The team cannot know the individual’s gender identity

National Geographic informs us of the discovery of a 9 thousand year old burial of a hunter of large game in the Andes who turned out to be a woman:

…the remains found alongside the toolkit were from a biological female. What’s more, this ancient female hunter was likely not an anomaly, according to a study published today in Science Advances. The Haas team’s find was followed by a review of previously studied burials of similar age throughout the Americas—and it revealed that between 30 and 50 percent of big game hunters could have been biologically female.

This new study is the latest twist in a decades-long debate about gender roles among early hunter-gather societies. The common assumption was that prehistoric men hunted while women gathered and reared their young. But for decades, some scholars have argued that these “traditional” roles—documented by anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer groups across the globe since the 19th century—don’t necessarily stretch into our deep past.

That seems surprising for at least two reasons: one, you’d think the male advantage in speed and strength would make a difference, and two, you’d think women’s childbearing ability would be too valuable to risk. It’s interesting.

In initial discussions about the toolkit, the researchers presumed the owner was male, perhaps a prominent figure of society, or even a chief of the group. “I’m as guilty as anyone,” says Haas, who has been working in the region since 2008. “I thought yeah, that makes sense with my understanding of the world.” Back in the lab, however, close inspection of the bones suggested the physiology of a biological woman. To confirm, they analyzed a protein that forms tooth enamel and is linked to sex.

So far so good, but then suddenly the wheels fall off.

Importantly, the team cannot know the individual’s gender identity, but rather only biological sex (which like gender doesn’t always exist on a binary). In other words, they can’t say whether the individual lived their life 9,000 years ago in a way that would identify them within their society as a woman.

Are they sure? Can’t they tell if she wore makeup? Played with dolls as a child? Kept losing her car keys?

The 2018 discovery does pose a challenge to gender binaries commonly assumed for our early ancestors: Men acted as hunters, women acted as gatherers. This assumption comes from studies of modern hunter-gatherers, where men more frequently are responsible for the hunt while women bear the most responsibility for caring for children, says Arizona State University’s Kim Hill, who specializes in human evolutionary anthropology and was not part of the study team. “You can’t just stop in the middle of stalking a deer in order to nurse a crying baby,” Hill says via email.

Plus children are a resource and you’d want to protect the resource from dangerous work like hunting.

It’s interesting, apart from the small eruption of New Gender Thought.

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