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Daily News Analysis

Ancient burial hints that prehistoric women may have hunted as much as men

6th November, 2020 Science and Technology

Context: Scientists have unearthed a 9,000-year-old female hunter burial in the Andes Mountains of South America, which counters the long-held belief that when early human groups sought food, men hunted and women gathered.

  • An archaeological discovery and analysis of early burial practices overturns the long-held ‘man-the-hunter’ hypothesis.
  • The researchers believe the findings, are particularly timely in light of contemporary conversations surrounding gendered labour practices and inequality.

Sexual division of labour

  • Labour 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’.
  • But it’s now clear that sexual division of labour was fundamentally different — likely more equitable — in our species’ deep hunter-gatherer past.
  • In 2018, during archaeological excavations at a high-altitude site called Wilamaya Patjxa in what is now Peru, the researchers found an early burial that contained a hunting toolkit with projectile points and animal-processing tools.
  • They said the objects accompanying people in death tended to be those that accompanied them in life.
  • Based on an analysis of the bones and dental proteins, the study found that the hunter was likely female.
  • Study shows that tools recovered from the burial pit floor including projectile points (1 to 7), unmodified flakes (8 to 10), retouched flakes (11 to 13), a possible backed knife (14), thumbnail scrapers (15 and 16), scrapers/choppers (17 to 19), burnishing stones (17, 20, and 21), and red ocher nodules (22 to 24).
  • From further examination of records of ancient burials throughout North and South America, the researchers identified 429 individuals from 107 sites.
  • Of those, they said 27 individuals were associated with big-game hunting tools of whom 11 were female and 15 were male.
  • The scientists believe this sample is sufficient to “warrant the conclusion that female participation in early big-game hunting was likely non-trivial”.
  • They also found that somewhere between 30% to 50% of hunters in these populations were female.
  • According to the researchers, this level of participation stands in stark contrast to recent hunter-gatherers, and even farming and capitalist societies, where hunting is a decidedly male activity with low levels of female participation, “certainly under 30%.”
  • In future studies, the scientists hope to understand how the consequences of sexual division of labour changed in different times and places among the hunter-gatherer populations of the continent.