Don’t Blame Gender Inequity On Our Ancestors, Ancient Women Were Big-Game Hunters Too

Archaeologists recently excavated the remains of a 9,000-year-old female who was buried with items that suggested she hunted big-game.  Since ancient big-game hunting had been perceived as a man’s job, the finding inspired researchers to dig deeper.  What they found may force us re-examine the way we think about present day gender differences.

Examining all excavations in the Americas from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods, the researchers found 27 individuals who had been buried with big-game hunting tools—a surprising 41% (11) were female and the remaining 59% (16) were male. They concluded that big-game hunting was likely a relatively equitable pursuit with respect to gender. In fact, statistical analysis revealed “between 30 and 50% female participation, suggesting that early big-game hunting was likely gender neutral or nearly so,” the researchers write.

Now that we’ve learned ancient females were big-game hunters, we can no longer blame our ancestors for some of the sex differences we have today.

Based on the assumption that ancient men dominated the big-game hunting world, psychologists have attributed a slew of present-day gender differences on this presumed difference in our ancient history. The argument basically says that since, in ancient times, successful hunters were more likely to survive than those who were less skilled, the human male evolved over thousands of years to have skills associated with successful hunting. Studies have asserted that, as a result, men are more likely to assume risk, are more competitive and are even better at navigation, all because their ancient male ancestors had to develop these skills to be successful hunters.  

One study even attributed men’s enhanced ability at certain Nintendo Wii video games to skills acquired from their hunting ancestors.  Another examined the shopping behavior of university students and concluded male students shop more like hunters, and female students shop more like gatherers.

Men’s enhanced spatial ability or the ability to picture and rotate objects in space has also been linked to ancient man’s greater participation in hunting. This enhanced spatial ability that men ostensibly acquired from their hunting ancestors has been used to explain contemporary sex differences in math skills.  Some have also asserted men’s history of bringing home the big game resulted in the present-day division of labor where men are stereotyped as family providers. 

As we try to lure more women and girls into STEM fields, arguments that suggest they will underperform in math because their ancestors didn’t hunt are clearly counterproductive. Similarly, evidence that women are genetically less likely to take risks or compete may make them seem less suited for business leadership. Stereotypes of men as providers may also contribute to the gender pay gap. Now, evidence that women were also big-game hunters suggests that there must be an alternative explanation for these sex differences, perhaps one easier to address than evolution.

Lead author on the current study, archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, Randy

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