12,000 year old prehistoric art shows woman hunting

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.

21 thoughts on “12,000 year old prehistoric art shows woman hunting

  1. 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.

  2. 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….

    • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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

      • 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. 🙂

      • 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.

  4. 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.

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  6. 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??

    • 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.

  7. 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

    • 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.

    • 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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