A young woman buried with stone tools including spearheads 9000 years ago in what is now Peru probably hunted deer and wild camels. The finding may help overturn long-standing assumptions about gender roles in ancient hunter-gatherer communities in the Americas.
Within present-day hunter-gatherer communities across North and South America, women make up at least one-third of the hunting force, and possibly as much as half, says Randy Haas at the University of California, Davis.
However, although archaeological investigations over the past century have also found hunting tools in the graves of prehistoric women throughout the Americas, Haas says it took the unearthing of a young woman’s bones in the Andes mountains for scientists to set aside their unconscious biases about gender roles and recognise what they were seeing.
“There is sexist ideology in Western culture that may have slowed our ability to recognise females as hunters in the past,” says Haas, adding that he himself was “surprised, unfortunately” by his discovery.
“Even some of the most forward-thinking feminist scholars had accepted it to be true [that women weren’t usually hunters],” he says.
Haas and his colleagues recently ran carbon dating and protein analyses on bones and teeth found less than a metre underground in a burial pit discovered in southern Peru in 2018. Their results provided “solid” confirmation that the human remains belonged to a 17 to 19-year-old woman who was interred between 8700 and 9000 years ago with a 24-piece hunting toolkit including spearhead points, butcher knives and tanning blades. The butchered remains of deer and camels at the site hint at the animals she hunted.
Rather than assuming the teenager was a one-off case of a female hunter, Haas checked the scientific archives for other published discoveries of humans buried with hunting tools anywhere “from Alaska to Argentina” at least 8000 years ago. Of the 27 burials he identified, nearly half recorded the gender of the buried individual as female, he says.
But faced with the unexpected discovery of hunting blades buried with female skeletons, in most cases the archaeologists who compiled the reports either questioned the accuracy of their own sex-confirmation analysis or declared that the knives and points must have been cooking utensils.
The Peruvian discovery actually fits models of other hunting species, such as carnivores and non-human primates, says Haas. “I think it’s only surprising when you look at it through the lens of Western stereotypes about labour roles in our society,” he says.
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd0310
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