One common assumption in anthropology about prehistoric humans is that males were the hunters and females were gatherers in hunting gathering societies. This also reflects the assumptions about gender roles even in prehistoric times. But a new study challenges this notion.
The study published in Science Advances refers to excavated burial remains from the Andean Highlands of South America. The burial remains were those of a woman aged approximately between 17 and 19 years. The burial material included stone projectile points and tools used for animal processing: tools for a big-game hunt.
The woman’s grave was found at the Wilamaya Patxja site situated in Peru along with those of 26 others. Although the remains of the grave was poor, the researchers could recover parts of her skull, teeth and bones of the legs. Next to the skeletal remains of the woman, they found six stone projectiles and 24 other stone artifacts. Out of the 24 stone artifacts, 20 were highly concentrated and were stacked in a pile just above a thigh bone of the woman. This suggests that the items were deliberately buried along with the woman as grave goods.
They also found a male of age between 25 to 30 years next to that of the woman’s. These also suggest that they belonged to the earliest known hunter burials in the area.
Radiocarbon dating showed that the people were buried in the Wilamaya Patjxa site some 9,000 years ago, during the early Holocene. Dental analysis and an analysis done on bone structure confirmed the ages at the time of death and the sex of the individuals. Further analyses also showed that they were meat eaters, indicating their role as hunters.
The stone projectiles recovered were most probably used for taking down large animals and the stone knives and other tools were used for removing internal organs and scrapping of the animals hunted.
The authors of the paper, led by anthropologist Randall Haas, who is also the lead author of the study, performed subsequent review of archaeological literature to look for similar examples that could have been buried. They found several other examples in which women were buried alongside hunting gear, probably used for big-game hunts.
These findings have thrown the preconceived notion about gender role in hunting and gathering in prehistoric times into doubt. This also shows that hunting in those times were more of a gender-neutral phenomenon. This presumption could be considered as a classic case of sexism in science, according to the authors.
Haas commented in a press release of Science Advances, “Our findings have made me rethink the most basic organizational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups, and human groups more generally. Among historic and contemporary hunter-gatherers, it is almost always the case that males are the hunters and females are the gatherers. Because of this—and likely because of sexist assumptions about division of labor in western society—archaeological findings of females with hunting tools just didn’t fit prevailing worldviews. It took a strong case to help us recognize that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behavior.”