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Skeletal damage hints some hunter-gatherer women fought in battles

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.

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.

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