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Female hunters of the early Americas


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It has been long assumed that in early hunter/gatherer societies job division was along gender lines. However, recent finding challenge the notion. After finding a skeleton that appeared to be female among a hunter burial site, researchers revisited the other skeletons using a proteomic analysis of enamel and together with osteological measurements they determined that altogether 11 out of 27 of bodies found with big-game hunting tools were actually female. It is an interesting study that challenges a notion that I assume most of us grew up with.

Quote

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 archeological 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

Ref: Haas et al. Science Adv. 2020 6:45 

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How typical is this of other hunter-gatherer societies. If a tribal war took place which eliminated the males from a tribe, perhaps the remainder of the women were forced to feed their children by becoming hunters.

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Interesting find. I suppose the big-game hunting tools buried with the females does not necessarily indicate that they were the ones who used them. Given that men have a huge built-in advantage over women when it comes to activities that benefit from strength and speed, I'm curious to know why women may have been  doing the hunting, if that indeed is what happened.

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11 minutes ago, zapatos said:

Interesting find. I suppose the big-game hunting tools buried with the females does not necessarily indicate that they were the ones who used them. Given that men have a huge built-in advantage over women when it comes to activities that benefit from strength and speed, I'm curious to know why women may have been  doing the hunting, if that indeed is what happened.

From what I have read it appears the going hypothesis is that simply put it is a matter of necessity. Early societies did not have the luxury to split folks according to perceived suitability. Rather they needed all the protein they could get. So if hunters were needed whoever was available (and perhaps somewhat able) joined in. I.e. it is possible that they did not have the luxury to discriminate. On speculation was that potentially it was related to the use of a spear throwing device, the atlatl, which can be mastered at a fairly young age. I.e. women could have become proficient in this hunting method before they start having children. Later, bows became the dominant hunting tools, which take longer to master and may have resulted in the job discrimination that we still see in current hunter-gatherer societies. 

I would also highlight that the evidence level for male hunters is also mostly based on buried hunting material.

The assumption that they were all male is based on a) speculation (or inductive reasoning) and b) projection  of current populations, which may or may not have held true in former times (in the Americas). In fact it is the archaeological find that oppose these assumptions.

44 minutes ago, jimmydasaint said:

How typical is this of other hunter-gatherer societies. If a tribal war took place which eliminated the males from a tribe, perhaps the remainder of the women were forced to feed their children by becoming hunters.

They identified female hunters a number of burial sites of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, indicating that it is not a unique finding. The authors argue that it is more likely that it was fairly common in the Americas.

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49 minutes ago, CharonY said:

From what I have read it appears the going hypothesis is that simply put it is a matter of necessity. Early societies did not have the luxury to split folks according to perceived suitability. Rather they needed all the protein they could get.

Hadn't thought about it that way before but it makes sense that humans could not afford to entertain gender (or other) biases until they could sustain a surplus of food. Once you have a surplus then any shortfall you encounter because you make choices based on gender is not obvious.

Do you know if there was any skeletal evidence of hunting in either sex, such as enlarged bones in the throwing arm?

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Keeping in mind also, that big game hunting wasn't a day trip, but would have taken weeks , if not months, to travel to the migratory areas of the big game, hunt/kill, and carry the meat/game back.
The women could be used to carry supplies/provisions there, and back.
And did not leave them vulnerable and undefended back in the village where they wintered.

Assuming of course, they even had a permanent village; maybe they just followed the herds, north and south.

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9 minutes ago, zapatos said:

Hadn't thought about it that way before but it makes sense that humans could not afford to entertain gender (or other) biases until they could sustain a surplus of food. Once you have a surplus then any shortfall you encounter because you make choices based on gender is not obvious.

Do you know if there was any skeletal evidence of hunting in either sex, such as enlarged bones in the throwing arm?

I think I tried to see what the criteria are for identifying someone as a hunter, but I think most evidence is based on archeological finds. There is unlikely to be a way to look at the body themselves. Moreover, many are not in a shape to figure out much about the lifestyle. One aspect I think is the presence of specific work kits (e.g. cutting tools, weapons etc. that are buried together with the body indicating that it may be personal belongings. It would be a bit strange to add these specific tools just randomly because someone died (but not e.g. tools associated with food processing toolmaking or other specializations).

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36 minutes ago, CharonY said:

It would be a bit strange to add these specific tools just randomly because someone died (but not e.g. tools associated with food processing toolmaking or other specializations).

Random would be odd, but it seems odd to bury perfectly good tools just because someone used them. I imagine that people who hunted to live may not have had too many valuable possessions and would not part with them lightly.

I think things are probably buried with people because they are associated with those things. In the case of a big-game tool that could be because you used that tool, but it could also be that you manufactured those tools, or perhaps were part of a family known for hunting prowess. Maybe something is special to you because it belonged to your father.

I know I'm just throwing out random possibilities here, and am just trying to get a feel for this very interesting finding.

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1 hour ago, zapatos said:

I think things are probably buried with people because they are associated with those things. In the case of a big-game tool that could be because you used that tool, but it could also be that you manufactured those tools, or perhaps were part of a family known for hunting prowess. Maybe something is special to you because it belonged to your father.

I think the most parsimonious explanation is that they are buried with their possession rather than something indirectly associated with them. For example, if it was theirs it makes them to bury them with it. But if it something they produced for someone else, why would they waste it?

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21 minutes ago, CharonY said:

I think the most parsimonious explanation is that they are buried with their possession rather than something indirectly associated with them. For example, if it was theirs it makes them to bury them with it. But if it something they produced for someone else, why would they waste it?

I don't think it makes sense to bury anything of value with its former owner in a society that has so little. Were they appeasing the spirits of their ancestors, or possibly a superstition had grown up around using things that belonged to someone unlucky enough to die?

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1 hour ago, CharonY said:

I think the most parsimonious explanation is that they are buried with their possession rather than something indirectly associated with them. For example, if it was theirs it makes them to bury them with it. But if it something they produced for someone else, why would they waste it?

I was just thinking of things I've left in caskets. They didn't belong to the person who died, but rather they were in some way a representation of that person.

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2 hours ago, Phi for All said:

I don't think it makes sense to bury anything of value with its former owner in a society that has so little. Were they appeasing the spirits of their ancestors, or possibly a superstition had grown up around using things that belonged to someone unlucky enough to die?

I am actually not sure whether these things are really that valuable. Based from what I read about hunters in various San peoples the hunters create their tools based on their own preferences, sometimes even on the fly. I am not sure whether  there were dedicated craftsmen involved at these old burial sites.

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On 1/15/2021 at 5:05 PM, zapatos said:

I was just thinking of things I've left in caskets. They didn't belong to the person who died, but rather they were in some way a representation of that person.

Fundamentally the presented evidence in this studies suggest that hunting gear seemed to be some what equally distributed between genders. I.e. whatever it means does not seem to be gender-specific.

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I would think it likely that these early people were often in small nomadic groups where co-operation was essential and a persons abilities were encouraged and exploited, regardless of the 'gender issues' modern man seems to assume are inherent.

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54 minutes ago, naitche said:

I would think it likely that these early people were often in small nomadic groups where co-operation was essential and a persons abilities were encouraged and exploited, regardless of the 'gender issues' modern man seems to assume are inherent.

It would make sense. However I think the hypothesis from the authors that certain developments (such as the bow) may have caused increasing job specialization. It does seem to make sense that pregnant women are out of the hunting game, too. Conversely, it is likely that folks would do whatever is most beneficial given the circumstances. E.g. if foraging provides most of the nutrition in a given area, hunting may not be seen as a top priority.

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I have lived at subsistence level for extended periods of time with various cultural groups.

Its quite possible in smaller groups to live pretty autonomously with little conflict and no clear authority figure.

Women would often carry hunting tools foraging with children. Opportunity doesn't care if you are a designated hunter. Children may may be 1st priority, and abilities hampered by pregancy, But the skills can be learned pre-child bearing to take advantage and some enjoy the hunt enough, or have the skills to relegate child care. 

None of these groups were Nomadic, and I under stand there are a lot of cultural differences. But my point is necessity is a great leveler.

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