This prehistoric woman from Peru hunted big game

A woman buried with hunting tools 9,000 years ago is shedding new light on ancient gender roles

an illustration of a woman throwing a spear

A woman aims a spear at nearby prey (illustrated) in Peru’s Andes Mountains. Female big-game hunters were more common in the ancient Americas than once thought, suggest new archaeological finds from that region. 

Matthew Verdolivo/UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services

Roughly 9,000 years ago, a woman in Peru’s Andes Mountains was buried with spearpoints and other hunting tools. This new discovery makes her the oldest known female big-game hunter in the Americas.

The find also challenges long-standing ideas about the roles of women back then. Most hunters in modern hunter-gatherer societies are males. That has caused people to downplay the historical role of women as hunters.

Until now, many researchers thought typical hunting items found in the graves of ancient women were cutting or scraping tools. But in groups that roamed the Americas thousands of years ago, up to half of big-game hunters were women. That’s the finding of a new study.

“It is time to time to stop thinking of [ancient] female large-game hunters as outliers,” says Ashley Smallwood. She is an archaeologist who works at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Scientists shouldn’t assume that modern roles for men and women also applied in groups that lived long ago, she says.

Hunting for ancient hunters

Much is unknown about such roles in ancient hunter-gatherer groups. Randall Haas’ views on this began to take shape in 2018. He is an archaeologist at the University of California, Davis. His team has worked with members of a community in southern Peru called Mulla Fasiri. Together, they unearthed five human burial pits. These held the remains of six people.

One had been a woman 17- to 19-years old. Buried with stone tools for big-game hunting, her toolkit included four spearpoints. They would have been attached to shafts and likely hurled at prey. Other stone tools and a pigment chunk buried with her likely were used to cut apart game and prepare hides.

The woman had been buried in soil containing bone fragments. These came from large animals, such as Andean deer and wild relatives of the alpaca. Haas suspects these were the main targets of ancient hunters in that part of the Andes. Another pit contained the remains of a 25- to 30-year-old man. Buried with him were two spearpoints. That suggests he, too, had hunted large game.

several people standing around a pen of wild vicuña
Men and women living in the Andes Mountains round up wild vicuña in pens. These animals are relatives of alpacas. Thousands of years ago, women living in that region hunted vicuña with spears, researchers say.R. Haas

Next, Haas wanted to assess how widely females hunted in the ancient Americas. His team reviewed evidence from the remains of 429 people. They had been buried at 107 sites throughout the Western Hemisphere. They contained remains from around 6,000 to 12,500 years ago.

Eleven women from 10 sites were buried with big-game hunting tools. So were 16 men from 15 sites. From these limited data, the researchers now estimate that women made up an average of between three and five out of every 10 ancient American big-game hunters.

Haas’ team reported its findings November 4 in Science Advances.

Questions remain about how often women joined big-game hunts, cautions Patricia Lambert. She is an archaeologist who works at Utah State University in Logan. But the toolkit found with the Peruvian woman, Lambert says, “suggests that she hunted and processed large game animals.”

The new findings join recent evidence of ancient women warriors in California, Mongolia and Scandinavia.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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