Nine thousand years ago, a woman was buried in the Andean mountains of Peru next to tools normally associated with big-game hunting. Before you think she was just a badass, UC Davis researchers found that many females in the early Americas were big game hunters and we shouldn’t be so quick to project our own gender stereotypes and current cultural values on ancient societies. In this episode of Unfold, we dig a little deeper to learn more about this archaeology discovery.
In this episode:
Randy Haas, archaeologist and assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Anthropology
Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, distinguished research professor emeritus, UC Davis Department of Anthropology
Glendon Parker, adjunct associate professor, UC Davis Department of Environmental Toxicology
Kim Senklip Harvey, indigenous theorist and cultural evolutionist with the Tsilhqot’in and Syilx nations
Audio transcription may contain errors.
Amy Quinton Hey, Kat, have you ever been hunting?
Kat Kerlin No, have you?
Amy Quinton Well, I've hunted for my socks before and my car keys and I'm constantly hunting for my phone.
Kat Kerlin OK, that's not really hunting. That's gathering. And, you know, those things don't run away.
Amy Quinton Well, then I guess I'm just the typical female. I'm a gatherer.
Kat Kerlin So by that you mean the stereotype that men hunt and women gather just like our early human ancestors?
Amy Quinton Yeah. And you know, the image of “man the hunter” still pervades our current culture. I mean, think about it, Kat, who is the most famous hunter you know? I bet he's a man.
Kat Kerlin Wait. I don't know any famous hunters.
Amy Quinton Sure you do. What about this one?
Elmer Fudd We very quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.
Amy Quinton Wabbits, Kat, wabbits. It's Elmer Fudd.
Elmer Fudd Rabbit twacks.
Amy Quinton Kill the wabbit.
Kat Kerlin Oh god, I take that back. I do know a famous wabbit hunter.
Amy Quinton My favorite part of that is when Elmer talks about killing Bugs Bunny with his spear and his magic helmet.
Elmer Fudd I will do it with my spear and magic helmet. Your spear and magic helmet? Spear and magic helmet. Magic helmet...
Kat Kerlin OK, stop. So why are you bringing up Elmer Fudd?
Amy Quinton Because I spent every Saturday morning as a kid with Looney Tunes as my babysitter, so I appreciate the opportunity to share my fond childhood memories.
Kat Kerlin No, come on. Really?
Amy Quinton Because this "men hunt, women gather" belief about our early ancestors may not be as true as we thought, at least in the Americas. And no better person to unfold this than this guy.
Kat Kerlin Oh, right. He's that archaeologist that discovered a 9,000-year-old female skeleton buried in Peru, the one they believe was a big game hunter.
Amy Quinton Yeah, she was buried along with tools normally associated with big game hunting, a spear... and a magic helmet.
Kat Kerlin Amy, stop. That is not true.
Amy Quinton No, no, no, no, you're right. But she was found buried next to several projectile points and other tools used for hunting and processing animals.
Kat Kerlin Which immediately might make some think she was very unique, like an exception to the rule that men hunt and women gather? Like, maybe she was just a badass?
Amy Quinton Turns out, Randy discovered much more by examining other hunter burials across the Americas.
Randy Haas What we found was that we were just as likely to find that those burials in association with big game hunting tools were female as they were to be male. So this supported our second hypothesis, the idea that it seems that big game hunting was a non-gendered activity or at least nearly so in the past.
Amy Quinton This discovery raises new questions about the sexual division of labor and early hunter gatherer societies.
Kat Kerlin And also challenges are gender stereotypes.
Amy Quinton Which is why we're calling this episode of Unfold, "Was She a Badass?"
Theme Coming to you from UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast that breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research. I'm Amy Quinton.
Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin. Amy, it's amazing to me when you think about what life must have been like 9,000 years ago for these ancient hunter gatherer societies in Peru.
Amy Quinton Yeah, Randy says while they were highly mobile people, they lived year-round high in the Andes Mountains, almost 13,000 feet above sea level.
Randy Haas Can you imagine going up to the Sierra without Gortex, without power bars, vehicles, and not only just visiting for a short trip, but deciding you're going to stay and live there year round and raise children. That, to me, is pretty remarkable that people 9,000, 10,000 years ago did that. But they did.
Kat Kerlin You know, I also lived high in the Andes Mountains, 10,000 feet above sea level.
Amy Quinton What? You did?
Kat Kerlin Yeah, for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. I, of course, had a Gortex sleeping bag. I gardened just for fun and shopped at a local market. Eh, probably wasn't the same as 9000 years ago.
Amy Quinton You think? Well, Randy says they had limited resources requiring them to hunt.
Randy Haas They were eating Vicuña and Taruca. Vicuña is the wild ancestor to the alpaca it's a type of camelid. Taruca is a type of deer. It's an Andean deer. They were probably the main meat resources and they would have required a big game hunting technology either the use of a bow and arrow, or in this case, we were thinking they were using something called an atlatl system, a spear throwing system. These kinds of technologies are required for hunting big game.
Amy Quinton See Kat, a spear.
Kat Kerlin An atlatl. And I did not hear a magic helmet.
Amy Quinton OK, all right. Well, flash forward to 2018 when Randy is working at this archaeological site called Wilimaya Patjxa with two colleagues from the indigenous Aymara community. He says they began to dig these test trenches to see what they could find.
Randy Haas Hopes are usually pretty low when you start these sort of testing efforts. Most sites don't really yield any intact cultural features. They've either been destroyed or they're just not preserved or what not.
Kat Kerlin But obviously not in this case.
Amy Quinton Randy says they found six human burials. And when they began to uncover that sixth burial, they knew they had found something unique.
Randy Haas And what we saw by the end of the day was a young adult individual ceremoniously laid to rest on their left side. And near their hip was a pile of stone tool artifacts that included a series of projectile points, scrapers, little blade like tools, pieces of red ocher, this type of natural red pigment and some large chopping tools all neatly stacked together near this individual's hip. So we immediately recognized it as something special and we immediately recognized it as a hunter's tool kit.
Kat Kerlin Randy didn't know right away that this was a female hunter?
Amy Quinton No. In fact, he assumed the opposite.
Randy Haas We knew that the individual was an adult hunter. We also at that point assumed that the individual was male because of the hunting tool kit association. We thought, 'Oh, here's a big game hunter' and as everyone sat around and talked about, you know, what this tool kit meant, everybody was saying things like, 'oh, he must have been a great warrior, a great hunter, a big chief.' But everyone had assumed that the individual was male at that point.
Kat Kerlin Typical.
Amy Quinton Yeah, but let's be honest, Kat. I probably would have assumed the same thing.
Kat Kerlin Because we've always been told that men are the hunters and women, the gatherers.
Amy Quinton Well, right. But Randy says there are valid reasons to make these assumptions.
Randy Haas The model that we were drawing from at the time was modern hunter gatherer ethnography, observations on modern hunter gatherers and recent hunter gatherers, where we see in recent times, and today, that females almost never participate in big game hunting, that big game hunting is an overwhelmingly male activity.
Amy Quinton But Randy wanted to learn more. He worked with the local Aymara community and the Peruvian government to bring the skeletal remains back to a lab in Peru.
Kat Kerlin And is this what gave Randy the first hint that this big game hunter might be a woman?
Amy Quinton Well, the skeletal remains were actually pretty degraded, but it did seem to suggest the hunter was female. But to find out for certain, Randy turned to Glendon Parker with the UC Davis Environmental Toxicology Department. And his expertise is studying proteins and how they function in our cells and tissues. In this case, he was looking for proteins called amelogenins.
Glendon Parker Oh, we're very confident that she was actually female. So amelogenins are proteins that are expressed from the sex chromosomes. So females will only have one version and males will have two. These proteins are actually expressed in only one tissue that we're aware of, at least in detectable levels, and that is in our enamel.
Kat Kerlin Our enamel. So he looked at her teeth.
Amy Quinton Right. And ta-dah! He verified this hunter was female. But at the time, Glendon didn't even know what he had done for Randy.
Glendon Parker Once we had sort of gotten the data and the data was very clear, we then, you know, we then sort of, well, you know 'What? Why did you ask us this question, though? What was it? What are the implications here and things like that?' And so it was through the formation of his manuscript that we actually began to realize the significance of what he had asked us to do.
Amy Quinton But after Glendon confirmed the hunter was female, Randy says he wasn't sure that it necessarily refuted the widely held belief that men were the primary hunters.
Randy Haas I thought, well, maybe this is part of a local pattern that's specific to the Andean highlands. My research is all about understanding how people solved the adaptive challenges of this really difficult landscape. What went through my mind at the time was like, well, maybe people were engaging in cooperative hunting strategies that helped them extract resources efficiently in this really harsh landscape.
Kat Kerlin So in other words, it had to be a group effort in this climate. But Amy, obviously, Randy decided to look further at other early hunter burials across the Americas.
Amy Quinton Right, a bold, and genius move. He examined records of 400 burials, looking at two things. One, their sex, and two, whether they were buried along with big game hunting tools. Of the 27 burials that fit that description, 11 were female and 15 were male. Statistical analysis further revealed that between 30 to 50 percent of hunters in the Americas were female. Boom.
Kat Kerlin Wait, wait. Oh, my God. So archaeologists knew the females had been buried next to big game hunting tools? The data were there. They just interpreted it differently?
Amy Quinton They just thought that there were other reasons a woman would be buried along with big game hunting tools like maybe she used this projectile point domestically as a knife, or maybe it was the husband's act of mourning, a symbolic gesture to bury her with his tools.
Kat Kerlin This whole thing just makes me crazy every time I think about it. It's like, 'Oh, that's not a spear. That's just her knitting needle.'
Randy Haas These were the interpretations of archaeologists who were, by and large, male and brought their own Western views of gender labor practice to the table. So they were probably unwilling to even entertain the possibility that these individuals, these female individuals, could have been big game hunters themselves.
Kat Kerlin And I imagine there are anthropologists now who disagree with Randy's findings. Are 27 burials enough to make such a conclusion?
Amy Quinton Well, some anthropologists disagree with his statistical analysis, but Randy says a sample size of 27, in anthropological time scales, is pretty significant. It's 100 years of data. He also found these female hunters evenly distributed across North and South America. For some anthropologists, these findings are completely plausible.
Monique Borgerhoff Mulder All kinds of gender stereotypes starting to fall apart and so the fact that there are women who are and were good hunters does not really seem that surprising to me.
Amy Quinton That's Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, an evolutionary anthropologist and professor emeritus at UC Davis. She says the ‘men hunt, women gather’ belief is really an oversimplification. She says there are quite a lot of cases where women were involved in hunting, including net hunters in Central Africa.
Monique Borgerhoff Mulder That just goes to underscore the fact the gender roles are going to be shaped by the particular ecology that people are living in. And so if archaeologists are able to move beyond, 'wow, this is just a weird one-off case,' and rather try to explore the sort of differential patterning of gender roles according to ecology or social systems, then we'd really be making steps forward about understanding how men and women have interacted and their responsibilities with respect to food production and the raising of families.
Amy Quinton Monique says we should not be so quick to project our own cultural or gender biases on our early ancestors.
Kat Kerlin Amy, when this paper came out, it received a lot of attention and not just from anthropologists, but from the press as well. I think it resonated so strongly with people because it's come at this time when gender inequities have taken center stage, like with the me-too movement. And now we have our first female vice president and I think maybe people are paying more attention.
Amy Quinton Randy says some people likely justify gender inequities today based on what we thought we knew about our early hunter-gatherer societies, that maybe somehow, it's natural.
Randy Haas But with this finding, with the observation that maybe in the past both females and males participated in the same subsistence strategies, well, all of a sudden, that justification for inequities today flies out the window.
Amy Quinton I think it resonated personally with a lot of women. The news also garnered attention from this woman.
Kim Senklip Harvey (Speaking in native language) Hi, my name is Kim. I come from the Tsilhqot'in and Syilx Nations. I'm an indigenous theorist and cultural evolutionist and I work with using my stories in a variety of modalities, including podcasting, playwrighting, TV writing and blog writing to work towards the equitable treatment of my indigenous peoples and communities.
Amy Quinton That's Kim Senklip Harvey. And can I just say that's the best introduction I've heard in a long time.
Kat Kerlin Agree completely. We could do an entire episode on her. Kim, who's based in Vancouver, has written several plays that all have thematic similarities, strong indigenous women reclaiming their culture and their power.
Amy Quinton Kim also hunts and fishes and has long resented that these activities are still considered male or masculine.
Kim Senklip Harvey To know that white anthropologists, however long ago, made this really gross assumption that indigenous women or women at all were not participating in this caretaking, in this hunting, allowed me to believe that who I was, what my instincts were, were not nonnormative. They were actually directly ascendant from what my ancestors were doing and have been doing.
Kat Kerlin So when she heard about Randy's paper, she says she was elated, even created a podcast about it.
Kim Senklip Harvey This gave a Western level of validity to the notions that women have had power this whole time but in systems of imperial oppression, empiric colonialism, tried to collapse that. And for me, it was just this wave of excitement to say those are fallacies, those are untrue. Women have been participating in all areas of creating communities, caretaking and nourishing that go beyond what we've been told.
Amy Quinton Well said. I got to say, I think Kim is a bit of a badass, just like that female hunter from 9,000 years ago.
Kat Kerlin OK, but was the hunter a badass? I mean, like isn't it a bit sexist of us to even characterize her that way? We were going to talk about that.
Amy Quinton You're right. I asked Monique about that.
Monique Borgerhoff Mulder Well, you could even take it further than that and say she wasn't a badass at all, that they were all doing it. You know, even to call her a badass in some sense is conforming to the stereotypes that we have now, viewing this from sort of the present.
Amy Quinton And Glendon Parker agreed.
Glendon Parker I would say that everyone back then, yeah, you had to be a badass to survive. You know, you think about what those living conditions would have been. You're just on the knife edge of existence all the time.
Kat Kerlin But, Amy, aren't you forgetting something?
Amy Quinton What's that?
Kat Kerlin Well, these ancient hunter gatherers might all have been badasses, but didn't you say that this female hunter was buried with several projectile points and other tools?
Amy Quinton Randy took note of that in his study and he says it's very telling. She may have held a prominent role in her community.
Randy Haas This individual really stands out from all the rest. She's buried with 20-something stone tools. And a lot of these tools and artifacts still have remaining utility in them. They're not exhausted. They're not broken. They're still perfectly good tools that the community could have put to use. Yet they decided to leave these tools with her, the owner of the tools in the past. And I think that's telling us something about how the community thought about this particular individual. Clearly, they had a lot of respect for her.
Amy Quinton Kat, this just tells me one thing.
Kat Kerlin She really was a badass.
Kat Kerlin And you can hear more Unfold episodes at ucdavis.edu/unfold. Thanks for listening.
Amy Quinton Unfold is a production of UC Davis. It's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from Damien Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes. Hey if you like this podcast, check out UC Davis's other podcast, the Backdrop. It's a monthly interview program featuring UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. Hosted by public radio veteran Soterios Johnson, the conversations feature new work and expertise on a trending topic in the news. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Elmer Fudd Poor wittle wabbit.
Bugs Bunny Well, what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?