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Female Big Game Hunters May Have Been Common in the Early Americas

illustration of female Pleistocene hunter
An artist's reconstruction of Wilamaya Patjxa vicuña hunt. | Matthew Verdolivo (UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services

Scientists have discovered the 9,000-year-old remains of a young woman buried with a well-stocked big game hunting toolkit at the Wilamaya Patjxa site in Peru, according to a new study in the November 6 issue of Science Advances.

The findings led to a further analysis of 27 individuals at other sites in the Americas associated with big game hunting tools, which indicated that between 30% and 50% of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene big game hunters in the region may have been women. These findings suggest that hunting over 8,000 years ago may have been a far more gender-neutral endeavor than previously assumed.

"The findings have changed my understanding of the most basic organizational structure in hunter-gatherer societies and thus our species' evolutionary history," said Randall Haas, an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and the lead author of the study. "Sexual division of subsistence labor appears to have been much more attenuated or even absent among hunter-gatherers in the past."

"More broadly, I hope that Wilamaya and the other female hunters of the early Americas might help people further recognize that there may be nothing 'natural' about the many gender disparities that persist in societies today," he added.

While hunters are overwhelmingly male in modern hunter-gatherer societies, some scholars have suggested a role for women as hunters in ancient subsistence communities. Even so, others have been hard pressed to consider that prehistoric females may have practiced an activity steeped in modern and recent historical visions of male bravado — even when hunting tools were occasionally uncovered at female burial sites.

"Until this point, I — like most hunter-gatherer anthropologists — assumed that big game hunting was an overwhelmingly male behavior," said Haas. "There was good reason to work from that model. We just projected [modern hunter-gatherer] behavior back into the past. But archeologists long ago figured out that we should check our assumptions about human behavior against the archaeological record whenever possible. Doing so occasionally reveals surprising human behaviors in the past."

In collaboration with the local Mulla Fasiri community in the Andean highlands, Haas and colleagues team uncovered more than 20,000 artifacts within a 36.5 square meter area, including five human burial pits. Two findings in particular captured their attention — early Holocene individuals buried with tools that indicate they were likely once hunters. Bone structure and dental analyses identified one hunter as a 25- to 30-year-old male and — to the researchers' surprise — identified the second as a 17- to 19-year-old female.

The female's burial site proved to be an archaeological jackpot, allowing the researchers to estimate her sex and secure radiocarbon dates with high confidence. Since the site had not been disturbed over the millennia by nuisances such as rodent activity, associations between the artifacts buried with the young woman could be judged clearly.

"For [this] individual, all of these observations are about as secure as we can hope for in archaeology, and that's unusual," noted Haas.

While the young woman's remains were not well preserved enough for the researchers to learn much about her life or how she died so long ago, Haas found it telling that she had been buried with such care.

Archaeologists work at the Wilamaya Patjxa site. | Randall Haas

"One interesting observation, perhaps, is that she seems to have been well loved, if you will," he said. "She was buried deeply in a pit that would have required some effort to excavate, she appears to have been laid to rest ceremoniously in a semi-flexed position, and her remarkable hunting toolkit was allowed to accompany her despite remaining utility in the well-made tools."

This toolkit included a comprehensive array of hunting and animal processing equipment, including four stone projectile points for felling large animals, a knife and flakes of rock for removing internal organs, and tools for scraping and tanning hides. Together they provide unusually robust support for the woman's hunter status. Since the tools were neatly stacked together, the researchers could infer that they served a common purpose, and the combination of equipment helped to rule out alternative purposes for each tool.

"The presence of cutting tools in the toolkit diminishes the possibility that the projectile points served as knives," said Haas. "And the fact that the kit included well-made projectile points and scrapers alongside simple, commonplace stone tools suggest that the kit was unlikely to have been an elaborate grave offering made by others in the community. The simplest explanation that accounts for all variables is that the artifacts were part of the buried individual's hunting toolkit."

To determine whether this female hunter was an anomaly or one of many from her era, the researchers next conducted a review of 429 Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene individuals buried at 107 sites in the Americas. They found that 16 of the individuals buried with big-game hunting tools were male and 11 were female. Haas and colleagues then performed statistical analyses to test the likelihood that females would constitute this proportion of the hunter sample in a society with 0% female hunters, 10%, and so on. Ultimately, they concluded that it is highly unlikely 11 out of 27 hunters in the sample would be female unless women generally made up a substantial portion of big game hunters.

"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%," said Haas. "In other words, it is highly unlikely that a population of individuals in which just 20% of the hunters were female could have produced the female and male hunter counts we see in the 27 archaeological individuals."

While the findings provide evidence that prehistoric women very likely once hunted vicuña and taruca (Andean deer) alongside men, it remains unclear what led the division of labor to shift towards the man-as-hunter, woman-as-gatherer model observed in hunter-gatherer societies today. Haas suggested changes in hunting technology may hold the answer, pointing to recent research by Brigid Grund, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming.

Grund demonstrated that boys and girls can reach the height of their skills with an atlatl — a spear-throwing device used for hunting big game at the time that the Wilamaya Patjxa lived — at a young age. This would have meant that young females could have mastered the atlatl before they were old enough to start having children. However, the emergence of the bow-and-arrow as the primary hunting tool about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago may have changed everything. Archery takes much longer to master than the atlatl, and young women occupied with childcare could not allocate the requisite time to practice the skill.

"I think this is an interesting and archaeologically testable thesis, though evaluating it will require a lot more work," said Haas.

Haas hopes to expand the analysis of prehistoric hunter burial sites to other time periods in the Americas in order to uncover the mysteries of when, where, and why sexual division of labor evolved from the more equitable arrangements of the Early Holocene. He also hopes to continue excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa and other sites on the Andean Plateau.

"As a scientist, I would like to challenge our observations with more data," said Haas. "We've only excavated a small portion of the site, and it is located in an agricultural field. So every year that passes, information is being lost to plowing activity. The best thing we can do to prevent this loss without infringing on the livelihoods of the Aymara communities living there today is to excavate."