<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Roboto%3A300%2C400%2C500%2C700%7CRoboto+Slab%3A400%2C700">12,000 year old prehistoric art shows woman hunting - Filthy Monkey Men

The notion of “man the hunter” has been one of the dominant views of hunter-gatherers since the 1960s, when a book and conference (appropriately enough called “man the hunter”) presented anthropological data showing the importance of hunting to the survival of hunter-gatherers; and how it is an activity mostly undertaken by men1.

This view has percolated into our understanding of prehistoric people. If an ancient female skeleton is found with cooking utensils it is taken as evidence they prepared meals for their family. If a man is found with the same set of tools, it is instead argued that they were the member of the tribe responsible for crafting them2. Despite this fairly common set of beliefs, the evidence that palaeolithic men did all the hunting is thin on the ground. It’s not like we’ve found a bunch of male skeletons with spears in their hands, locked in a battle with mammoths.

Perhaps prehistoric art could help plug in some of these gaps in our knowledge? ~40,000 years ago modern humans migrated into Europe and began producing a huge quantity of art. Unfortunately for us very little of it depicts “action scenes” of men and women going about their daily business (although there are a lot of images of people on their lonesome). In fact, you could probably count the number of images of humans hunting on one hand. The most unambiguous of these is an engraved antler from Grotte de la Vache, a cave in France. Dating to ~12,000 years ago3 this engraving depicts a reindeer being stalked by three humans in the distance. One of these hunters is holding several straight tools; perhaps javelins, spears, arrows or something else equally as pointy4.

The engraving

The engraving

So is this an image of “man men the hunter(s)”? Jean-Pierre Duhard is an expert on identifying gender in prehistoric art and does note that the person with the spears does appear to be male. However, he also notes that the middle figure has a silhouette more similar to a woman, with a notable “‘gluteal’ and ‘mammary'” region. The final figure also appears to be male. Now Duhard is quick to point out that it is a man holding the hunting tools; going on to say4

Although the woman took part in hunting, she was unarmed and not alone but accompanied by men, and so we may deduce from this that she did not take part in bloody activities

Yet one of the men is also unarmed. As such, I think this casts doubt on any attempt to draw far reaching conclusions about the role of men and women in hunting from this antler. The fact we only have the one image also makes it difficult to make any pronouncements on gender division in prehistoric humans; but still provides a strong challenge to anyone trying to simply copy+paste our view of man the hunter from modern people to our prehistoric ancestors.

And it is interesting that the best image of hunting we have does show a woman was involved.


  1. Lee, R. B., & DeVore, I. (Eds.). (1969). Man the hunter. Transaction Publishers.
  2. Conkey, M. W. and Spector, J. 1984. “Archaeology and the Study of Gender.” Advances in Archaeological
    Method and Theory 7: 1-38.
  3. Pailhaugue, N. (1998). Wildlife and seasons occupation of Monique room Magdalenian Pyrenean, Cave Cow (Alliat, Ariege, France) [Fauna and occupation seasons from “room Monique” falling on Pyrenean Magdalenian, cave of the Cow, Alliat, Ariege, France ]. Quaternary , 9 (4), 385-400.
  4. Duhard, J. P. (1993). Upper Palaeolithic figures as a reflection of human morphology and social organization. ANTIQUITY-OXFORD-67, 83-83.

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Jack Kolinski (@DonQuixote1950) · 28th February 2014 at 3:54 pm

Early feminists? Because I refuse to accept the abject stupidity of “male superiority” I like to believe early humans at various points along our evolution/history treated gender more equitably than we have managed to do over most of the past 5,000 years for which we have some evidence. (“longwinded sentence much?”).
Yes, I am a hopeless, bleeding heart liberal romantic, commie-pinko socialist left leaning….

    Adam Benton · 28th February 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Sadly we can’t say much about the social structure of prehistoric humans. On the plus side this does mean we can’t say they were flaming sexists either. They could’ve been lovable, equality loving lefties for all we know. Maybe even big fans of gay rights too.

    Or they could not have been.

teajr · 28th February 2014 at 4:32 pm

Reblogged this on Conservative Free Thinkers and commented:
Maybe it was such a strange thing that someone decided to enshrine the occurrence.

Bones and Behaviours · 28th February 2014 at 3:40 pm

The closest ecological analog for Upper Palaeolithic Europeans are surely the tall statured ethnohistorical peoples of the South American cone and the Tierra del Fuego. I remember that the Tehuelche women sometimes cooperated with their menfolk on hunts, but served a different function of ‘forming a fence’ to enclose prey. This may be what was mwant by ‘bloodless’. Intuitively Stone Age hunters in Europe are likely to have behaved in the same ways.

    Adam Benton · 28th February 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Duhard did note that this does seem to be a pattern in many modern hunter-gatherers, with women being involved in the hunt even if they don’t actively throw sticks at animals. There’s your example, and the Ache. Women amongst that group would help transport any kills back to base, allowing the men to continue hunting. Of course, this meant they were along for the ride quite often and so would help with the actual killing as well.

Cynthia Echterling · 28th February 2014 at 6:36 pm

Later examples of women being involved with what we may think of as strictly male activities include women warriors such as the Scythians who fought along with men as archers on horseback, or the Viking shield maidens and female warriors in Britain. Men didn’t seem to think it was strange following Boudica into battle. The concept of female warrior goddesses such as the Valkyries and Pallas Athene came from some ancient belief system. The roles of women when they weren’t pregnant or nursing may have been much more egalitarian until the those “civilized” people came along and forced changes. This seems to hold true for Native Americans. There may have been men’s work and women’s work, but if an individual chose a non-traditional path that was often accepted. Among the Apaches, boys were taught to cook and sew and girls to hunt because you might find yourself in circumstances where you needed to both types of work.

    szopeno · 6th March 2014 at 10:19 am

    I don;t know about Celts or Anglos, but in Germanic tribes and Slavic, before “civilised” people came, women always had to have male protector, while only underage males need to have protector; Female warriors were so extremely rare that they went; into myths and they were always barred from having sex (always they need to be virgin warriors).
    You really should not romanticise pre-civilised societies too much

      Cynthia Echterling · 9th March 2014 at 4:30 pm

      Gee, I’ve never been accused of romanticizing anything before. The guys in my Army unit thought I was kinda scary when I had a weapon, seeing as I could out shoot most of them. They could beat me at arm wrestling though and, you’re right. We weren’t allowed to have sex. 🙂

      Maria OConnor · 23rd November 2014 at 4:06 am

      What you said is true, but do not forget that female animals, including, primates like baboon, gorillas and chimpancees, do engage in hunting. So, is possible that our ancient female ancestors did engage in hunting for their survival.

      Suzette · 29th November 2016 at 7:05 pm

      Interesting opinion. 🙂 Who do you think was protecting the women when these men were away hunting? Traditionally humans hunt in groups, and there have been many indigenous cultures where men and women hunted together (e.g. many buffalo jumps). Spartan women not only hunted but took part in war, and they were definitely not virginal. Even in cultures where women didn’t hunt, they still had the responsibility of protecting themselves as well as their children and the elderly/infirm men when the able-bodied men went away!

      It might help to remember that humans have never relied too heavily on our natural size/strength advantages when it comes to hunting and war, because as a species, we don’t actually have any. We don’t have the tough skins of rhinos, or the claws and teeth of bears, or the size and strength of elephants. And yet we routinely hunted these animals. The human advantage is in the brain and our bipedalism. Our minds give us the ability to outsmart our prey, and our bipedalism gives us the stamina to wear them out. Both are just as true for women as they are men. Humans are primarily trap and persistence hunters, and always have been. Our emphasis on recon & tactics during war is only an extension of this. Troy didn’t fall because the Greeks were bigger or had pointier spears.

        Adam Benton · 1st December 2016 at 3:23 pm

        There has been research to suggest that most hunter-gatherer conflict relies on intelligence and deception. Just as you suggest. People try to ambush their opponents, leading to one-sided fights where they’re either successful and get to kill everyone; or are discovered and get annihilated themselves.

Jim Thomerson · 1st March 2014 at 2:48 am

Out at the ranch, back before the drought of the 1950s, mother would occasionally take the 22 and pop of a couple of squirrels for lunch.

    Adam Benton · 1st March 2014 at 11:20 am

    Quick, engrave some caves with a picture of that. Let the archaeologists of the future now

Neanderthal · 1st March 2014 at 1:58 pm

AMH *cough* *cough* 40kbp. I for one am not fooled by this, neither should you be? so why perpetuate the lie?

szopeno · 6th March 2014 at 10:21 am

Have you ever read about how indians hunted the bisons? Males hunted, while females and children went immediately after the hunters, to skin the hunted animals, prepare the meat and so on. I guess they would be presented in painting as participating in the hunt, though without spears or arrows, right?

SO why, instead of choosing the most reasonable explanations congruent with what we know about at least some hunters, choose this image as “proof” that females were hunters??

    Adam Benton · 9th March 2014 at 4:06 pm

    As the many comments on this post reveals, anthropology has shown that there is a huge amount of variety in the sexes roles of hunting. As such, picking out one as the “most reasonable” isn’t something that can be done. What makes your example so much better than that of the Agta; where women often join in the hunt (or sometimes go off hunting by themselves)? A detailed study of anthropology reveals it is hard to make any universal statements about the role of women in hunting. Whilst the prehistoric image is ambiguous, it does indicate that the same is true of Palaeolithic hunting.

Rodolfo · 8th March 2014 at 2:47 am

This is not “best image of hunting we have”. The three people shown do not outline any action. Neither seem to be spying the prey (if they were they would be crouching). The title of the text is simply misleading!

An example of painting that really shows hunting activity, although it is debated whether it is the from the paleolithic, it is certainly pre-historic:

Cova dels Cavalls

    Adam Benton · 9th March 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Whilst that is another excellent image, there seems to be a fair bit of debate over the site. It certainly seems prehistoric, but without knowing much about it’s historical context we can’t really make any inferences from it. If you have another set of links that could help resolve this debate it would be appreciated.

    Lynniam · 5th February 2015 at 3:16 am

    Definitely an informative image of hunting using bows and arrows. For the purposes of this discussion, which figures do you suppose represent males and which figures are females?

Cynthia Echterling · 9th March 2014 at 4:35 pm

Any thoughts on why Neandertal women appear to have the same injury patterns as the men? Or so I’ve heard.

    Adam Benton · 25th March 2014 at 12:41 pm

    The injury pattern of Neandethals is typically interpreted as them getting on the wrong side of a charging animal; and does seem to be present in both men and women. So if you buy that explanation then it seems like a safe bet that women were also getting involved with animal killing. That said, I’m not too convinced by it; the sample size is very small so whether this is some big trend amongst all Neanderthals is difficult to identify

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