Quirks & Quarks

In the ancient Americas, female big-game hunters were common

New study finds that in early hunter-gatherer societies, 30-50 per cent of big game hunters were female

The discovery of a female hunter in Peru inspired a rethink of gender roles in hunter-gatherer societies

An artist’s depiction of a female hunter 9000 years ago in the Andean highlands of Peru. (Matthew Verdolivo/UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services)

We tend to picture hunter gatherer societies that existed thousands of years ago with traditional gender roles: the hunters as men, and the gatherers as women. 

But a discovery of a 9000-year-old skeleton in the Andes has triggered a revolutionary new rethink of that picture.  

"I was a little bit skeptical, a little bit excited. I didn't know what to make of it, to be honest," archaeologist Randy Haas told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

It all started when Haas and his team unearthed the remains of an individual in the Peruvian highlands who was buried with a hunting toolkit at their side. At first, the researchers assumed this hunter was male because of the defined gender roles in more modern hunter-gatherer societies. Back in the lab, close inspection of the bones suggested it was a biological woman. Then, after analysis of a protein found in dental enamel which is linked to sex, they were able to confirm that this was indeed a female.

"Our question was, is this one of those rare female individuals in a world of male hunters, or was this part of a larger behavioural pattern?" said Haas.

Tools recovered from the burial pit floor included projectile points, flakes, a knife, and scrapers/choppers. (Randy Haas/UC Davis)

Haas then looked at hundreds of records of burials across North and South America, and pulled examples where biological sex had been determined and big-game hunting tools were present with the remains. He found an almost equal amount of females as males represented, suggesting females were more likely to be hunters than previously thought.

"Our statistical analysis suggests that... those early populations in North and South America consisted of big game hunters that included roughly somewhere between 30 to 50 percent female hunters," he said. The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

Listen to Haas' interview with Bob McDonald using the link above.


Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz

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