Some 9,000 years
ago, a 17- to 19-year-old female was buried alongside a hunter's
societies may have depended on women, as well as men and children,
to conduct a successful hunt. (Matthew Verdolivo / UC Davis
IET Academic Technology Services)
Archaeologists in Peru have found the 9,000-year-old skeleton of
a young woman who appears to have been a big-game hunter. Combined
with other evidence, the researchers argue in the journal Science
Advances, the discovery points to greater involvement of
hunter-gatherer women in bringing down large animals than previously
The team found the grave at Wilamaya Patjxa, a high-altitude site
in Peru, in 2018. As lead author Randall
Haas, an archaeologist at the University of California, Davis,
tells the New
York Times' James Gorman, he and his colleagues were excited
to find numerous projectile points and stone tools buried alongside
the skeletal remains.
Originally, the researchers thought that they'd unearthed the grave
of a man.
"Oh, he must have been a great chief," Haas recalls the team saying.
"He was a great hunter."
But subsequent study showed that the bones were lighter than those
of a typical male, and an analysis of proteins in the person's dental
enamel confirmed that the bones belonged to a woman who was probably
between 17 and 19 years old.
Per the paper, the hunter was not a unique, gender nonconforming
individual, or even a member of an unusually egalitarian society.
Looking at published records of 429 burials across the Americas
in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs, the team identified
27 individuals buried with big-game hunting tools. Of these, 11
were female and 15 were male. The breakdown, the authors write,
suggests that "female participation in big-game hunting was likely
Pitblado, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman,
who was not involved in the study, tells Science
magazine's Ann Gibbons, "The message is that women have always
been able to hunt and have in fact hunted."
The concept of "man the hunter" emerged from 20th-century archaeological
research and anthropological studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies.
In present-day groups like the Hadza of Tanzania and San of southern
Africa, men generally hunt large animals, while women gather tubers,
fruits and other plant foods, according to Science.
Many scholars theorized that this division was universal among
"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,'" says Haas in
"But it's now clear that sexual division of labor was fundamentally
differentlikely more equitablein our species' deep hunter-gatherer
The archaeologists found
a variety of projectile points and other tools associated
with hunting at the burial site. (Randall Haas / UC Davis)
Not everyone is convinced of the new paper's thesis. Robert
Kelly, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming who wasn't
involved in the research, tells Science that though he believes
the newly discovered skeleton belongs to a female hunter, he finds
the other evidence less convincing.
Kelly adds that the discovery of hunting tools at a gravesite does
not necessarily indicate that the person buried there was a hunter.
In fact, he says, two of the burials found at Upward
Sun River in Alaska contained female infants. In some cases,
male hunters may have buried loved ones with their own hunting tools
as an expression of grief.
Speaking with National
Geographic's Maya Wei-Haas, Kathleen
Sterling, an anthropologist at Binghamton University in New
York who was not part of the study, points out that researchers
likely wouldn't have questioned the tools' ownership if they'd been
buried with a man.
"We typically don't ask this question when we find these toolkits
with men," she observes. "It's only when it challenges our ideas
about gender that we ask these questions."
According to Katie Hunt of CNN,
recent research suggests that hunting in at least some hunter-gatherer
societies was community-based. Around the time the newly discovered
individual lived, the hunting tool of choice was the atlatl, a light
spear-thrower used to bring down alpaca-like animals called vicuña.
Because the device was relatively unreliable, communities "encouraged
broad participation in big-game hunting," working together to "mitigate
risks associated with
low accuracy and long reloading times,"
per the study. Even children wielded the weapon, perfecting their
technique from a young age.
"This study should help convince people that women participated
in big-game hunts," Sterling tells Live
Science's Yasemin Saplakoglu. "Most older children and adults
would have been needed to drive herds over cliffs or into traps,
or to fire projectiles at herds moving in the same direction."
For the Conversation,
Milks, an archaeologist at University College London who also
wasn't involved in the study, writes that researchers are increasingly
calling into question aspects of the "man-the-hunter"
model. In the Agata
society of the Philippines, for example, women take part in
hunting. And among present-day hunter-gatherers who use atlatls,
women and children often take part in competitive throwing events.
Scientists have long argued that men across societies hunted while
women stayed closer to home, making it easier for mothers to care
for their children. Today, however, some researchers note that these
claims may reflect the stereotypes of 20th-century United States
and Europe, where they emerged. Growing bodies of research suggest
that that child care in many hunter-gather societies was shared
by multiple people, a system known as alloparenting.
Pilloud, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Reno,
who was not a part of the study, tells Live Science that
many cultures don't share the same concept of the gender binary
as modern Americans and Europeans.
She adds, "When we step back from our own gendered biases can we
explore the data in nuanced ways that are likely more culturally