At Wilamaya Patjxa, an archaeological site in southern Peru, archaeologists have unearthed the skeleton of a young woman whose people buried her with a hunter’s toolbox, including projectile points. The find prompted archaeologist Randall Haas of the University of California Davis and his colleagues to take a closer look at other Pleistocene and early Holocene hunters from across America.
Their results may indicate that female hunters were not as rare as we thought. And that, in turn, reminds us that gender roles haven’t always been the same in every culture.
The Hunter by Wilamaya Patjxa
“The objects that go with it” [people] in death are usually those who accompanied them in life,” Haas and his colleagues wrote. And when a young woman died 9,000 years ago in what is now southern Peru, her people buried her with at least six stone spearheads of a type used to hunt large prey such as deer and vicuña (a relative of the alpaca). . The points appear to be bundled together with a stone knife, sharp stone flakes, scraping tools and ocher for tanning hides.
Those tools were neatly stacked next to the woman’s legs, and Haas and his colleagues say they appear to have been packed in a bag that has long since fallen apart and left the tools behind. Most of the young woman’s bones have also collapsed over time. All that remains are a few fragments of the skull, her teeth, the ends of her femurs (femurs), and a few bits of the bones of her lower legs.
To help identify a dead person’s sex, archaeologists usually look at the shape of the pelvis, jawbone, eye sockets (orbits), and other skeletal clues. But for Wilamaya Patjxa’s young wife, most of those bones hadn’t survived millennia of burial. Instead, Haas and his colleagues analyzed samples of her tooth enamel.
Tooth enamel contains proteins called amelogenins, which primarily play a role in enamel formation. The genes that produce these proteins are located on the X and Y chromosomes, and each version is slightly different. As a result, people who are genetically female have slightly different amelogenins than people who are genetically male. The proteins in the ancient hunter’s tooth enamel had a distinctly female signature, with no trace of the Y chromosome version.
The hunter from Wilamaya Patjxa is a young woman with the tools of an activity usually associated with men. If the objects people are buried with are the objects they have used in life, that raises some questions.
In other places where ancient women were buried with projectile points, archaeologists quickly came up with other explanations, such as the idea that women had used the points as knives. However, this young woman had a real knife in her backpack, so it doesn’t seem very likely that she would have carried six projectile points for the same purpose. And her toolbox is much like the kinds of things previous researchers had theorized that Paleolithic hunters might have worn. It’s hard to explain it any other way: this young woman was probably a hunter.
The exception or the rule?
Most periods in history are littered with stories of women sneaking into the military, naval crews, or other male-dominated professions. Because those stories are so unusual, they ultimately shed light on social norms about who should fight, sail, or hunt. But archaeologists have also found evidence of women as warriors in ancient cultures, from the Vikings to ancient Mongol nomads. Those finds have raised the question of whether women in these cultures often fought alongside men, or whether these particular women were special or unusual.
The Wilamaya Patjxa hunter asks a similar question: Was she the exception that proved the rule, or does her burial suggest that (in at least some ancient cultures) women were sometimes hunters? To help answer that question, Haas and his colleagues looked for other ancient people buried with hunting tools. In published articles from archaeological sites across America, they found 27 people in 18 different locations: 16 men and 11 women.
After thousands of years, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether someone was buried with an object or whether it ended up in the grave in some other way. Not far from the Wilamaya Patjxa fighter, a man was buried with two projectile points. One was resting against part of his forearm and another was found near his pelvis. Archaeologists aren’t sure if those points were his personal tools or the cause of his death.
Despite caveats like this example, it’s surprising that so many apparent women have appeared on that list. “Women’s participation in early big game hunting was probably not trivial,” Haas and his colleagues wrote. They suggest that as many as one-third to one-half of women in ancient America may have been actively involved in hunting.
All hands on deck
That claim is likely to spark some debate, especially since it suggests that Pleistocene and early Holocene humans in the Americas had very different gender roles than modern hunter-gatherers. In almost all modern hunter-gatherer societies, men and women hunt, gather plant foods and care for children. But Haas and his colleagues’ research reminds us that cultural norms vary from place to place and over time.
Most hunter-gatherer groups divide the labor as they do, as women often care for young children. It would have been easier for males to cover the longer distances it takes to hunt — and it’s hard to stalk a deer while carrying a crying baby.
Based on animal bones in Wilamaya Patjxa, big game such as vicuña and taruca (a relative of deer) were extremely important to the survival of the community. In that case, hunting might have been an all-hands-on-deck activity. Haas and his colleagues also suggest that if other members of a community had kept an eye on the kids while the parents hunted, more women might have been released to take home the bacon — or venison, in this case.
In other words, whether women hunted or fought probably depended on social factors, not biological ones.
Science Progress, 2020 DOI: 10.1126/sciaadv.abd0310 (About DOIs).