What seemed like an age old image of men going out to hunt woolly mammoth whilst women stay home, look after kids, and forage mushrooms for a prehistoric, mammoth-based Sunday lunch has been used to explain gender relations in everything from why men have historically been the breadwinners of the family, to why far more teenage boys play Call of Duty than girls. However, recent archaeological digs in Peru have unearthed remains showing that women were perhaps closer to the action than The Flintstones will have you believe.
The common hypothesis of ‘man the hunter’ was first popularised within the scientific community at an influential 1966 archaeology/anthropology symposium, and quickly began to influence pop culture and the general public’s conceptions of stone age gender equality. However, even back in 1990, this simplified outlook was beginning to be disputed. In her incredibly named article, ‘I’m not a great hunter but my wife is’, Barbara Bodenhorn calls for less rigidity in the way we think about hunting, stating that it is a complex set of practical and symbolic behaviours; the interdependence of both men and women is key to a successful hunt.
Evidence of this more nuanced look at the sexual division of labour can be found in the Inupiaq Inuit communities, where the women are responsible for attracting the animals, and men are responsible for their subsequent slaughter. Both genders work together in unison, towards the common goal of putting meat on the stone dinner table.
However, recent discoveries in the Andes suggest that women sometimes took a more active and violent role in the hunting. Randy Haas and his team from the University of California unearthed the remains of a teenage girl, estimated to have died 9000 years ago. Remarkably, she had an extensive tool kit stacked buried next to her, including projectile spear points and sharpened flints. Initially, this discovery led the research team to believe that they had found the cadaver of a well respected, male tribe leader and accomplished hunter, but further analysis proved it was a woman.
The manner of burial is also important – the implements were stacked neatly on the thigh of the body, the suggestion is that this individual was well respected within their hunter-gatherer community specifically for their hunting prowess, meaning it wasn’t seen as abnormal or ‘unladylike’, as was once theorised. Upon reexamination of remains found with big-game hunting tools at multiple sites across North and South America, 11 were discovered to be female and 16 male. With this in mind, Haas estimated that between 30 and 50% of hunters may have been women, and stated that we need to re-think our perception of the organisational structure of ancient hunter-gatherer groups.
Although in many hunter-gatherer societies, both historic and contemporary (e.g. the Kalahari persistence hunters), the males hunt and the females gather, the rigidity of this view (likely in conjunction with Western sexism about how labour should be divided between the genders) may have meant that archaeological finds of females with hunting tools have been scientifically neglected. So the next time a man tells me to go to the cave-kitchen and make him a cave-sandwich I will simply hit him with my leather sack full of spear-tips.
Image: Amber Conway