What New Science Techniques Tell Us About Ancient Women Warriors

What New Science Techniques Tell Us About Ancient Women Warriors
Claire Merchlinsky

Though it’s remarkable that the United States finally is about to have a female vice president, let’s stop calling it an unprecedented achievement. As some recent archaeological studies suggest, women have been leaders, warriors and hunters for thousands of years. This new scholarship is challenging long-held beliefs about so-called natural gender roles in ancient history, inviting us to reconsider how we think about women’s work today.

In November a group of anthropologists and other researchers published a paper in the academic journal Science Advances about the remains of a 9,000-year-old big-game hunter buried in the Andes. Like other hunters of the period, this person was buried with a specialized tool kit associated with stalking large game, including projectile points, scrapers for tanning hides and a tool that looked like a knife. There was nothing particularly unusual about the body — though the leg bones seemed a little slim for an adult male hunter. But when scientists analyzed the tooth enamel using a method borrowed from forensics that reveals whether a person carries the male or female version of a protein called amelogenin, the hunter turned out to be female.

With that information in hand, the researchers re-examined evidence from 107 other graves in the Americas from roughly the same period. They were startled to discover that out of 26 graves with hunter tools, 10 belonged to women. Bonnie Pitblado, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, told Science magazine that the findings indicate that “women have always been able to hunt and have in fact hunted.” The new data calls into question an influential dogma in the field of archaeology. Nicknamed “man the hunter,” this is the notion that men and women in ancient societies had strictly defined roles: Men hunted, and women gathered. Now, this theory may be crumbling.

While the Andean finding was noteworthy, this was not the first female hunter or warrior to be found by re-examining old archaeological evidence using fresh scientific techniques. Nor was this sort of discovery confined to one group, or one part of the world.

Three years ago, scientists re-examined the remains of a 10th-century Viking warrior excavated in Sweden at the end of the 19th century by Hjalmar Stolpe, an archaeologist. The skeleton had been regally buried at the top of a hill, with a sword, two shields, arrows and two horses. For decades, beginning with the original excavation, archaeologists assumed the Viking was a man. When researchers in the 1970s conducted a new anatomical evaluation of the skeleton, they began to suspect that the Viking was in fact a woman. But it wasn’t until 2017, when a group of Swedish archaeologists and geneticists extracted DNA from the remains, that the sex of the warrior indeed proved to be female.

The finding led to controversy over whether the skeleton was really a warrior, with scholars and pundits protesting what they called revisionist history. Although the genetic sex determination thus was indisputable (the bones of the skeleton had two X chromosomes), these criticisms led the Swedish researchers to examine the evidence yet again, and present a second, more contextual analysis in 2019. Their conclusion again was that the person had been a warrior.

The naysayers raised fair points. In archaeology, as the researchers admitted, we can’t always know why a community buried someone with particular objects. And one female warrior does not mean that many women were leaders, just as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was not part of a larger feminist movement.

Challenges to “man the hunter” have emerged in new examinations of the early cultures of the Americas as well. In the 1960s, an archaeological dig uncovered in the ancient city of Cahokia, in what is now southwestern Illinois, a 1,000-to-1,200-year-old burial site with two central bodies, one on top of the other, surrounded by other skeletons. The burial was full of shell beads, projectile points and other luxury items. At the time, the archaeologists concluded that this was a burial of two high-status males flanked by their servants.

But in 2016 archaeologists conducted a fresh examination of the grave. The two central figures, it turned out, were a male and a female; they were surrounded by other male-female pairs. Thomas Emerson, who conducted the study with colleagues from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois, alongside scientists from other institutions, said the Cahokia discovery demonstrated the existence of male and female nobility. “We don’t have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts,” as he put it.

Armchair history buffs love to obsess about mythical societies dominated by female warriors, like Amazons and Valkyries. Let’s be clear. These findings don’t reveal an ancient matriarchy. But neither do they reaffirm the idea of societies in which men dominate completely. What they indicate is a lot more mundane and relatable: Some women were warriors and leaders; many weren’t. There was inequality, but it wasn’t absolute, and there were a lot of shifts over time. When it comes to female power, and gender roles, the past was as ambiguous as the present.

Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.

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