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Ancient women were hunters — and grandmas were the most skilled ones, study suggests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For decades, scientists commonly believed that early humans had a pretty strict division of labor. Men did the hunting. Women did the gathering. That view has been shifting, and a new study could upend it. NPR science desk correspondent Nurith Aizenman is here to explain. Hey, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How did scientists even come up with this early vision of man as hunter, woman as gatherer? We're talking about humans that lived millennia ago, right?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. This is the period starting roughly 200,000 years ago when we first emerged as a species that ended about 9,000 years ago when humans started to develop agriculture and settlements. But all over the world, there have been a fair number of people in remote areas who still live this foraging life, and so scholars have looked to them as a sort of window into humanity's past. Anthropologists would go live with them, produce detailed reports, and the sense was that all these accounts pointed to men mainly hunting and women mainly gathering with occasional exceptions. But it appears this was based on scientists' anecdotal impressions. No one had actually done a systematic tally of what all these observational reports actually said about women hunting.

SHAPIRO: And so is the tally what this new study has done?

AIZENMAN: Exactly. This was done by a team from University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University. They combed through accounts from as far back as the 1800s through to present day. And their finding, published in the journal PLOS One, is that in almost 80% of the societies, there's data for women were hunting. And this wasn't just women killing some animal the women happened upon. Here's the lead author, Cara Wall-Scheffler.

CARA WALL-SCHEFFLER: The hunting was purposeful. Women had their own tool kit. They had favorite weapons. Grandmas were the best hunters of the village.

AIZENMAN: And in about a third of these cases, the women were hunting large mammals.

SHAPIRO: I'm fascinated with how they even learned that grandmas were the best hunters in the village. But more broadly, does this have wider implications?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. Wall-Scheffler notes that when these narratives of gender differences in early humans enter our wider culture, it can be damaging because people may assume, oh, that was the more natural way to live. And then they use that to argue that gender roles should be more rigid today.

SHAPIRO: Which, as I recall, is not the scientific method, right?

AIZENMAN: Right, right. But, you know, even among scholars, this prior possibly mistaken understanding of the evidence on early human hunting may have led to faulty science when it comes to the other main strand of evidence on this topic. I'm talking now about ancient burial sites and the human remains and artifacts found there. I spoke with Randy Haas of Wayne State University. Back in 2018, he was part of a team in Peru that found a 9,000-year-old individual buried with an unusually large number of hunting tools.

RANDY HAAS: We all just assumed that this individual was a male, and everybody's sitting talking around saying things like, wow, this is - you know, this is amazing. He must have been a great hunter, a great warrior. Maybe he was a chief.

AIZENMAN: Until they used some newer technology to check the bones and found that this was a woman. So Haas and his collaborators then reanalyzed similar finds across the Americas. They found about half of the time people buried with hunting tools were female. But these discoveries had basically gone under the radar, just like the findings about modern-day hunter-gatherers described in this latest study. The evidence had been sitting there all along in plain sight.

SHAPIRO: And are other scientists revising their views based on these findings?

AIZENMAN: Spoke to several, there was a mix of views. Some said there wasn't enough data for conclusions. Others said the idea that women did some hunting has already been around for a while. But most felt this work was breaking new ground and opening important questions for further research.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Nurith Aizenman, thanks.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.