Biology Magazine

12,000 Year Old Prehistoric Art Shows Woman Hunting

Posted on the 28 February 2014 by Reprieve @EvoAnth

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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