The researchers also found that women were more flexible in their approaches to hunting as they aged. Which weapons they chose, the game they chased and who accompanied them during hunts changed with age and the number of children or grandchildren the hunters had. “They have different strategies, but they’re still always going out,” Dr. Wall-Scheffler said. Often, the oldest women participated the most. (In one bow-and-arrow culture, for example, a grandmother was prized for having the best aim.)
The details about female hunting patterns were not easy to uncover, Ms. Chilczuk said; the reports often prioritized discussions of the male hunters. But the findings, when they emerged, made a certain sense, she added: If hunting was the chief means of survival, why would only men participate? The researchers wondered what other stories have been overlooked by ethnographers. “There might be so many things that we’re missing out on,” Ms. Chilczuk said. “It’s a natural thing to have assumptions, but it’s our responsibility to challenge those assumptions, to better understand our world.”
Tammy Buonasera, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who identified the sex of the female hunter found in 2018, welcomed the conclusion of the PLoS paper. “I always assumed that women did hunt probably more often than was recognized,” she said. In general, she added, women are viewed “as just passive actors in history.” She noted that the study of plant-gathering and the innovative ways in which people process plants — a vital source of food — has been neglected because these activities are traditionally linked with women.
Randy Haas, an archaeologist at Wayne State University who led the Peruvian excavation, likewise praised the new paper. “In light of what my study shows, their findings align with the same narrative: We’ve had biased interpretations,” he said. “And the idea that sexual division of labor is an inherent part of human biology is a trope that has played out in structural inequalities today.”
The dawning appreciation for women as hunters comes as anthropology, like many scientific fields, has begun to diversify its ranks, leading scholars to re-examine how evidence is interpreted. “Who you are shapes the questions you ask,” Dr. Wall-Scheffler said. “It shapes the expectations of what you see.”