm? Well, in the Americas, of 27 prehistoric burials with big-game hunting tools known to date, 15 were male and 11 were female, the team’s meta-study found. Moreover, the 11 women buried with big-game tools were found at 10 sites. So, statistical analysis of known burials with hunting gear indicates that a third to half the early American hunters were female.

Tools found in the burial pit at Wilamaya Patjxa.Credit: Randall Haas / US Davis

“The sample is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that female participation in early big-game hunting was likely nontrivial,” the team writes: certainly greater than their participation in hunting in today’s hunter-gatherer communities.

‘Amazons’ in the Americas

When humans colonized the Americas is a controversial topic, with some postulating arrival over 33,000 years ago and others contending that pre-Clovis discoveries of “stone tools” are just rocks and that the earliest solid evidence for American occupation is about 15,000 years ago.

Anyway, it seems humans reached the Andean highlands by 11,000 years ago and settled on a permanent basis around 9,000 years ago, based on molecular analysis of bones from the time showing a high-elevation signature, Haas and others reported in April. These early Andeans ate primarily of the vicuña, a slender high-altitude relative of the llama and camel, and taruca, which is an Andean deer. There’s no sign that they ate micro-mammals or fish.

Previous excavation of prehistoric Andean sites indicated both female and male participation in hunting and butchering, Haas and others have reported in the past. To their mind, it makes sense that in early societies subsisting on big game, labor was shared – partly thanks to alloparenting (nonparental childcare), which would have freed young women to go spear a deer. Or actually to throw a spear-point at it using an atlatl, the primary hunting technology of the Clovis era.

Atlatl hunting had its drawbacks. “Pooling labor and sharing meat are necessary to mitigate risks associated with the atlatl’s low accuracy and long reloading times,” the team points out, underscoring its case.

They also note that some researchers into the topic may have unthinkingly recoiled, or are still unthinkingly recoiling, from thinking of females as aggressors à la Amazons of ancient Greece: there could be a bias toward assuming that any grave with an indeterminately gendered skeleton and the stone tools of belligerence was of a male. Note the astonishment at the recent revelation of lady Viking warriors.

Excavating at Wilamaya Patjxa.Credit: Randall Haas

Buried with weapons, maybe

The prehistoric site of Wilamaya Patjxa was discovered in 2013. More than 20,000 ancient artifacts have been unearthed there, and five graves with a total of six bodies. Two (numbered one and six) dating to the early Holocene were buried with projectile points. The others weren’t and seem to be dated to a later time, the mid-Holocene.

The bones of the woman now reported, number six, were not well preserved, but well enough to show she was laid in a semi-flexed position on her left side, and died in her late teens, aged 17 to 19, based on the state of her teeth. She was laid to rest with 24 stone tools on the floor of her burial pit, including six “eared” projectile points typical of the period from 11,000 to 9,000 years ago, scrapers or choppers, what may be a knife and a red ocher nodule. Radiocarbon dating of her bones produced a date of about 9,000 years. Also in the grave were deer and vicuna bones.

Apropos the ocher, that was quite the popular mineral worldwide in prehistory. An ocher mine was found in Mexico dating to 12,000 years ago

People tend to be buried with the items that accompanied them in life, the team notes. “Scholars generally accept that projectile points associated with male burials are hunting tools, but have been less willing to concede that projectile points associated with female burials are hunting tools,” they write.

The other ancient body (number one) buried with weapons at Wilamaya Patjxa was also placed on his side and buried with two projectile points, one by his pelvis. He was 25 to 30 years old and, absent a penis bone in humans or some other primary indicator, his classification as male was based on his “robust cranial and mandibular features,” as well as molecular analysis. He got around before dying: his femur bones were bowed in a manner suggesting he was a “highly mobile individual.” No animal bones were found in his pit.

Vicunas in the Andes.Credit: Randall Haas

But in his case, the archaeologists offer the grisly theory that he hadn’t been buried with his weaponry as a gesture of respect to his prowess, but instead had been impaled.

Even if burial with a stone point could be a sign of Paleolithic homicide rather than assuring the deceased could continue to hunt in the afterlife, or of stratigraphic mix-up – the evidence of the young lady of Wilamaya Patjxa as a hunter is quite robust.

But even if women were hunting as much, or almost as much, in Peru during the early Holocene, it didn’t last. “Subsistence labor ultimately differentiated along sex lines, with females taking a role as gatherers or processors and males as hunters,” they write. By the time of the middle Holocene, in prehistoric Kentucky at least, the ratio of women and men buried with atlatls was 17 to 63, suggesting to the authors that, by then, big-game hunting had become the fief mainly of men.

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