Study: Some Big Game Hunters In Ancient Times Were Women

Nov 16, 2020

At the end of the last Ice Age roughly ten thousand years ago, hunting was a group sport. That’s because hunters in North and South America had to tackle big prey like mammoths and giant camels. Archeologists often assume ancient hunters were men, but a new archeological study questions that idea. It argues at least some of those early indigenous hunters were female. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny speaks with anthropologist Jim Watson of the University of Arizona about upending the “man the hunter” myth.

Artist's rendition of a female hunter
Credit Matthew Verdolivo/UC Davis


So the study focused on this particular burial site in Peru. Can you talk about what you found there?

Sure. Unfortunately the site is in a middle of a plowed field that has been cultivated for who knows how long, certainly generations of the community that Dr. Haas worked with, Mulla Fasiri, they cultivated that land as long as they could remember…. Dr. Haas, Randy Hass who is the lead author on the article… Dr. Haas made the find and he did the excavation. The remains were in very poor condition, which makes sense because they’re nearly 9,000 years old…. But when he did the excavation, there was a clear concentration of these stone tools… He said, this really looks like a hunter’s kit, it’s got all the tools, it’s got projectile points, it’s got scraping tools, it’s got knapping tools, it’s got everything you need to be a hunter on this landscape….When I did the analysis, I said, everything on this individual, although the remains are in poor condition and there are so few elements, this individual looks like a female.

So after finding this site in Peru you went and looked through the literature for other burial sites where you knew if it was a male or female there. Tell me what you discovered.

It really did require quite a bit of combing through the literature to identify, first of all, burials that date to that time period in the first place….and then narrowing it down to those few that certainly appear they had something similar, a hunting kit with them or evidence that they were potential burials of hunters. The individuals were buried with the objects to give us the clue that they probably were related to the profession in some way… On average, it turns out there’s almost as many female hunter burials as there were males.

We don’t usually think of big game hunting as an activity done equally by men and women in ancient times. Why do you think that is?  

I think it has to do with hunting practices, and our preconceived notions about hunting practices. Some of my other research points to the idea in later foraging communities, among later hunters, where it turns into a prestige behavior…. So hunting because less of a group activity and more of an individual activity…. Whereas prior to this, part of the argument is that especially in these very small communities that were relatively mobile, that were focused on big game—it’s not like you’re going to run up to a mammoth and jab with it a spear and it’s going to die. The idea is, you really need group hunting strategies.

So hunting at the time would have been a collaborative activity.

And if that’s the case, if you really need the whole community out there, there’s no reason that women can’t be a part of it.

Right.

And in addition you know the classic argument has a lot to do reproductive responsibilities. But truthfully if you’ve given birth you can easily hand your child off to a grandparent… and you can actively run around and help do the hunting. The idea of the reproductive argument doesn’t quite fly as a restriction in behavior of women in the past.

Do you think this research implies that other activities we think of as typically male or female, like childcare—we should actually revisit that?

I think that so. To me that’s the big take home message, is that we can’t automatically make assumptions, we can’t just blindly apply the modern ethnographic record to the past.

Jim Watson, thank you so much for speaking with me.

No problem, it’s been a pleasure.