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‘Woman the hunter’: Studies aim to correct history

New research from Cara Ocobock, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Human Energetics Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, combined both physiological and archaeological evidence to argue that not only did prehistoric women engage in the practice of hunting, but their female anatomy and biology would have made them intrinsically better suited for it.
Cara Ocobock
Cara Ocobock

When Cara Ocobock was a young child, she often wondered at the images in movies, books, comics and cartoons portraying prehistoric men and women as such: “man the hunter” with spear in hand, accompanied by “woman the gatherer” with a baby strapped to her back and a basket of crop seeds in hand.

“This was what everyone was used to seeing,” Ocobock said. “This was the assumption that we’ve all just had in our minds and that was carried through in our museums of natural history.”

Many years later, Ocobock, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Human Energetics Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, found herself as a human biologist studying physiology and prehistoric evidence and discovering that many of these conceptions about early women and men weren’t quite accurate. The accepted reconstruction of human evolution assumed males were biologically superior, but that interpretation wasn’t telling the whole story.

Relying on both physiological and archaeological evidence, Ocobock and her research partner, Sarah Lacy, an anthropologist with expertise in biological archaeology at the University of Delaware, recently published two studies simultaneously in the journal American Anthropologist. Their joint research, coming from these two angles, found that not only did prehistoric women engage in the practice of hunting, but their female anatomy and biology would have made them intrinsically better suited for it.

Cover of Scientific American with the Headline Woman the Hunter and an illustration of the profile of a woman holding a spear standing in front of a wild animalCover art courtesy of Samantha Mash

Of her and her co-author’s dual-pronged research, which was the cover story for the November issue of Scientific American, Ocobock said, “Rather than viewing it as a way of erasing or rewriting history, our studies are trying to correct the history that erased women from it.”

Female physiology and estrogen, the ‘unsung hero of life’

In their physiological study, the two researchers explained that prehistoric females were quite capable of performing the arduous physical task of hunting prey and were likely able to hunt successfully over prolonged periods of time. From a metabolic standpoint, Ocobock explained, the female body is better suited for endurance activity, “which 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.”

Two huge contributors to that enhanced metabolism are hormones — in this case, estrogen and adiponectin, which are typically present in higher quantities in female bodies than in male. These two hormones play a critical role in enabling the female body to modulate glucose and fat, a function that is key in athletic performance.

Estrogen, in particular, helps regulate fat metabolism by encouraging the body to use its stored fat for energy before using up its carbohydrate stores. “Since fat contains more calories than carbs do, it’s a longer, slower burn,” Ocobock explained, “which means that the same sustained energy can keep you going longer and can delay fatigue.”

Estrogen also protects the body’s cells from damage during heat exposure due to extreme physical activity. “Estrogen is really the unsung hero of life, in my mind,” Ocobock said. “It is so important for cardiovascular and metabolic health, brain development and injury recovery.”

Adiponectin also amplifies fat metabolism while sparing carbohydrate and/or protein metabolism, allowing the body to stay the course during extended periods, especially over great distances. In this way, adiponectin is able to protect the muscles from breaking down and keeps them in better condition for sustained exercise, Ocobock explained.

The female body structure itself is another element Ocobock and Lacy found to be of advantage in terms of endurance and effectiveness for prehistoric hunters. “With the typically wider hip structure of the female, they are able to rotate their hips, lengthening their steps,” Ocobock detailed. “The longer steps you can take, the ‘cheaper’ they are metabolically, and the farther you can get, faster.

“When you look at human physiology this way, you can think of women as the marathon runners versus men as the powerlifters.”

Archaeology tells more of the story of ‘woman the hunter’

Several archaeological findings indicate prehistoric women not only shared in the resulting injuries of the dangerous business of close-contact hunting, but that it was an activity held in high esteem and valued by them. “We have constructed Neandertal hunting as an up-close-and-personal style of hunting,” Ocobock said, “meaning that hunters would often have to get up underneath their prey in order to kill them. As such, we find that both males and females have the same resulting injuries when we look at their fossil records.”

Ocobock described those traumatic injuries as being similar to those received by modern-day rodeo clowns — injuries to the head and chest where they were kicked by the animal, or to the limbs where they were bitten or received a fracture. “We find these patterns and rates of wear and tear equally in both women and men,” she said. “So they were both participating in ambush-style hunting of large game animals.”

Second, Ocobock said, there is evidence of early female hunters in the Holocene period in Peru where females were buried with hunting weapons. “You don’t often get buried with something unless it was important to you or was something that you used frequently in your life.

“Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that prehistoric women abandoned their hunting while pregnant, breastfeeding or carrying children,” Ocobock added, “nor do we see in the deep past any indication that a strict sexual division of labor existed.”

The bottom line, Ocobock noted, was that “hunting belonged to everyone, not just to males,” especially in prehistoric societies where survival was an all-hands-on-deck activity. “There weren’t enough people living in groups to be specialized in different tasks. Everyone had to be a generalist to survive.”

Fighting bias

“This revelation is especially important in the current political moment of our society where sex and gender are in a spotlight,” Ocobock said. “And I want people to be able to change these ideas of female physical inferiority that have been around for so long.”

When talking about reconstructing the past in order to better understand it — and to conduct “good science” — Ocobock said scientists have to be extremely careful about how modern-day bias can seep into one’s interpretations of the past. She cautioned that researchers have to be aware of their own biases and make sure they are asking the proper questions so the questions don’t lead them down the road of looking for what it is they want to see.

“We have to change the biases we bring to the table, or at least to give pause before we assign those biases. And in a broader sense, you cannot outrightly assume somebody’s abilities based on whatever sex or gender you have assigned by looking at them,” Ocobock concluded.

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