Woman: Predator of the Paleolithic

Evidence is mounting that ancient women did more than gather herbs and berries. Lots more.

by posted on November 13, 2020
Lascaux, Horse
Paleolithic-era horse painting in Lascaux Cave. Are women wielding those spears?

For just about as long as there have been anthropologists, those anthropologists have functioned from a working assumption about how ancient humans lived: Men hunted and women gathered. However, evidence is beginning to mount that many prehistoric tribal societies did indeed include female hunters. The latest is a find from Peru, in which a 9,000-year-old burial site thought to contain two antediluvian hunters was discovered to actually contain one hunter...and one huntress. Although this news may have surprised scientists, it didn't surprise us. 

Why not? Well, the first reason this find shouldn't come as a shock is that we've learned more about how ancient humans used to hunt. Although there were and are many methods, it appears that our very first hunting technique was borrowed from the wolves: persistence hunting. One key factor about persistence hunting is that anyone with good vision and better stamina could do it, including (and perhaps especially) women.

If you've never heard of persistence hunting, picture the movie The Terminator, and replace Ah-nold and his shades with a woman wearing a bearskin. Essentially, the persistence hunter identifies a lame or weak animal in a herd, and begins to chase it. The animal will outpace the human quickly, since we're really not that fast. Undeterred, the human simply follows along, watching for sign, until her prey basically dies of exhaustion.

Here's the trick to how it works: Although most animals can cool themselves by sweating, their pelts make this inefficient. Over time, they overheat, and have to stop to rest. Human beings aren't good at much, but we are really good at sweating...and that's enough to make it possible for us to run without stopping for hours, even days. That's how the annual Man Versus Horse Marathon has been won by human runners twice. That may not sound impressive, but remember this: That marathon has a human competing against a horse for plaudits and praise. We imagine the human would be trying a lot harder if the prize was not starving to death.

So, here's what an ancient hunter would have needed to succeed as a persistence hunter: Tremendous endurance (and not necessarily speed) as a runner; intelligence sufficient to plan ahead and pivot as necessary; and good color vision to track blood trails and other spoor. Not only do women have these three factors, we have a significant advantage over men on the third. Simply put, women have better color vision than men do. The genes that control color vision ride the X chromosome, so it's extremely rare for women to be colorblind...whereas about one in 12 men are. 

The article we referenced earlier about this new find--which is well worth a read in its entirety--notes that the reason the female Peruvian skeleton is assumed to be a huntress is because she was buried with hunting tools. And she's not alone. Says the article, "The team identified 429 skeletons from 107 ancient burial sites across the Americas; 27 of those individuals —11 female (including the newly discovered female) and 15 male — were buried with big-game hunting tools. Further statistical analysis suggested that between 30% and 50% of hunters in these populations were female."

It stands to reason that small tribes simply didn't have the luxury of assigning a gender role to hunting. Every member's contributions would have been needed. Just as they are today.

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