'Woman the hunter': Studies aim to correct history

December 3, 2023

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'Woman the hunter': Studies aim to correct history

When the lead author of a new study was a young child, she often wondered at the images in movies, books, comics and cartoons portraying prehistoric men and women as such: “man the hunter” with spear or club in hand, accompanied by “woman the gatherer” with a baby strapped to her back and a basket of crop seeds in hand.

What the researchers say: “This was what everyone was used to seeing,” she said. “This was the assumption that we’ve all just had in our minds and that was carried through in our museums of natural history.”

Many years later this author found herself as a human biologist studying physiology and prehistoric evidence and discovering that many of these conceptions about early women and men weren’t quite accurate. The accepted reconstruction of human evolution assumed males were biologically superior, but that interpretation wasn’t telling the whole story.

Relying on both physiological and archaeological evidence, the research team recently published two studies simultaneously in the journal American Anthropologist. Their joint research, coming from these two angles, found that not only did prehistoric women engage in the practice of hunting, but their female anatomy and biology would have made them intrinsically better suited for it.

Of her and her co-author’s dual-pronged research, which was the cover story for the November issue of Scientific American, the lead author said, “Rather than viewing it as a way of erasing or rewriting history, our studies are trying to correct the history that erased women from it.”

In their physiological study, the researchers explained that prehistoric females were quite capable of performing the arduous physical task of hunting prey and were likely able to hunt successfully over prolonged periods of time. From a metabolic standpoint, they explained, the female body is better suited for endurance activity, “which would have been critical in early hunting because they would have had to run the animals down into exhaustion before actually going in for the kill.”

Two huge contributors to that enhanced metabolism are hormones — in this case, estrogen and adiponectin, which are typically present in higher quantities in female bodies than in male. These two hormones play a critical role in enabling the female body to modulate glucose and fat, a function that is key in athletic performance.

Estrogen, in particular, helps regulate fat metabolism by encouraging the body to use its stored fat for energy before using up its carbohydrate stores. “Since fat contains more calories than carbs do, it’s a longer, slower burn,” they explained, “which means that the same sustained energy can keep you going longer and can delay fatigue.”

Estrogen also protects the body’s cells from damage during heat exposure due to extreme physical activity. “Estrogen is really the unsung hero of life, in my mind,” the lead author said. “It is so important for cardiovascular and metabolic health, brain development and injury recovery.”

Adiponectin also amplifies fat metabolism while sparing carbohydrate and/or protein metabolism, allowing the body to stay the course during extended periods, especially over great distances. In this way, adiponectin is able to protect the muscles from breaking down and keeps them in better condition for sustained exercise.

The female body structure itself is another element the found to be of advantage in terms of endurance and effectiveness for prehistoric hunters. “With the typically wider hip structure of the female, they are able to rotate their hips, lengthening their steps,” the researchers detailed. “The longer steps you can take, the ‘cheaper’ they are metabolically, and the farther you can get, faster.

“When you look at human physiology this way, you can think of women as the marathon runners versus men as the powerlifters.”

Several archaeological findings indicate prehistoric women not only shared in the resulting injuries of the dangerous business of close-contact hunting, but that it was an activity held in high esteem and valued by them. “We have constructed Neandertal hunting as an up-close-and-personal style of hunting,” the chief researcher said, “meaning that hunters would often have to get up underneath their prey in order to kill them. As such, we find that both males and females have the same resulting injuries when we look at their fossil records.”

She described those traumatic injuries as being similar to those received by modern-day rodeo clowns — injuries to the head and chest where they were kicked by the animal, or to the limbs where they were bitten or received a fracture. “We find these patterns and rates of wear and tear equally in both women and men,” she said. “So, they were both participating in ambush-style hunting of large game animals.”

Second, she said, there is evidence of early female hunters in the Holocene period in Peru where females were buried with hunting weapons. “You don’t often get buried with something unless it was important to you or was something that you used frequently in your life.

“Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that prehistoric women abandoned their hunting while pregnant, breastfeeding or carrying children,” the researchers added, “nor do we see in the deep past any indication that a strict sexual division of labor existed.”

The bottom line, they noted, was that “hunting belonged to everyone, not just to males,” especially in prehistoric societies where survival was an all-hands-on-deck activity. “There weren’t enough people living in groups to be specialized in different tasks. Everyone had to be a generalist to survive.”

“This revelation is especially important in the current political moment of our society where sex and gender are in a spotlight,” the lead author commented. “And I want people to be able to change these ideas of female physical inferiority that have been around for so long.”

“We must change the biases we bring to the table, or at least to give pause before we assign those biases. And in a broader sense, you cannot outrightly assume somebody’s abilities based on whatever sex or gender you have assigned by looking at them,” the lead researcher concluded.

So, what? This is an interesting and important study. My own observations have led me to the conclusion that hunting—and to a lesser extent gathering—were occupations that both genders engaged in. I also concluded that the council of elders in H-G bands were almost always of mixed gender—though they are almost always portrayed as men.

Research has shown that most of the assumptions that we have about gender roles are mistaken—as are over 70% of our assumptions about almost everything else.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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