In a high plateau of the Andes Mountains in Peru, archaeologists were at an excavation site looking for artifacts when they uncovered the remains of a big game hunter. The skeleton, which they called WMP6, seemed especially important because it was buried with an extensive kit of stone weapons and blades.
“Everybody was talking about how this was a great chief, a big man,” archaeologist Randy Haas told Science.
But upon closer inspection, the archaeologists realized the bones were lighter and more slender than expected, which made them wonder if the hunter could have been female. Their study suggests that our early hunter-gatherer ancestors might have structured their society with more gender equality than previously thought.
The Female Hunter
The high status hunter was, in fact, a young woman. These ancient bones suggest that women warriors were responsible for hunting down and catching large Andean animals such as vicuña and deer. But how can we be so sure?
The excavation site, called Wilamaya Patjxa, is located at an altitude of 12,877 feet. After 9,000 years, there wasn’t much left of WMP6 — just fragments of a skull, teeth and partial leg bones, according to the study in ScienceAdvances. The archeologists used a new forensic technique to confirm that the bones belonged to a female hunter. In addition to using the standard methods for studying ancient bones, they also analyzed the skeleton’s tooth enamel to find out whether it had a male or female version of a protein called amelogenin.
Even if the skeleton was female, how could the researchers be sure that she was a leading hunter? Certainly, the hunting tools were a clue. She was buried with blades and stone projectiles that were likely the tips of spears, darts or arrows. Her toolkit was extensive, while a nearby male skeleton was buried with only a few hunting tools. It is possible that her tools were a gift or had another symbolic meaning, but it’s more likely that she was a hunter. The researchers studied isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the woman’s teeth, which revealed that she ate a typical hunter’s diet of animal meat and plants.
Archaic Gender Roles
This recent discovery challenges common assumptions about the gendered division of labor throughout history and today. This wasn’t the first time we’ve heard about a female big game hunter. But previously, women warriors were considered outliers. Our modern understanding of hunter-gatherer societies typically assumes that men went into the wild to do the dangerous work of hunting while women gathered edible plants and took care of the children.
However, in their study, the researchers point out how early economies that relied on big game would have encouraged participation from “all able individuals,” no matter the gender. Plus, they suggest that childcare duties were likely shared among the community, which would have given women the opportunity to hunt.
They explored this hypothesis by reviewing previous reports of similar ancient remains in academic journals — and they found nearly half of the big game hunters were female.
Based on this evidence, they wrote, “Early big-game hunting was likely gender neutral or nearly so.”
There is disagreement among experts on this subject, with others suggesting that only 10% of hunters were women, as the New York Times reports. Additional research should help to clear up this question and help us understand human history. Perhaps by better understanding our ancestors, we can dispel stereotypes about men and women in the modern workplace.