Prehistoric Women Were Also Hunters

Many assume that in ancient hunter-gatherer societies, men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. A new study reveals otherwise. Women were prominent hunters in prehistoric times.

Historically, women’s roles have been skewed and diminished. Contemporary images of early humans show men with spears and women holding babies or picking crops. Men were the ones who went out to face the animals. But this new research shows that this wasn’t the case.

First, there were simply not enough people to assign specific tasks to different genders. Everyone had to pitch in with everything, including hunting. The female anatomy, which is better suited for endurance, was the key to their success.

This should not be too surprising. In modern marathon sports, women are more on par with men. In certain ones, such as marathon swimming, they often outstrip them.

Endurance “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,” said co-author Cara Ocobock. Men are stronger and have more power and speed. But women have stamina.

Prehistoric cave drawings of hunters.

Prehistoric cave drawings of hunters. Photo: Shutterstock


Marathon runners vs powerlifters

Women have higher levels of estrogen and adiponectin. Estrogen helps women burn stored fat rather than carbohydrates for energy. This is much longer lasting, more efficient, and delays fatigue.

Adiponectin protects muscles from breaking down. Women’s wider hips also allow them to rotate their hips more and lengthen their stride.

“The longer steps you can take, the ‘cheaper’ they are metabolically, and the farther you can get, faster,” Ocobock explains. “When you look at human physiology this way, you can think of women as the marathon runners versus men as the powerlifters.”

Even without looking at women’s physiological suitability for hunting, fossil bones show that many women suffered the same injuries as men from the same era and community. These show a striking similarity to the injuries of modern rodeo clowns: Large animals have kicked and bitten them.

Another huge signpost that women also hunted is that they are buried with hunting weapons by their side. Why would you be entombed forever with such implements if they had no meaning in your life? More recent depictions of women as the weaker sex were projected back into the past, says Ocobock, through modern art and biased interpretations of the fossil record.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.