Prehistoric female hunter discovery upends gender role assumptions

Researchers have generally thought that only prehistoric males hunted—but what if evidence against that idea has been lying in plain sight for decades?

By Maya Wei-Haas
Published 5 Nov 2020, 21:01 GMT

An artist's depiction of what hunting may have looked like in the Andes Mountains of South America 9,000 years ago. Archaeologists were surprised when analysis of a hunter burial from the time period revealed the individual was biologically female.

Photograph by Matthew Verdolivo, Uc Davis Iet Academic Technology Services

Randall Haas, an archaeologist at University of California, Davis, recalls the moment in 2018 when his team of researchers gathered around the excavated burial of an individual lain to rest in the Andes Mountains of Peru some 9,000 years ago. Along with the bones of what appeared to be a human adult was an impressive—and extensive—kit of stone tools an ancient hunter would need to take down big game, from engaging the hunt to preparing the hide.

"He must have been a really great hunter, a really important person in society"—Haas says that’s what he and his team were thinking at the time.

But further analysis revealed a surprise: the remains found alongside the toolkit were from a biological female. What's more, this ancient female hunter was likely not an anomaly, according to a study published today in Science Advances. The Haas team’s find was followed by a review of previously studied burials of similar age throughout the Americas—and it revealed that between 30 and 50 percent of big game hunters could have been biologically female.

This new study is the latest twist in a decades-long debate about gender roles among early hunter-gather societies. The common assumption was that prehistoric men hunted while women gathered and reared their young. But for decades, some scholars have argued that these “traditional” roles—documented by anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer groups across the globe since the 19th century—don’t necessarily stretch into our deep past.

While the new study provides a strong argument that the individual in Peru was a female who hunted, plenty of other evidence has long been lying in plain sight, says Pamela Geller, an archaeologist at the University of Miami who is not part of the study team.

"The data is there,” Geller says. “It’s just a matter of how the researchers interpret it.”

Whose tools?

When archaeologists excavated the burial, they found a colourful array of 24 stone tools. Among them: projectile points for taking down a large mammal; hefty rocks likely for cracking bones or stripping hides; small, rounded stony bits for scraping fat from pelts; tiny flakes with extra sharp edges that could have chopped the meat; and nodules of red ocher that could help preserve the hides. Scattered around the site were fragments of the bones of animals including ancient llama relatives and deer.

In initial discussions about the toolkit, the researchers presumed the owner was male, perhaps a prominent figure of society, or even a chief of the group. “I’m as guilty as anyone,” says Haas, who has been working in the region since 2008. “I thought yeah, that makes sense with my understanding of the world.” Back in the lab, however, close inspection of the bones suggested the physiology of a biological woman. To confirm, they analysed a protein that forms tooth enamel and is linked to sex.

Importantly, the team cannot know the individual’s gender identity, but rather only biological sex (which like gender doesn’t always exist on a binary). In other words, they can’t say whether the individual lived their life 9,000 years ago in a way that would identify them within their society as a woman.

Challenging assumptions

The 2018 discovery does pose a challenge to gender binaries commonly assumed for our early ancestors: Men acted as hunters, women acted as gatherers. This assumption comes from studies of modern hunter-gatherers, where men more frequently are responsible for the hunt while women bear the most responsibility for caring for children, says Arizona State University’s Kim Hill, who specialises in human evolutionary anthropology and was not part of the study team. “You can’t just stop in the middle of stalking a deer in order to nurse a crying baby,” Hill says via email.

Yet inferences from present-day hunter-gatherers have limits. For decades, Geller says, some archaeologists have argued that the simple view of male hunters and female gatherers is in fact an oversimplification. “With few exceptions, the researchers who study hunting and gathering groups—regardless of which continent they work on—presume that a sexual division of labour was universal and rigid,” she says. “And because it is commonsensical, they then have a hard time explaining why female-bodied individuals also bear the skeletal markers of hunting or have hunting tool kits as grave goods.”

When researchers have found signs of this discrepancy in the past, Geller says, “usually they don’t say anything, as if ignoring the evidence will make it go away.”

Hunting would likely require as many able-bodied adults as possible to increase safety and efficiency—regardless of their biological sex. After a child weans, the mother could be available to assist in big hunts, says Kathleen Sterling, an archaeologist at Binghamton University, who was not part of the study team. But even with babies, hunting could still be possible with community nursing assistance.

The meaning of burial goods

Spurred by their 2018 discovery, Haas’s team then dug in to reports of past excavations of early hunter gatherers throughout the Americas. Many past studies have unearthed similar presence of stone hunting tools in burials with biological females, yet each case isn’t necessarily clear cut. For some, the sex is not definite. In others, disturbed contexts made it uncertain if stone tools and remains were buried at the same time. And in still others, the few projectiles found in the burial could have even been murder weapons interred with their victims.

But when Haas’s teams reviewed the individual cases as part of a larger data set, they found that of the 27 of 429 burials with individuals of known sex who are were buried with hunting tools, 11 are female—including the newly identified remains—while 16 are male. The many uncertainties (such as disturbed context and sex identification) are present in burials of both males and females, Haas says. So even when the most uncertain cases were excluded, the abundance of burials with hunting tools among females and males remain similar.

“These patterns are not at all what you would expect in a population if males were [the only] hunters,” Haas says.

ASU’s Hill says he’s not yet fully convinced that the female individual buried 9,000 years ago was actually a hunter in life. Burial goods, including hunting tools, could have been placed there because of symbolic or religious beliefs, he cautions.

Did the newfound toolkit belong to the buried individual? Sterling challenged the inquiry itself. “We typically don’t ask this question when we find these toolkits with men,” She says. “It’s only when it challenges our ideas about gender that we ask these questions.”

Geller adds: “There’s so much mental gymnastics that go on trying to explain these things away.”

The toolkit discovered in the 9,000-year-old burial was quite diverse, including both precious implements, like projectile points that are challenging to make, as well as more mundane tools, like stone flakes that can easily be crafted by smashing rocks. This hints the tools weren’t some type of offering; rather, it points to the objects being used by the individual in life, Haas contends. There’s also strength in the numbers, with an abundance of females now found to have been buried with tools throughout the Americas, Sterling adds.

For Geller, the debate has important implications for today. “There’s so much gender disparity going on right now, if we were to presume that there’s something that biologically predisposes us, then you’d be able to justify that gender disparity,” she says. “To me that’s dangerous, and completely unsubstantiated.”


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