Did native Americans have more equality 9000 years ago than we do now?

A pretty picture of a Peruvian hunter from 9000 years ago, bringing down vicuna with her atlatl and spear:

The image is based on the remains of the dead hunter, and an analysis of grave goods.

At Wilamaya Patjxa, an archaeological site in southern Peru, archaeologists unearthed the skeleton of a young woman whose people buried her with a hunters’ toolkit, including projectile points. The find prompted University of California Davis archaeologist Randall Haas and his colleagues to take a closer look at other Pleistocene and early Holocene hunters from around the Americas.

Their results may suggest that female hunters weren’t as rare as we thought. And that, in turn, reminds us that gender roles haven’t always been the same in every culture.

“The objects that accompany [people] in death tend to be those that accompanied them in life,” Haas and his colleagues wrote. And when one young woman died 9,000 years ago in what is now southern Peru, her people buried her with at least six stone spear tips of a type used in hunting large prey like deer and vicuña (a relative of the alpaca). The points seem to have been bundled along with a stone knife, sharp stone flakes, scraping tools, and ocher for tanning hides.

I also learned a new genetics fact! The bones were fragmentary, and the bits that you use for a morphological assessment of sex had crumbled to dust. But you can sex a skeleton by looking at the proteins that make up tooth enamel.

Tooth enamel contains proteins called amelogenins, which play a role in forming the enamel in the first place. The genes that produce these proteins are located on the X and Y chromosomes, and each version is slightly different. As a result, people who are genetically female have slightly different amelogenins than people who are genetically male. The proteins in the ancient hunter’s tooth enamel had a distinctly female signature, with no trace of the Y chromosome version.

The hunter from Wilamaya Patjxa is a young woman with the tools of an activity usually associated with men. If the objects people are buried with are the objects they used in life, then that raises some questions.

Maybe she was some weird outlier, I hear you ask. So they surveyed what was found at other grave sites, and it looks like a significant fraction of ancient hunters in the Western hemisphere happened to be women.

The hunter from Wilamaya Patjxa raises a similar question: was she the exception that proved the rule, or does her burial suggest that (in at least some ancient cultures) women were sometimes hunters? To help answer that question, Haas and his colleagues looked for other ancient people who had been buried with hunting tools. In published papers from archaeological sites across the Americas, they found 27 people at 18 different sites: 16 men and 11 women.

…the fact that so many apparent women turned up on that list is surprising. “Female participation in early big-game hunting was likely nontrivial,” wrote Haas and his colleagues. They suggest that as many as a third to half of women across the ancient Americas may have been actively involved in hunting.

The final line in this article is perfect.

Based on animal bones at Wilamaya Patjxa, large game like vicuña and taruca (a relative of deer) were extremely important to the community’s survival. In that case, hunting may have been an all-hands-on-deck activity. Haas and his colleagues also suggest that letting other members of a community keep an eye on the kids while the parents hunted might have freed more women up to bring home the bacon—or venison, in this case.

In other words, whether women hunted or fought probably depended on social factors, not biological ones.

I thought I ought to let David Futrelle know about this, since it makes the title of his blog even more ironic, but he beat me to it and has already posted about how She Hunted the Mammoth.


  1. says

    There are always at least two possible answers in these cases, less strict gender roles and/or trans people being accepted. In this case it seems to be the former, but either shows that more egalitarian societies were always a thing.

  2. kome says

    This will leave a lot of evolutionary psychologists confused because there’s no mention of berries.

  3. says

    Perhaps the “stone knife, sharp stone flakes, scraping tools, and ocher” were part of a berry collector’s toolkit? The ochre, in particular, would be useful for painting things red so they could be more easily detected by a woman’s eyes.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve long thought that role calcification is an artefact of ‘civilization’. First comes agriculture…

    If someone with a vagina had the inclination and talent to hunt, it would have been the height of stupidity to deny them the job. Likewise if someone with a penis had the inclination and talent to do what we consider ‘traditional’ women’s jobs.

  5. raven says

    This will leave a lot of evolutionary psychologists confused because there’s no mention of berries.

    They are already on it.
    The female hunter in the picture is wearing…a pink tunic.

  6. says

    In that case, hunting may have been an all-hands-on-deck activity.
    That reminds me a lot of the survival video games I’ve been playing lately. Specifically Rimworld. In that game, male and female characters are barely distinguishable and every character must contribute or everyone dies. When I’m deciding which colonist gets the rifle, I’m looking at their shooting stat, not their gender. I usually don’t even pay attention to gender until two of them decide to hook up and want to share a bed. Then I’m like “Sweet, one less bedroom for me to build”.

  7. bobphillips says

    Is it possibly because they did not have the patriarchal Abrahamic religions to poison their culture?

  8. microraptor says

    bobphillips @8: If I’m remembering my anthropology professor correctly, it’s more because strong gender-based social and job rolls were never as present in hunter-gatherer societies, they were something that started after the switch to sedentary agriculture.

  9. KG says

    Ancient Greece and Rome were among the most patriarchal societies known to history; if anything, the arrival of Christianity made them less so.

  10. MadHatter says

    It never made sense to me that roles would be so tightly defined in ancient tribes where keeping everyone fed based on the available resources would be constant effort. I could more easily imagine that the tribe members who were older, pregnant, or had specific skills that the tribe needed (making hunting weapons?) would watch the children while the able-bodied of both genders hunted and gathered. Seems that tightly defining the skills to genders would make a small tribe less able to survive. But, I’m not an archeologist or anthropologist!

  11. unclefrogy says

    I like this because it makes a lot of sense and fits with another thing I understand about hunter gatherers they are not, like they are depicted in popular media, very authoritarian.
    uncle frogy

  12. Michael says

    You don’t have to go back 9000 years to find more gender equality in the Americas. I just read a great book on the Native American political system of 16th to 18th century Mixtec communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, government was shared between ruling couples, women inherited property and noble titles and the idea of rulership was based on the idea of the royal couple. It was not necessarily an egalitarian society, lots of class division, but women also exercised power. The point being that even in more complex societies gender relations do not gravitate to one model. The book is Kevin Terraciano The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca.

  13. kaleberg says

    It’s hard to generalize. Many North American native tribes recognized women with “two souls”. They would live and fight as men. They’d even take wives. While this offered a path for women with certain ambitions and abilities, it’s not clear it made life better for women in the tribe all that much better. Just because your lord and master is a woman living as a man doesn’t mean you are going to get better treatment or a place at the men’s table.

    P.S. There are a number of societies where women were noted as hunters, often with a bow and arrow.

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    chrislawson @17: Balts, Finns and Slavs had goddesses of the hunt. The Inuit have several hunting goddesses.

  15. lumipuna says

    Not really Finns, though. My general impression is that hunting was traditionally men’s business and forest deities were portrayed as guardians of game rather than hunters.