An Artistic Rendering of an Ancient Female Hunter Using an Atlatl to Hunt Vacunas in the Andean Highlands of Peru (Based on an Archaeological Discovery by Randall Haas and His Colleagues)
The cover article for the November issue of Scientific American is "Woman the Hunter" by Cara Ocobock and Sarah Lacy. This article briefly summarizes the argument and evidence that Ocobock and Lacy have recently elaborated in two articles for American Anthropologist. Much of the research that they cite in these articles has come up in some of my previous posts on this "Woman the Hunter" thesis.
Ocobock and Lacy frame their argument as a refutation of the book Man the Hunter, edited by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore, and first published in 1968. This collection of papers was the first extensive survey of the hunter-gatherer way of life that was considered the first stage of human evolutionary development. One of the central themes of the book was the sexual division of labor in the foraging for food, in which men were predominantly the hunters of wild animals, and women were predominantly the gatherers of wild plants.
Contrary to what Ocobock and Lacy repeatedly assert, the authors in Man the Hunter did not say that "only men hunted" or that "women were excluded from hunting" (see Ocobock and Lacy 2023a: 24; Lacy and Ocobock 2023: 2-3, 5-6, 9). The claim of the "Man the Hunter" hypothesis was that while some women in foraging societies sometimes hunted, men were predominantly the hunters. So, when Ocobock and Lacy present evidence that some foraging women hunted, and thus refute the idea that only men hunted, they are attacking a straw man (or straw woman).
Ocobock and Lacy offer three kinds of evidence for "Woman the Hunter"--ethnographic, archaeological, and physiological. While this evidence does show that some foraging women hunted and that modern women today still have the mental and physical capacities required for hunting, this does not deny the fact that in foraging societies, hunting (and particularly the hunting of big mammals) has been mostly a male activity.
Moreover, what they say about the comparative athletic physiology of men and women confirms that men have a power activity advantage, while women have an endurance activity advantage. This explains why someone like Caster Semenya--a chromosomal (XY) male with some external female features--has an unfair male advantage in competing with women in an 800-meter race but not in a 5,000-meter race.
THE ETHNOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE
In their Scientific American article, Ocobock and Lacy report:
". . . A recent study of ethnographic data spanning the past 100 years--much of which was ignored by Man the Hunter contributors--found that women from a wide range of cultures hunt animals for food. Abigail Anderson and Cara Wall-Scheffler of Seattle Pacific University and their colleagues report that 79 percent of the 63 foraging societies with clear descriptions of their hunting strategies feature women hunters. . . ." (29).
What Ocobock and Lacy fail to make clear for their readers, however, is that this study found that in these 50 foraging societies, some women sometimes engage in hunting. This was said to refute "the traditional paradigm that women exclusively gather, and men exclusively hunt" (Anderson et al. 2023: 7).
As I pointed out in my post on this article, the authors do a good job in refuting the idea that men are exclusively the hunters and women exclusively the gatherers. James Woodburn expressed this idea in the original Man the Hunter volume when he said: "Hunting is done exclusively by men and boys" (Woodburn 1968, 51). But this one sentence is the only place in the book where this claim is made. No one else said this. The other authors explained that while hunting is "predominantly men's work," some women do sometimes hunt: "women's hunting activities are confined to small animal hunts, communal hunts in which they take part in driving, and, very rarely, individual hunts of larger animals" (Lee and DeVore 1968: 74, 187). They would have agreed with Robert Kelly (2013, 218-24) that while hunting is not done exclusively by men, it is predominantly done by men, particularly the hunting of big game. So, the difference between men and women is a matter of degree rather than kind.
In their paper on the archaeological evidence for "Woman the Hunter," Ocobock and Lacy present some indirect evidence that men and women in the Paleolithic might have been engaged in similar activities. But that there might be evidence that women were engaged in hunting big game animals just as much as men is suggested in only one sentence: "In some cases, the grave goods and paleopathology agree in demonstrating women were well-practiced projectile hunters, such as at the Peruvian Early Holocene site of Wilamaya Pratxa (Haas et al. 2020)" (Lucy and Ocobock 2023: 7).
As I indicated in my post on the article cited here by Ocobock and Lucy, Richard Haas and his colleagues have provided us what looks like one clear case of an ancient female hunter. In 2018, Haas's team excavated an archaeological site called Wilamaya Patjxa in the Andean highlands of southern Peru at an elevation of 12,877 feet. They found five human burial pits with six individuals. Two of these individuals were associated with projectile points from the Early Holocene (beginning around 12,000 to 11,500 years ago).
One of these two individuals--the Wilamayo Patjxa individual 6 (WMP6)--was identified as a 17-19 year old woman, which was determined by studies of her bones and tooth enamel protein. She was associated with stones that were identified as an integrated toolkit for hunting. There were stone projectile points that could have been used to kill big game. There were other stones that could have been used for dressing the game and red ochre nodules for tanning hides. There were some mammal bone fragments that could have been from one of the species endemic to the Andean highlands--vicuna (a relative of llamas) or taruca (a species of deer). As depicted in their artistic rendering of WMP6 hunting, Haas's team speculated that she used an atlatl made from a camelid radioulna bone to throw a spear at a vicuna. However, there is nothing that looks like an atlatl at the burial site. (I have a post on the evolution of the atlatl.)
And yet, even if one agrees that this is good evidence for identifying WMP6 as a female hunter of big game animals, one must then ask whether this is only one isolated case or part of a general behavioral pattern. To find the evidence for a general pattern of female hunting, Haas's team reviewed the reports of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene burials in the Americas. They identified 429 individuals from 107 sites. They found 27 individuals from 18 sites who were associated with big-game hunting tools. Of theses, 11 of the individuals from 10 sites were identified as female, and 16 individuals from 15 sites were identified as male. They see this distribution--11 female hunters and 16 male hunters--as "statistical parity" between males and females in hunting behavior, which supports "the hypothesis of non-gendered big-game hunting among early populations."
This step in their argument has been identified by their critics as the weakest part of their reasoning. Notice that Haas and his colleagues have to assume that in ancient burials, "the objects that accompany people in death tend to be those that accompany them in life" (Haas et al. 2020, 5). So, if individuals are buried with hunting tools, that proves that they were hunters. Robert Kelly, Ben Potter, and others challenge this assumption: that individuals were buried with hunting tools does not directly prove that they were hunters. Burial goods are symbolic offerings from the living to the dead, and the interpretations of their meaning are often ambiguous.
This problem is particularly clear in the case of the two female individuals buried at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska (dated to around 11,500 years ago), which has been studied by Potter and his colleagues (2014). One individual was estimated to have died a few weeks after birth, and the other was identified as a late-term fetus. Four antler rods, two large dart points, and a third biface lithic tool were found associated with these two individuals. Potter's team observes: "The presence of the hafted points may reflect the importance of hunting implements in the burial ceremony at USR and within the population as a whole" (17064). Potter's team does not see this as evidence that females were hunters in this ancient population of hunter-gatherers. But Haas and his colleagues, in their online Supplement to their article, write: "The Upward Sun River females are both infants and thus were not hunters per se, although they appear to have been gendered in a way that recognized females as being associated with big game hunting." So although these infants were not hunters, burying them with hunting tools was a symbolic ritual statement that they could have become hunters if they had lived to adulthood! Potter disagrees. In an email message to me, he wrote: "I think the most parsimonious and plausible interpretation of the hunting implements in the infants' grave is that they represent symbolic 'sacrifices' of perfectly usable hunting weapons by the father(s)."
There is another closely related problem here that Haas's team makes clear in their online Supplement but not in their article. In determining whether females were buried with big-game hunting tools, they distinguish "secure" evidence and "tentative" evidence. They also distinguish between "securely associated with big game hunting tools" and "securely identified as a big-game hunter burial." There are "secure cases in which context, sex, and date estimates are each determined to be secure," and there are "tentative associations" where the evidence for context, sex, and dating is not so secure.
The WMP6 burial and the two Upward Sun River burials are the only female burials securely associated with big game hunting tools. But the two Upward Sun River burials are not securely identified as big game hunter burials. Consequently, in their Supplement, Haas's team concludes: "the WMP6 burial is the only burial securely identified as a big-game hunter burial in the entire sample of late Pleistocene and early Holocene burials in the Americas. Under the most conservative criteria, we identify one female hunter burial and no male hunter burials."
Remarkably, this statement is hidden away in the Supplement, and it does not appear in the article. In effect, this concedes the point made by the critics--that Haas and his colleagues have at best found only one case of a female hunter burial, which suggests that while some individual females in hunter-gatherer societies will become hunters, there is still generally a sexual division of labor in which men hunt and women gather.
The 8 cases where Haas's team think they see "tentative" evidence for the burial of a female big-game hunter are actually quite dubious. Consider this example, which they report: "Ashworth Shelter is a rockshelter site in Kentucky . . . . The following summary is based on Walthall's review (46). A primary inhumation identified as an adult female had a Kirk style projectile embedded in a vertebra and a second point located near the left patella."
Haas's team here is relying on an article by John Walthall (1999), in which he reports the findings of Philip DiBlasi (1981) in a Master's Thesis at the University of Louisville, which is available online. In describing "burial #4" in the Ashworth Shelter, DiBlasi writes:
"As mentioned above, a projectile point was found imbedded in the body of the third thoracic vertebra. This projectile entered from the left rear of the individual splitting the neural arch between the left superior and inferior articulating surfaces and the spinous process. The extreme distal portion (tip) of the projectile entered the dorsal surface of the body of the vertebra with sufficient force to split the vertebra in half. The left superior articular surface of the fourth vertebra was also damaged."
"A wound of this type would have caused death almost immediately. The most apparent cause of death would have been hypotensive shock resulting from the direct reflex shock to the central nervous system caused by the impact and resulting rebound of the spinal cord. . . Paralysis of intercostal muscles would make breathing impossible, again causing death within a short period of time" (1981, 74-75).
Neither DiBlasi nor Walthall identify this as evidence that this individual had been a female hunter. After all, how can the fact that she was killed by a projectile point thrust into her back with sufficient force to split her spine in half be even "tentative" evidence that she was a big-game hunter?
The careful reader might well conclude that the most important sentence in the writing of Haas and his colleagues is not in their published article but in the online Supplement to the article: "Thus the WMP6 burial is the only burial securely identified as a big-game hunter burial in the entire sample of late Pleistocene and early Holocene burials in the Americas."
The archaeological evidence for "Woman the Hunter" seems very skimpy indeed.
In my next post, I will take up Ocobock and Lacy's physiological evidence for female versus male athletic advantages, which they offer as evidence that women have the physiological capacity for hunting, particularly hunting that requires endurance running.