Women did not stay away from hunting in prehistoric era: New findings

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Representational Image

Men hunted while women gathered. This has been the long-standing popular opinion about our prehistoric ancestors.

But this widely accepted division of labor in hunter-gatherer culture is challenged by the discovery of a woman buried 9,000 years ago in the Andes Mountains, in South America, with weapons and hunting tools.

The woman, thought to be between 17 and 19 years old when she died, was buried with items that indicated she hunted big animals by spear throwing including stone projectile points for felling large animals, a knife and flakes of rock to remove internal organs and tools for scraping and tanning hides.

Shattering stereotypes

“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,'” said lead study author Randy Haas, an assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, US.

“But it’s now clear that sexual division of labor was fundamentally different, likely more equitable, in our species’ deep hunter-gatherer past.”

During excavations at a high altitude site named Wilamaya Patjxa in what is now Peru, the burial site was discovered in 2018. Analysis of the bones and protein found on the skeleton’s teeth established the skeleton’s sex.

According to archaeologists, the objects accompanying individuals in death tend to be those that accompanied them in life. While some scholars have suggested a role for women in ancient hunting, even when hunting tools were uncovered in female burials, others have rejected this notion.

However, Mr. Hass said this burial site was a particularly robust case.”It took a strong case to help us recognize that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behavior.”

“Among historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers, it is almost always the case that males are the hunters and females are the gatherers. Because of this and likely because of sexist assumptions about division of labor in western society, archaeological findings of females with hunting tools just didn’t fit prevailing worldviews.”

The researchers investigated 429 skeletons at 107 burial sites in North and South America from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods (which was around 8,000 to 14,000 years ago) to investigate whether the woman found at this site was an outsider and hence an exceptional case.

Among those, 27 people were buried with hunting tools and out of which 11 were female and 15 were male. The study reported that the sample was adequate to “warrant the conclusion that female participation in early big-game hunting was likely nontrivial.”

The results add to doubts about the “man-the-hunter” theory that has informed much of early human thought since the mid-20th century. The theory implies that it was men who went out and hunted, who brought home meat for women and children to eat. Women and children, on the other hand, were responsible for collecting fruit, plants and nuts to supplement the diet.

Community-based activity

But recent research shows that hunting was very much a community-based activity, the paper said, requiring the presence of all able-bodied people to move large animals. At that time, the weapon of choice, a spear known as an atlatl, had low precision which encouraged broad participation while the skill to use it was acquired from childhood.

Women may also have been freed by “alloparenting” from child care demands. Alloparenting refers to when rearing children was a task shared by many.

While subsequent burial sites indicate a clearer division of labor among early humans, the study said that further research of burial sites in other places would be useful to understand how the division of labor between hunter-gatherer societies evolved.

“Our findings have made me rethink the most basic organizational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups, and human groups more generally,” Mr. Haas said.