Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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What new science techniques tell us about ancient women warriors

Annalee Newitz writes:

Though it’s remarkable that the United States finally is about to have a female vice president, let’s stop calling it an unprecedented achievement. As some recent archaeological studies suggest, women have been leaders, warriors and hunters for thousands of years. This new scholarship is challenging long-held beliefs about so-called natural gender roles in ancient history, inviting us to reconsider how we think about women’s work today.

In November a group of anthropologists and other researchers published a paper in the academic journal Science Advances about the remains of a 9,000-year-old big-game hunter buried in the Andes. Like other hunters of the period, this person was buried with a specialized tool kit associated with stalking large game, including projectile points, scrapers for tanning hides and a tool that looked like a knife. There was nothing particularly unusual about the body — though the leg bones seemed a little slim for an adult male hunter. But when scientists analyzed the tooth enamel using a method borrowed from forensics that reveals whether a person carries the male or female version of a protein called amelogenin, the hunter turned out to be female.

With that information in hand, the researchers re-examined evidence from 107 other graves in the Americas from roughly the same period. They were startled to discover that out of 26 graves with hunter tools, 10 belonged to women. Bonnie Pitblado, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, told Science magazine that the findings indicate that “women have always been able to hunt and have in fact hunted.” The new data calls into question an influential dogma in the field of archaeology. Nicknamed “man the hunter,” this is the notion that men and women in ancient societies had strictly defined roles: Men hunted, and women gathered. Now, this theory may be crumbling.

While the Andean finding was noteworthy, this was not the first female hunter or warrior to be found by re-examining old archaeological evidence using fresh scientific techniques. Nor was this sort of discovery confined to one group, or one part of the world. [Continue reading…]

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