Lagertha and her women warriors in Vikings

Surprise! Scientific Research Finds Assumptions About Ancient Gender Roles Are BS

I think we all intuitively knew this to be true.

A long time ago, I was in a Hollywood Video trying to rent a movie with my grandma. An adult woman was in line behind us with her mother. Behind them was a guy about the woman’s age. He struck up a conversation with her about the movie they were renting. He said he liked Kill Bill, but it wasn’t believable because a woman could never be that violent. When he looked from their faces to my grandma and me, the looks on our faces must have proved him otherwise, because he quickly shut up.

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As much as that guy was a complete tool, I understood where he was coming from. Our society has fed us this line of thinking for as long as we can remember. It all starts in school. We learned prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, humans performed roles within a specific gender construct. Men hunted in groups to provide meat for the group. Women were gatherers who collected vegetation and took care of the children. It is supposedly woven into our DNA for women to be gentle caretakers and for men to be violent adventures. However, a recent re-evaluation of scientific data on hunter-gatherers has declared that these ideas of innate gender roles are not accurate.

Women were hunters

When studying ancient humans, it’s difficult to gather accurate data. Since this was before written records, scientists must go off of burial site artifacts and limited art to understand how our ancestors live. Another tool for researchers is studying how modern hunter-gatherer societies operate. The anecdotal evidence completed by mostly male scientists since the 1800s has upheld this patriarchal idea that men hunted and women gathered. Yet the evidence of actual counts of hunters tells a different story.

In a recently published study, biological anthropologist Cara Wall-Scheffler lead a team of researchers from the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University to analyze historical data. They found that women regularly hunted in 79% of documented researched hunter-gatherer societies. Also, most of those societies specifically trained their female members to become hunters. Wall-Scheffler told NPR, “Women had their own toolkit. They had favorite weapons. Grandmas were the best hunters of the village.” Throughout their findings, the researchers found women hunted regularly and also sought the big game, something usually only attributed to men.

Although there has been some critique of the study, others, like prominent anthropologist Randy Haas, agree with Wall-Scheffler and her team. Haas told NPR he has been part of burial site digs where humans were found buried with many hunting tools, indicating the person’s prowess as a hunter. Everyone assumed the individuals were male as the hunter-gatherer myth has taught us. After specialized analysis of the bones, however, the skilled hunter turned out to be female.

Women aren’t limited just because they are women

In a country so heavily entrenched in Christianity, patriarchy still reigns supreme. The Bible itself outlines specific roles for men and women to perform and the hunter-gatherer myth just reinforced those beliefs—and vice-versa. But gender norms are not rooted in science and this actual science just confirmed what many of us already knew—gender doesn’t limit the possibilities of a person’s abilities.

The results of the study also showed the importance of women in STEM fields. Female researchers questioned the long-held myth and reanalyzed the historical data. If these women didn’t spearhead this study, would the truth have gone unnoticed? Research into existing hunter-gatherer societies also became easier as more women entered anthology fields of study. Women in modern hunter-gatherer groups felt more at ease talking with female researchers as opposed to male scientists. It all proves biological differences don’t limit us.

(via NPR, featured image: History Channel)

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D.R. Medlen
D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a pop culture staff writer at The Mary Sue. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer in 2019. She expertly fangirls over Marvel, Star Wars, and historical fantasy novels (the spicier the better). When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse, offspring, and animal familiars.