Discovery of 9,000-Year-Old Female Hunter in Peru Is Rewriting History
A grave in Peru has been shown to contain the world’s oldest female hunter. This news is potentially explosive. It may change our understanding of gender relations in the ancient Americas and even the nature of prehistoric societies. Randy Hass, an anthropologist from the University of California, was working with his colleagues at a high-altitude site in an area known as Wilamaya Patjxa, in southern Peru, when they found six burials, dating back almost 9,000 years, which contained the remains of six individuals. During their work the team collaborated with the local Aymara community.
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Teenage Female Huntress Buried with Her Tools
One burial pit was not like the others. Based on the hunting toolkit found with the deceased, the team initially thought that the burial was of a male hunter. However, the bones were very slender, light and appeared to be those of a female. Science quotes one of the team members, bio-archaeologist Jim Watson, as saying “I think your hunter might be female.” Indeed, the grave contained the remains of a young woman who died between the ages of 17 and 19. Her gender and age were determined based on an analysis of proteins in her teeth.
Artists depiction of female hunter 9,000 years ago in ancient Peru. Source: Matthew Verdolivo / UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services
Anthropologist Randy Haas told Sky News that the female hunter had been buried with “stone projectile points for felling large animals, a knife and flakes of rock for removing internal organs, and tools for scraping and tanning hides.” The stone points would have been attached to shafts and used as spear throwers and hurled at animals with great force. A pigment chunk was also found with her which was used in the treatment of hides.
The teenage female hunter was discovered with a hunting toolkit at the Wilamaya Patjxa in southern Peru. (Randall Haas / University of California, Davis )
Was the Discovery an Outlier?
The female hunter was found near the grave of a male who was also buried with a hunting toolkit. The team of researchers also found evidence of animal bones in the sediment of the burial ground, including Andean deer and vicuña. Haas told Science News that these two animals “were the main targets of ancient hunters in that part of the Andes.”
However, many believed that the find was a once-off and that the female big-game hunter was an outlier. Science quotes Meg Conkey, an archaeologist who did not take part in the study, as stating that “skeptics might say it’s a one-off.” Moreover, the presence of hunting gear in a grave does not necessarily mean that the deceased was a hunter. Haas and his team set out to prove that there had once been other female hunters in the Americas.
Tracking Down Female Hunters in the Americas
Haas and his colleagues were prepared for this and conducted an exhaustive study of the research literature on 107 burial sites in the Americas. All of these sites are between 6,000 and 12,500 years old. In total, the researchers found ten women who had been buried with hunting toolkits. Their research has led them to conclude that women routinely participated in big game hunts. The researchers wrote in Science Advances that “the findings are consistent with nongendered labor practices in which early hunter-gatherer females were big-game hunters.”
Based on their study of other sites, the research team believes that “females accounted for between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of ancient American big-game hunters,” reports Science News . They are convinced that the evidence is strong for their theory. The researchers also consider that archaeologists did not recognize that females were big-game hunters in the past because of sexism.
Excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa in Peru, where the female hunter burial was found. (Randall Haas / University of California, Davis )
Gender Equality Among Hunters
Gizmodo quotes the researchers as saying that “modern gender constructs often do not reflect past ones.” In other words, just because women in the recent past were not big-game hunters this does not means that there weren’t any female big-game hunters in the Americas 9,000 years ago. Up until recently, the “man the hunter hypothesis” was widely accepted, according to Science. This held that women did “women’s work” and that males engaged in activities such as hunting and as a result were the dominant gender. This was based in part on modern studies of hunter-gather groups such as the Hazda of Tanzania.
Inspired by their groundbreaking discovery in Peru, the researchers argue this was not the case. Big-game hunting would have required team work, a group of people working together and a great deal of labor. Therefore, women would have had to cooperate with men to ensure success in hunting expeditions. Quoted in Gizmodo, the researchers argue that there was “broad participation from both females and males” in the hunting of big game.
Women Warriors Challenging Gender Stereotypes
Ashley Smallwood of the University of Louisville in Kentucky told Science News that “it is time to stop thinking of [ancient] female large-game hunters as outliers.” The discovery of the ancient female huntress in Peru could transform our knowledge of gender roles in the past. If women hunted this would imply that there was more equality between the genders in prehistoric societies.
However, some have argued against these findings and state that the researchers cannot prove their arguments about female hunters because the sample that they investigated is simply too small. However, the research is aligned with recent discoveries that challenge the traditional assumptions about gender roles in prehistory. Archaeologists have found evidence of a 5,000-year-old female warrior in California, while other finds suggest that there were female fighters in both Mongolian and Viking societies in the distant past.
Top image: Researchers have found remains of a female hunter from 9,000 years ago in ancient Peru. Source: beltsazar / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan