Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

Warrior Women (Part 1)



While the election of a woman to what's arguably the second most powerful position in the country is a newsworthy event, it's hardly unprecedented. The world has known plenty of powerful female leaders: Queen Dido (Carthage), Cleopatra (Egypt), Boadicea (Iceni, a British tribe that nearly defeated the Romans), Elizabeth I (England), Catherine the Great (Russia), Angela Merkel (Germany) and many others. Yet Kamala ("comma-la") Harris' recent election has been reported as something entirely new. Such patriarchal thinking goes back to the old, stubbornly ingrained attitude of (white male) anthropologists of the recent past who presented "primitive" tribal societies made up of male hunters and female gatherers: tough dudes and wimpy women. While there is some contemporary truth in this — the roles of modern day hunter-gatherer people like Tanzania's Hadza and southern Africa's San are firmly gender defined — the last few decades have unearthed plenty of counterexamples.

For instance, anthropologists from the University of California at Davis recently discovered the skeleton of a woman who was buried with her full kit of hunting tools, including dozens of projectile points, at a site in the Peruvian Andes known as Wilamaya Patjxa. (The hunter's gender was established by a relatively new technique in which tooth enamel can be sexed by analyzing a protein called amelogenin.) The fact that there were women hunters in that society is no big deal, according to archeologist Bonnie Pitblado from the University of Oklahoma: "... living high up in the Andes at 13,000 feet, if you can do that, surely you can bring down a deer." The discovery led archeologists to re-examine some 400 burials in the Americas dated to over 8,000 years old. Of the 27 skeletons found buried with big-game hunting tools, 11 were female and 15 male, leading to the statistical conclusion that up to half of the hunters of that time may have been female.

Back in the so-called Old World, in the early 1990s a joint team of U.S. and Russian archeologists was investigating early Indo-European-speaking herders, Scythian-Sarmatians, who lived on the steppes of the southern Urals some 2,300 years ago. While excavating kurgans (tumulus burial mounds), they found the remains of females who had been buried with their weaponry: swords, daggers and, in one case, a quiver holding 40 bronze-tipped arrows. From her bowed leg bones, they deduced that the quiver's owner spent much of her life on horseback.

Another site on an island west of Stockholm, Sweden, yielded the 1,000-year-old skeleton of a Viking along with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a battle knife and two shields. Originally excavated in 1889 and long thought to be the remains of a male, recent bone and DNA analyses showed that the "Birka Viking warrior" was, in fact, female. OK, this doesn't automatically prove that there were legions of female fighters in what's known to have been a thoroughly patriarchal Viking society, and there's plenty of controversy about what this finding means. As New York Times contributor Annalee Newitz pointed out, "... one female warrior does not mean that many women were leaders, just as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was not part of a larger feminist movement."

Still, increasingly, archeologists and anthropologists are finding evidence for a more nuanced view of ancient gender roles than previously thought, and that hunting and fighting wasn't confined to men. Next week, we'll look at legends about entire tribes of warrior women: Amazons.

Barry Evans ([email protected]) is impressed by anyone of any gender who can shoot arrows effectively while on horseback.

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