Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Woman the Hunter? Were Prehistoric Women Big-Game Hunters?


                    A 9,000-year-old Burial of 17-19 Year-old Woman with a Hunting Toolkit

An Artistic Rendering of the Female Hunter (WMP6) Using an Atlatl to Hunt Vicunas in the Andean Highlands of Peru

                                               A Vicuna in the Andean Highlands of Chile

In 1966, some 75 scholars who studied the hunting and gathering peoples of the world gathered at the University of Chicago for a conference on "Man the Hunter" (Lee and DeVore 1968).  It was generally agreed that one of the most prominent features of hunter-gatherer life was the sexual division of labor in the provisioning of food in which men hunted large animals and women gathered plants and small animals.  

The subsequent studies of hunter-gatherers have largely confirmed this, as Robert Kelly (2013) has indicated in his survey of the research.  The investment that women typically make in pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childcare is usually incompatible with hunting large game.  For women the gathering of plant foods is more compatible with caring for children.  And insofar as this has been true for most of human evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, this has shaped the evolved human mind so that men and women on average differ in their typical temperaments and propensities.  This supports my claim about there being an evolved natural desire for sexual identity: human beings generally desire to identify themselves as male or female, and there are some psychological differences between typical males and typical females.  But despite these sex differences on average, there is a lot of individual variation.  So, as Kelly observes, there are quite a few individual cases in hunter-gatherer societies of women becoming hunters, particularly when the hunting does not interfere with childcare.  (I have written a previous post on Kelly's book.)

Now, this week, we have a new report by Randall Haas and his colleagues of an archaeological discovery that appears to be evidence for women being big-game hunters in the hunter-gatherer societies of ancient South America (Haas et al. 2020).  The New York Times has a good article on this (Gorman 2020).

Here is the abstract:

"Sexual division of labor with females as gatherers and males as hunters is a major empirical regularity of hunter-gatherer ethnography, suggesting an ancestral behavioral pattern.  We present an archaeological discovery and meta-analysis that challenge the man-the-hunter hypothesis.  Excavations at the Andean highland site of Wilamaya Patjxa reveal a 9000-year-old human burial (WMP6) associated with a hunting toolkit of stone projectile points and animal processing tools.  Osteological, proteomic, and isotopic analyses indicate that this early hunter was a young adult female who subsisted on terrestrial plants and animals.  Analysis of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene burial practices throughout the Americas situate WMP6 as the earliest and most secure hunter burial in a sample that includes 10 other females in statistical parity with early male hunter burials.  The findings are consistent with nongendered labor practices in which early hunter-gatherer females were big-game hunters."

There are three steps in their reasoning to support their general conclusion that "early hunter-gatherer females were big-game hunters."  The first step is to argue that while the ethnographic record shows that big-game hunting has been  indeed a predominantly male activity among recent hunter-gatherer societies, this does not prove that this was true for ancient prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies.  The second step is to describe their archaeological discovery of WMP6's burial as showing one clear case of an ancient hunter-gatherer female who was a big-game hunter.  The third step is to claim that this one case is part of a general behavioral pattern that can be seen by surveying the evidence of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene burials across the Americas.  

In their first step, Haas and his colleagues agree with Kelly's assertion that the hunter-gatherers studied by ethnographers "are not humanity in a state of nature; they are not Pleistocene relics; we cannot, as E. O. Wilson (1978) suggested, reconstruct ancient human society by extrapolation backward from living hunter-gatherers" (2013, xv).  Kelly gives two reasons for this.  First, living hunter-gatherers have been influenced by the modern social and economic conditions in which they have lived, which must make them different from ancient hunter-gatherers who lived in ancient conditions.  Second, living hunter-gatherer societies are so variable that they cannot provide a universal pattern of hunter-gatherer life.

Nevertheless, Kelly does think that the ethnographic record shows at least one feature of living hunter-gatherer societies that can be projected back into the ancient past--"men hunt while women gather."  There is a good theoretical justification for this, Kelly observes, because "the division of labor is rooted in fundamental biological differences between men and women and the incompatibility of children with hunting" (2013, 274).  If we have correctly identified these causes for the sexual division of labor among living hunter-gatherers, and if we can reasonably assume that the same causes were at work among ancient hunter-gatherers, then we can infer that the division between man the hunter and woman the gatherer that we see among modern foragers is a model for what we should expect for ancient foragers.

If ancient foragers had two ways of provisioning food--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals--and if the female biology for bearing and rearing children was more compatible with gathering than with hunting, then we can infer that women in general were more inclined to gathering than to hunting.  

It is true, however, as Haas and his colleagues indicate, that there are some circumstances in which women can mitigate the conflict between child care and hunting.  Mothers can find people (such as grandmothers or other relatives) to help with the caring of their children.  Mothers can also join in communal hunting in which even young children can participate.  Moreover, those women who are not bearing and caring for children might choose to become hunters, even big-game hunters, if they have the skills and temperament for hunting.  This all suggests that we should find some cases of female hunting, even though the general pattern will be a sexual division of labor with women gathering and men hunting.

In fact, 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."


DiBlasi, Philip. 1981. "A New Assessment of the Archaeological Significance of the Ashworth Site (15Bu236)." A Master's Thesis. University of Louisville.

Gorman, James. 2020. "Ancient Remains in Peru Reveal Young, Female Big-Game Hunter." New York Times, November 4.

Haas, Randall, et al. 2020. "Female Hunters of the Early Americas." Science Advances 6: 1-10.

Kelly, Robert L. 2013. The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, Richard B., and Irven DeVore, eds. 1968. Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Potter, Ben A., et al. 2014. "New Insights into Eastern Beringian Mortuary Behavior: A Terminal Pleistocene Double Infant Burial at Upward Sun River." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111, no. 48: 17060-17065.

Walthall, John. 1999. "Mortuary Behavior and Early Holocene Land Use in the North American Midcontinent." North American Archaeologist 20: 1-30.

Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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