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Skeletal damage hints some hunter-gatherer women fought in battles

Traditional views of females being largely responsible for gathering food may be too simplistic

Skeletons of two people buried in an ancient tomb in Mongolia include a woman (left) who may have been a horse-riding, bow-and-arrow-wielding warrior, scientists say.

C. Lee

Women’s reputation as nurturing homebodies who left warfare to men in long-ago societies is under attack. Skeletal evidence from hunter-gatherers in what’s now California and from herders in Mongolia suggests that women warriors once existed in those populations.

Two research teams had planned to present these findings April 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. That meeting was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The results have been provided to Science News by the scientists.

Sexual divisions of labor characterized ancient societies, but were not as rigidly enforced as has often been assumed, the new studies suggest. “The traditional view [in anthropology] of ‘man the hunter and woman the gatherer’ is likely flawed and overly simplistic,” says forensic anthropologist Marin Pilloud of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Consider hunter-gatherers who lived in central California as early as around 5,000 years ago as well as more recent Native Americans groups in that region, such as Coast Miwok and Yana. Some archaeological evidence as well as historical accounts and 20th century anthropologists’ descriptions generally portray men in those groups as hunters, fishers and fighters in tribal feuds and conflicts with outside armies. Women are presented as focused on gathering and preparing plant foods, weaving and child care.

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But skeletons of 128 of those hunter-gatherer women display damage from arrows and sharp objects such as knives comparable to skeletal injuries of 289 presumed male warriors, Pilloud and her colleagues found. Whether those women fought alongside men or carried out other dangerous battle duties, such as sneaking up on enemies to cut their bow strings, can’t be determined from their bones. Individuals in this sample came from 19 Native American groups in central California, and had lived in any of five time periods between around 5,000 and 200 years ago.

Evidence analyzed by Pilloud’s team was part of a database of excavated skeletal remains from more than 18,000 central California hunter-gatherers assembled by study coauthor Al Schwitalla of Millennia Archaeological Consulting in Sacramento. A 2014 study directed by Schwitalla determined that 10.7 percent of males in the database had suffered injuries from sharp objects and projectile points, versus 4.5 percent of females. The new study finds similar patterns of those injuries on the skeletons of men and women.

In wars between Native American tribes in California, women were often killed in surprise raids and other attacks, which may partly explain female injuries reported in the new study, says biological anthropologist Patricia Lambert of Utah State University in Logan.

Some women may have fought in battles, either to defend their children or village or as warriors, suggests Lambert, who was not part of Pilloud’s team. But further evidence of female fighters, such as Native American women in California buried with weapons and other battle artifacts, is needed, she says.

A second skeletal analysis suggests that nomadic herders in ancient Mongolia, bordering northern China, trained some women to be warriors during a time of political turbulence and frequent conflicts known as the Xianbei period, says anthropologist Christine Lee of California State University, Los Angeles. The Xianbei period ran from 147 to 552.

In a study of nine individuals buried in a high-status Mongolian tomb from the Xianbei period, conducted by Lee and Cal State colleague Yahaira Gonzalez, two of three women and all six men displayed signs of having ridden horses in combat.

That conclusion rests on three lines of evidence: bone alterations caused by frequent horse riding and damage from falls off horses; upper-body signatures of having regularly used bows to shoot arrows, including alterations of spots where shoulder and chest muscles attach to bone; and arrowhead injuries to the face and head. Because the tomb was previously looted, any war-related objects that may have been interred with the bodies are gone.

In western Asia, archaeologists have uncovered potential graves of women warriors that include weapons and war gear (SN: 11/25/14).

By around 900, written documents refer to Mongolian women who fought in wars, held political power and had diplomatic credentials, Lee says. Freedom for Mongolian women to pursue a variety of activities goes back at least to the Xianbei period, she suspects.

Lee now plans to look for skeletal evidence of female warriors in more Mongolian tombs dating to as early as around 2,200 years ago.

“Badass women may go back a long way in northern Asian nomadic groups,” she says.

Citations

K.A. Broehl et al. Women warriors among central California hunter-gatherers. Canceled American Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting, Los Angeles, April 17, 2020.

C. Lee and Y. Gonzalez. Where are the women warriors? Evidence for gender equality on the Mongolian steppe (209 BC to 840 AD). Canceled American Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting, Los Angeles, April 17, 2020.

A.W. Schwitalla et al. Violence among foragers: the bioarchaeological record from central California. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Vol. 33, March 2014, p. 66. doi: 10.1016/j.jaa.2013.11.004.

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