Women Hunters Were Extremely Common in Ancient and Modern-Day Foraging Societies

A study of modern-day groups, including Aboriginals, has found that women hunted in small groups and challenged the myth of Man the Hunter.

By Matt Hrodey
Jul 28, 2023 2:00 PM
Female hunters
Research shows that women participated in subsistence hunting in the majority of world cultures. (Credit: Mohamed_hassan/Pixabay/CC0)

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In 2017, a paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reported on a surprising genetic analysis. A person buried at the ancient Viking site of Birka, alongside weapons and other equipment befitting a male Viking warrior, had no Y chromosome. She was a biological woman.

Archaeologists had read about such warriors in ancient poetry, but female fighters “have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena,” the paper says.

The Birka woman and other discoveries have challenged the idea that ancient women exclusively spent their time rearing children and gathering plants and did not hunt and fight. More evidence came from a 2020 literature review that concluded women accounted for up to 50 percent of prehistoric big game hunters in the Americas.


Read More: Ancient Humans Mapped Out Hunting Device on Boulders


Evidence for Women Hunters

But what of modern-day foraging societies, such as the Tiwi Aboriginal people of Australia?

“Some researchers have suggested that women’s role as hunters was confined to the past,” says a new paper, “with more recent foraging societies following the paradigm of men as hunters and women as gatherers.”

To test this, the researchers from Seattle Pacific University drew on historical data from 63 different societies from around the world and found that the old paradigm is inaccurate: women hunted in 79 percent of groups, adding greatly to their groups' caloric intake. What’s more, in those societies where hunting served as the central means for survival, 100 percent of women hunted.

Nets and Dogs

The analysis also found that women employed “a greater flexibility of hunting strategies compared to men.”

They hunted with a wider range of partners, including other women, children and dogs, whereas men tended to hunt alone or with a single partner, such as a dog or wife. Women who hunted were also more involved in passing on hunting practices to others, the study found.

And they used more creative weapons, including nets to entrap game and a variety of other implements. In the Aka society in the Central African Republic, women were more likely to hunt with nets, and they also used spears, machetes and crossbows.

In the Amazon state, Matsés women hunted big game animals using large sticks and machetes.

How Many Women Hunted Big Game?

Of all the women who hunted, 46 percent of them hunted small game, whereas 48 percent hunted medium- or large-sized game (and 4 percent hunted game of all sizes).

Whatever the size of the animal, the vast majority of female hunting is intentional, the study found. Women set out to go hunting and didn't just happen across an opportunity to kill something.

Old Biases

The authors hope to change the existing stereotypes of “Man the Hunter” and “Woman the Gatherer,” or at least broaden those ideas to make room for woman hunters. Such stereotypes directly affect the field of archaeology, where scientists are sometimes reluctant to identify hunting tools when they’re buried with a woman, a press release said.

The stereotypes, “call for reevaluation of such evidence and caution against misapplying the idea of men as hunters and women as gatherers in future research,” the statement said.


Read More: How Hunter-Gatherers Used The Land Around Stonehenge


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