Move over, men: Women were hunters, too

The solo trip, explore at your own pace
An undated photo provided by Randall Haas shows excavation work at the Wilamaya Patjxa archaeological site in Peru, where the nearly 10,000-year-old remains of a female hunter were found in 2018. Anthropologists are finding that women in modern foraging societies have played a major role in catching game. (Photo: NYTimes).
It is often viewed as a given: Men hunted, women gathered. After all, the anthropological reasoning went, men were naturally more aggressive, whereas the slower pace of gathering was ideal for women, who were mainly focused on caretaking.اضافة اعلان

“It is not something I questioned,” said Sophia Chilczuk, a recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University, where she studied applied human biology. “And I think the majority of the public has that assumption.”

At times, the notion has proved stronger than the evidence at hand. In 1963, archaeologists in Colorado unearthed the nearly 10,000-year-old remains of a woman who had been buried with a projectile point. They concluded that the tool had been used not for killing game but, unconventionally, as a scraping knife.

But the male-centric narrative has been slowly changing. On the first day of a college anthropology course, Chilczuk and her classmates listened to a podcast about the landmark discovery of a female hunter during an excavation in Peru in 2018. Among fragments of cranium, teeth, and leg bones, archaeologists found a hunting kit with more tools — projectile points, flakes, scrapers, choppers and burnishing stones — than they had ever seen. This discovery led the team to review the findings from other burials in the early Americas; in 2020, they concluded that big-game hunting between 8,000 and 14,000 years ago was gender-neutral.
but compiling and showing that it’s not an anecdote, it’s a pattern, was what we were trying to do with this paper.
Abigail Anderson, a physiology student who was also in the class, was shocked. “Wait, is this true?” she remembered thinking. On reading the study, Anderson was struck by the author’s references to the scholarly reluctance to associate women with hunting materials. “Immediately, I was like, is this bias or is this accurate?” she said.

Chilczuk and Anderson joined Cara Wall-Scheffler, a biological anthropologist who taught their course, and two other researchers — also women — to figure this out. Now, the team has published a literature review in PLoS One concluding that in most modern foraging societies, women have played a dominant role in bringing home the game. Tales of female hunters existed, Wall-Scheffler noted, “but compiling and showing that it’s not an anecdote, it’s a pattern, was what we were trying to do with this paper.”

To investigate, the team combed through the Database of Places, Languages, Culture and Environment, a catalog of ethnographies about human societies in the 19th and 20th centuries, and found 63 foraging societies with firsthand reports on when, how and what hunting occurred. Then the team sought out patterns: whether women were hunting at all, whether the activity was intentional or opportunistic, and the size of the game being pursued.

Wall-Scheffler and her students found evidence of women hunting in 50 of the 63 societies they studied; moreover, 87 percent of that behavior was deliberate. In cultures where hunting was the most important means of finding food, women took an active role 100 percent of the time.

The researchers also found that women were more flexible in their approaches to hunting as they aged. Which weapons they chose, the game they chased and who accompanied them during hunts changed with age and the number of children or grandchildren the hunters had. “They have different strategies, but they’re still always going out,” Wall-Scheffler said. Often, the oldest women participated the most. (In one bow-and-arrow culture, for example, a grandmother was prized for having the best aim.)
It’s a natural thing to have assumptions, but it’s our responsibility to challenge those assumptions, to better understand our world.
The details about female hunting patterns were not easy to uncover, Chilczuk said; the reports often prioritized discussions of the male hunters. But the findings, when they emerged, made a certain sense, she added: If hunting was the chief means of survival, why would only men participate?

The researchers wondered what other stories have been overlooked by ethnographers. “There might be so many things that we’re missing out on,” Chilczuk said. “It’s a natural thing to have assumptions, but it’s our responsibility to challenge those assumptions, to better understand our world.”

Tammy Buonasera, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who identified the sex of the female hunter found in 2018, welcomed the conclusion of the PLoS paper. “I always assumed that women did hunt probably more often than was recognized,” she said. In general, she added, women are viewed “as just passive actors in history.” She noted that the study of plant-gathering and the innovative ways in which people process plants — a vital source of food — has been neglected because these activities are traditionally linked with women.

Randy Haas, an archaeologist at Wayne State University, in Detroit, who led the Peruvian excavation, likewise praised the new paper. “In light of what my study shows, their findings align with the same narrative: We’ve had biased interpretations,” he said. “And the idea that sexual division of labor is an inherent part of human biology is a trope that has played out in structural inequalities today.”

The dawning appreciation for women as hunters comes as anthropology, like many scientific fields, has begun to diversify its ranks, leading scholars to reexamine how evidence is interpreted. “Who you are shapes the questions you ask,” Wall-Scheffler said. “It shapes the expectations of what you see.”

She added that, like anyone, anthropologists can be tempted by a simple narrative. “Complexity is relegated to anecdote,” she said. “We just have to be willing to dig a little deeper.”

For Anderson, it was like taking the blinders off. “I don’t know when I got this ingrained in me as a child,” she said of the male-hunter myth. “And then it spiraled, like a snowball effect: What else do I think is true that isn’t?”

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