9,000-Year-Old Grave of Female Hunter Establishes Prehistoric Gender Roles

The traditional concept in anthropology says prehistoric hunting was an activity reserved for males, while females did the gathering. Seems this assumption is wrong, according to an inspirational new finding.

She left young, somewhere between the ages of 17 and 19. Cremated approximately 9,000 years back in the Andean highlands of South America, the woman was carefully laid to rest, her grave goods comprising of stone projectile points and animal processing tools. In layman’s term, a big-game hunting toolkit.

That the woman was cremated beside hunter’s gear is evidence, strong enough that she was a big-game hunter, according to new research published today in Science Advances. The authors of the paper, led by anthropologist Randall Haas from the University of California-Davis, conducted a subsequent analysis of the archaeological literature to find if identical examples existed. They did find a batch of cases in which women were laid to rest alongside big-game hunting gear.

Similarly, the new study is throwing myths about prehistoric gender roles into doubt, proving that hunting was a more gender-neutral activity than is typically assumed. As the authors figure out, it’s an exemplary case of sexism in the sciences.

I propose to continue study handprints found amidst the famous Upper Paleolithic cave paintings of France and Spain in order to determine the probable sexes of the individuals who left them. This is possible because recent research has shown that probable sex can be determined by comparing digit length ratios. On average men have longer ring fingers than index fingers, while those of women are about the same lengths. Little fingers are also relatively shorter on womenÍs than on menÍs. The ratios are population specific, so even though archaeological handprints are found on all inhabited continents, I must focus initially on specimens produced by individuals from a population for which I have adequate comparative metric data. In addition to published data I have collected handprint data from a US population of European extraction that can be used to evaluate European Upper Paleolithic handprints. Most sources have traditionally (and silently) assumed that handprints associated with European cave art were left by men and boys. However, even cursory inspection of some published photos reveals that at least some of them were almost certainly made by women. I have submitted an article for publication that demonstrates that I can solve this small, tightly focused, and manageable archaeological problem. The results of further work will do much to inform future interpretation of some of the worldÍs oldest art. I have already worked in some French caves and I anticipate gaining permission to research five more in France and Spain for this project.

Haas explained in a Science Advances press release, that their discoveries have made him reassess the most fundamental organizational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups, and human groups more generally. 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 due to the sexist assumptions about division of labour in western society, archaeological remains of females with hunting tools just didn’t suit prevailing worldviews. It took a strong case to help us realize that the archaeological pattern suggests real female hunting behaviour.

The woman’s burial, along with 26 others, was spotted at the Wilamaya Patjxa site in Peru. The authors described the preservation of her remnants as poor, but they were able to retrieve parts of her skull, teeth, and leg bones. A total of 24 stone artefacts and six projectile points were located beside the woman’s skeletal remains. As the authors note, 20 of the artefacts were tightly concentrated and partially stacked in a pile just above a thigh bone, indicating that the items were intentionally laid down as grave goods.

A second individual, a male between the ages of 25 and 30, was also traced buried next to hunter’s gear. The discovery of these two is remarkable, as they now represent the earliest-known hunter burials in the Americas.

Radiocarbon dating reveals that the people buried at Wilamaya Patjxa lived around 9,000 years back during the Early Holocene. Dental analysis, along with an analysis of bone structure, confirmed the ages of death and sex of the individuals. An isotopic analysis proved the two as meat-eaters, reinforcing their suspected role as hunters.

The stone projectile points were mostly used to take down large animals, while the stone knives and flakes would have been applied for removing internal organs and scraping and tanning hides.

The authors are assuming this woman was buried along with her stuff. Grave goods are strongly related to an interred person’s societal status and role. Warriors, for example, are often buried with their swords and shields. And in fact, this exact link was recently used to demonstrate that some Viking warriors were women.

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