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For a long time, it was assumed that hunting in prehistoric societies was primarily carried out by men. Now a new studyadds to a body of evidence challenging this idea. The research reports the discovery of a female body, buried alongside hunting tools, in the Americas some 9,000 years ago.
The woman, discovered in the Andean highlands, was dubbed Wilamaya Patjxa individual 6, or “WPI6”. She was found with her legs in a semi-flexed position, with the collection of stone tools placed carefully next to them. These included projectile points – tools that were likely used to tip lightweight spears thrown with an atlatl(also called a spear thrower). The authors argue that such projectile points were used for hunting large animals.
WPI6 was between 17 and 19 years old at time of death. It was an analysis of substances known as “peptides” in her teeth – which are markers for biological sex – that showed that she was female. There were also large mammal bones in the burial fill, demonstrating the significance of hunting in her society.
In 2017, a famous burial of a Viking warrior from Sweden, discovered early in the 20th century and long assumed to be male, was discovered to be biologically female. This finding caused a significant and somewhat surprising amount of debate, and points to how our own modern ideas of gender roles can affect interpretations of more recent history too.
It has been argued that distinguishing between “boys jobs and girls jobs”, as one former British prime minister put it, could have evolutionary advantages. For example, it can allow pregnant and lactating mothers to stay near to a home base, keeping themselves and youngsters protected from harm. But we are increasingly learning that this model is far too simplistic.
With hunting being a keystone to survival for many highly mobile hunter-gatherer groups, community-wide participation also makes good evolutionary sense. The past, as some say, is a foreign country, and the more evidence we have, the more variable human behaviour looks to have been.