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Explained: When women hunted big game

A female teenager from 9,000 years ago has been identified as the oldest hunter burial found in the Americas. Overturning the notion that hunting was exclusively a male domain while women only gathered, an analysis of burial records indicates 30-50% hunters from a similar period were female.

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

About 9,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers buried a teenager with hunting tools in the Andes mountains of South America. When researchers analysed the remains, unearthed in 2018, they found that the hunter was a female, aged between 17 and 19 at her death. This led them to question: Was this a one-off, or were female hunters common among hunter-gatherer societies?

What they found goes against a widely held belief — that among early humans, the men hunted and the women gathered. Between 30% and 50% of the hunters in these populations were female, the researchers concluded from an analysis of burial records in the Americas.

The study, by researchers at the University of California, Davis, is published in ‘Science Advances’.

The discovery

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During excavations at the high-altitude site Wilamaya Patjxa in Peru in 2018, archaeologists found five burial pits with six individuals. Two of the individuals were associated with hunting tools. Because many people are buried with the objects they used in life, the researchers concluded that the two were hunters.

One had been buried with 24 stone artefacts, including projectile points for hunting big game and scrapers for use on animal carcasses. The team estimated that this individual was female. Six months later, this was later confirmed by an analysis of dental protein at UC Davis. The other individual was male, aged 25-30.

This illustration from the study in ‘Science Advances’ shows tools recovered from the floor of the pit where the teenage hunter was buried. (Credit: Randy Haas/UC Davis)

A wider distribution

It was the female hunter that got the researchers wondering. They looked at published records of burials over a wide period throughout North and South America, and identified 429 individuals from 107 sites. Among them, 27 individuals were associated with big-game hunting tools — 11 female and 16 were male.

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“We asked a rather simple statistical question: given a population of hunters in which, say, 50% were female, how many female hunters would we expect to observe in a random sample of 27 individuals drawn from that population?… When we did the math, we found that the range of theoretical proportions of female hunters that could explain the observed archaeological counts ranged between 30% and 50%,” UC Davis anthropologist Randy Haas, lead author of the study, said by email.

This level of participation is in stark contrast to recent hunter-gatherers, where hunting is a decidedly male activity with low levels of female participation, the researchers noted.

Moreover, the Wilamaya Patjxa female hunter has been identified as the earliest hunter burial found in the Americas.

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The bigger picture

The researchers note that this is not the first time that hunting tools have been found with female burials, but some scholars have been reluctant to ascribe female hunting to these tools. For example, after hunting tools had been excavated from a female burial in the US in 1966, a study in the ‘American Antiques Journal’ observed: “Since the burial has been determined to be a female, the inclusion of a projectile point preform has been difficult to explain. However, if the artifact had been used as a knife or scraper, typically women’s tools, then its inclusion with the burial is a more consistent association.”

The new study argues that labour practices were non-gendered. “The archaeological findings changed my understanding of how labour was divided among hunter-gatherer societies,” Haas told The Indian Express. “It now seems likely that for the vast majority of our species’ existence, which was as hunter-gatherers, both females and males had very similar labour roles and presumably status as a result. This insight — for me at least–underscores that many of the gender inequalities we see today do not have a biological basis.”📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

The researchers now wish to understand how sexual division of labour in different times and places changed among hunter-gatherer populations in the Americas.

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First published on: 05-11-2020 at 12:53:15 pm
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