Gender Roles and the Mass-kill Event: A Cross-cultural Analysis

For the last thirty years archaeologists inspired primarily by the feminist movement, have become more aware of ‘gender assumptions’ when interpreting past human behavior.

The subject remains an important field of anthropological research today. There is a vast amount of literature available; some are mentioned here, for further reading and discussion relating to how the study of gender can give a more objective and balanced understanding of material culture.

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The study of the sexual division of labour at ‘mass-kill’ events in Paleolithic Europe seems underrepresented. There are several faunal assemblages, which, due to their monospecific concentration, suggest that the ‘mass-kill’ event was a feature of Paleolithic hunting strategy. There is archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence for this type of event in American history (e.g. bison-jumps), though speculation has been raised regarding the presence of such ‘catastrophic events’ (caused by humans) in Europe, in which the remains of large numbers of the same species of prey are encountered on sites.

There are, however, certain traits to support the mass-kill theory, such as vast numbers of single species faunal assemblages related to a single event (stratigraphically) with little or no trace of carnivore scavenging, and evidence of human selection of certain body parts.  Due to the co-operative nature of this type of hunting, the whole community may have been involved, with different roles assigned to individuals. These roles allocated may have been dependent upon an individual’s strength or speed, or by gender, age or status.

My aim is to develop an understanding of the relationship between the archaeological evidence of Paleolithic Europe and the mass-kill event, with the purpose of assessing the sexual division of labour, or gender hierarchies in this activity. Similarities between some of the European Paleolithic sites and the ‘bison jump’ sites of the Plains societies of America have been noted. Was there a sexual division of labour at these events, and if so, what was the role of women?

The ethnohistorical accounts relating to the Plains and Great Basin indigenous American people provide an interesting insight into communal hunting. Accounts describe the communal hunt in terms of whole group participation, although, there are conflicting accounts. They were written, generally, by men who may be describing the behaviour of Plains Americans, especially Clovis foragers, through their own engendered prejudice: although, first-hand accounts are useful when discussing human relationships (Waguespack 2005, 667).

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The ethnographic and historical literature accounts the exploitation of a single ungulate species (O’Connor 2000, 133). It is thought that communal hunting of bison in Plains America took place from the early Holocene through to European settlement (O’Connor 2000). Sites containing accumulations of bison (Bison spp.) bones occur across North America, for example the Olsen-Chubbuck site in Eastern Colorado dated to 10 kya.  This example, along with many others, lies on a bison migration route and was chosen for its topographical properties. Most of the sites where large single-species assemblages occur are at the bottom of a cliff or headland, in narrow valleys or in river and marsh locations (e.g. Hoffdecker et al 2010; Bratlund 1996, 1; Scott 1980).

Communal hunting can take a variety of forms depending on the size of the hunting party; the abundance/behavioural characteristics of the prey; and the associated environment/topographical advantages. Hunters possess an intimate knowledge of their surroundings and the behaviour of gregarious herd animals i.e. migration, breeding patterns and the predictability of their instincts (e.g. Bratlund 1996). Herds were often driven towards a river, causing the lead animals to trip and fall, resulting in confusion and panic in the rest of the herd. Hunters took advantage of the confusion and set upon the animals with clubs and spears.

Most of the animals were then systematically butchered in situ and the remainder left to rot. Some sites are considered to be opportunistic kill-sites, whereas other sites are more stratified, implying that hunters used them repeatedly (O’Connor 2000, 134-6). A combination of factors imply a ‘mass-kill event’: single mortality events in single episodes combined with a concentration of lithics, butchered bone, and situated in topographically restricted sites on migration routes (Hockett & Murphy 2009, 709; Bratlund 1996).

Archaeozoologists study the mandibles, dental eruption profiles and bone fusion data from faunal assemblages to reveal age at death (mortality profiles). These studies reveal that the hunting strategy at mass-kill events was non-discriminatory – they took out a whole herd population without any selection (O’Connor 2000; Bratlund 1996). The implication here is that such large events such as bison-jumps were not frequent, as over-exploitation would have lead to extinction (this happened later in American history). There are not enough sites of this nature in Europe to determine whether this type of hunting lead to any over-exploitation.

Pronghorn were hunted in the Great Basin during the Clover period. Nineteenth century ethnohistoric accounts reveal that groups communally hunted large game with the adoption of bow and arrow technology, although it is generally agreed that communal hunting had taken place for the last 10,000 years in this area using clubs as weapons. Some of the ethnohistorical accounts indicate that horses were used for scouting and corralling purpose, consequently large drives may have occurred more frequently during and after post-contact with Europeans (Hockett & Murphy 2009, 711).

When large numbers of Pronghorn were taken, the whole community was involved. Members carried out a variety of roles depending on age, status and gender. Sometimes only adult males or adult females were involved or only adult males and females together. (Hockett & Murphy 2009, 710).

The events were treated as large social gatherings and were presided over by a shaman, who was always male according to the written sources. Some of the accounts indicate that both men and women constructed the corrals, as well as keeping the animals inside it, whereas only men were sent as scouts and drove the herd towards the structure. A conflicting account, however, indicates that in Navajo society, only the men took part in all hunting related activities (Hockett & Murphy 2009, 711).

Communal hunting of large ungulates such as red deer, reindeer, aurochs and bison (Bison priscus) and horses occurred in Paleolithic Europe and also during the early Holocene (O’Connor 2000; Hoffdecker et al 2010; Bratlund 1996). Similarly to Plains American strategy, kill sites were chosen for their topographical advantages. In the Central Russian Plain during the Upper Paleolithic, sites such as Pushkari, illustrate a preference for hunting mammoth in ravine locations (Soffer 1985, 25).

This area during the period provided adequate biomass to sustain large ungulate herds, especially mammoth, possibly a greater biomass than that of late Pleistocene North America (Martin 1973, cited in Soffer 1985, 203). Artefacts such as projectile points, stone scrapers, bi-faces and large stone chopping/cutting tools found at Kotenski in Russia, a mass horse kill site, are similar to those found on large kill/butchery sites of North America, (Hoffdecker et al 2010, 1087). Concentrations of projectile points are an indicator of a mass-kill event (Hockett & Murphy 2009, 708). The existence of scrapers and large chopping and cutting tools infer that a number of community members were assigned the task of butchering the carcasses. The ethnohistoric accounts often state that the women used such tools to carry out the work.

There are several earlier sites in Europe which may be indicative of mass-kill events, such as the Middle Paleolithic site of La Cotte de Saint-Brelade in Jersey, where there is evidence of mammoths being driven off a headland and butchered in-situ (Scott 1980, 146). Evidence of other faunal spectra is found at Les Pradelles and Mauran.

The reindeer bone assemblage at Les Pradelles appears to show a catastrophic profile following a mass-kill event inferred by the systematic rejection of certain body parts on the part of humans (Costamanga et al 2006). The implication here is that it was once thought that Neandertals lacked the adequate cognitive skills needed to predict prey behaviour (Costamanga et al 2006). Rendu et al state: “The skeletal profile at Mauran, characterised by an under-representation of some fleshy elements, is not very different from that seen in North American Holocene kill sites” (Rendu et al 2012, 55).

The proposed theory that late Pleistocene mammoth in Europe were hunted in the same way as bison in North America, i.e. driven by humans into a river/marsh or off a headland, followed by the mass slaughter of the whole herd has come under some criticism. The mammoth teeth (used to discover age at death) from three sites on the Central Russian Plain were aged using modern elephant dental analogues, thus the age profile of the assemblage may not fully support the theory that the animals represented a whole population. Soffer (1985) implies that some of these catastrophic events may be attributable to naturally occurring events (Soffer 1985, 307).

Ethnographic evidence demonstrates that the communal hunt often involved every adult in the group(s) cooperating as a team, including those members who would not normally participate in hunting. This technique may be used to maximise foraging efficiency (O’Connor 2000, 133). The ethnographic literature regarding subsistence practices in big-game hunting societies have been mainly concerned with male provision, therefore an association between the male contribution to the diet and the existence of projectile points have been made, further inferring a sexual division of labour in foraging societies *. This is particularly true of studies of the Folsom period of North America (Gurven & Hill 2009, 51; MacDonald 1998, 217).

Studies have also revealed that men hunted for reasons other than calorific gain such as the ‘showing off’ hypothesis, whereby men attain prestige and increase their sexual productivity through hunting prowess (Jennes 2007; Gurven & Hill 2009, 51; MacDonald 1998, 218; Vilotte et al 2010, 56-7). Cooperative hunting does not fit well with this hypothesis as there is, invariably, little difference between the activities carried out by men and women, especially at a large event (Jennes 2007).

The drive technique of communal hunting may have required the participation of the whole community lending it a more social aspect, whereas the surround technique (using constructed corralls) may indicate a provisioning strategy due to the need for fewer members to be present, and a lower expectation of sharing the meat (Jennes 2007).

The possibility that large communal drives were important for securing mating opportunities (mating strategy) over calorific gain (provisioning strategy) may explain the participation of women at the large events. Possible low population density in Paleolithic Europe implies that groups needed to meet socially for mating opportunities outside their own band (Jensen 2007, 1-2). Women may not have been present at mass-kill events simply to facilitate the males, there may also have been a mating strategy employed and the opportunity to socialise and reciprocate.   The volume of product obtained from such a mass-kill event would have lead to full member participation, sharing between groups and food storage – perhaps in the form of Pemmican (preserved meat) (O’Connor 2000, 134).

* For a detailed analysis of net gains from individual versus communal foraging see Kelly 2007, chapter 6.

The ethnographical data reveals that women rarely hunt medium to large game, however, women actively help men to hunt successfully (Gurven & Hill 2009, 56). Women provide stable, high return food resources, carry out many non-subsistence tasks * (Waguespack 2005, 666) and played important roles in large communal drives by surrounding and driving game towards the male hunters (Waguespack 2005, 671). Reliance on hunting large game usually involves high residential mobility, therefore non-subsistence tasks, which women carry out, such as house-building, are performed more frequently, further inferring a facilitator role of women in a hunting subsistence economy (Waguespack 2005, 671; MacDonald 1998, 217).

*For detailed discussions relating to the female contribution to the diet, see Owen, L.R ‘Distorting the Past’ 2005

There are accounts of what appears to be a ‘third gender’, the ‘Berdache’ – men who ‘assumed female occupations and restrictions’ in the Illinois group. Like the women, they were excluded from ‘male activities’, therefore denied access to the same status and power enjoyed by men (Hauser 1990, 45-7; Kelly 2007, 288). They participated in large communal bison hunts alongside women and men, however, like women, they were not permitted to use a bow and arrow, instead, like the women, they used clubs to kill prey (Hauser 1990, 48). They prepared and transported the meat from the butchery site with the women (Hauser 1990, 49). Women achieved status in Illinois society, but were denied the access to power and prestige achieved through hunting, whereas the ‘Berdache’ held an almost spiritual status (Hauser 1990, 55).

There is a suggestion that during the Early Upper Paleolithic in Europe there was no marked sexual division of labour, although, a study concentrating on lesions on the upper-limbs of thirty-seven fossils show that none of the female skeletons exhibit signs of injuries associated with throwing projectile weapons, which form part of the hunting package in the Upper Paleolithic/Mesolithic transition.The presence of such injuries on four of the male fossils have been used to demonstrate a sexual division of labour related to hunting large game (Vilotte et al 2010, 35-41).

Perhaps in illustration of variability in hunter-gatherer behaviour, a 24,000 year old female burial, aged 7-9, from the Sungir site in the Russian Plains was buried with bone spears, indicating that women may have practised with and used projectile weapons from a young age. The grave goods of two more possible female burials at the same site also included shaft straighteners (Soffen 1985, 455). Villotte (2012), however, remains skeptical that the skeletons were even female, as it is difficult to sex juveniles (pers. Comm. November 2012). Perhaps the lack of pathology indicates that females used different weapons to kill prey, such as the clubs used by the Plains women and ‘Berdache’. Of course, wood rarely survives the taphonomic environment; therefore invisible in the archaeological record. Miller (1993) suggests that so-called ‘hard’ artefacts such as stone tools and weapons, still associated with male behaviour (rightly or wrongly), survive in the archaeological record, thereby increasing the visibility of the male contribution to the diet and rendering the female contribution (the ‘soft’) even more invisible (Miller 1993, 14) *.

* For more information relating to gender based technology, see Dobres (1995)

There are several hypotheses put forward to explain the sexual division of labour in individual and small-group hunting. It has been suggested that it takes between 15-twenty years experience for a hunter to gain maximum return rates, which would occur during the time a woman is at her most fertile, at which time her priority is to reproduce. Child-free post-reproductive women do not hunt large game because they have not gained the crucial experience necessary to become efficient hunters (Villotte et al 2010, 56-7; Kelly 2007, 269).

Hunting with small children at heel is less ideal than gathering with small children, because the hunt cannot be stopped to meet the needs of children, whereas whilst gathering, a mother can remain attentive to her offspring (Kelly 2007, 269). Nonetheless, clubbing captive animals or driving a herd off a headland does not require years of experience (just courage!), hence it is reasonable to expect the participation of women at these events. Women at such large gatherings may have organised childcare facilities as a group, possibly with the assistance from older members of the community who may be too frail to participate in the hunt.

The intention of this research was to provide a cross-cultural analysis of big-game hunting societies in North America to infer the existence of multi-sex (including ‘third gender’) participation in similar mass-kill events in Europe. The foregoing discussion reveals that large communal game hunting (including mass-kill events) in historic North America was all-inclusive event in which everyone had a role regardless of age, sex or status.

The specific duties may have been defined on the basis of gender, age and status, such as the male exclusive use of bow and arrow and possibly projectile weapons. Up until the adoption of bow and arrow technology, Plains Americans, male and female, used clubs as weapons, suggesting that it was new technology that was under the control of men rather than the division of labour. According to the ethnohistoric accounts women were on the frontline clubbing the frightened animals to death, which must have been a dangerous activity.

It is reasonable to suggest that females in Paleolithic Europe carried out similar roles at mass-kill events as males. Unquestionably, ethnographic/ethnohistoric data cannot be relied upon wholly to elucidate past human behaviour; similarly, we should not allow our socially constructed engendered values to distort our interpretation of prehistoric behaviours.

This paper is not concerned with trapping as this hunting technique rarely involves the whole community. It has been suggested that only the Blackfoot practiced this technique for smaller mammals and was seen as ‘boyish’ (Holliday 1998, 717). For details of ethnographical groups using trapping techniques, which include the participation of women, see (Kelly 2007, 217). There are many articles and texts relating to the ‘female hunter’ and the ethnographical evidence supporting this, however, this article relates to gender roles during the ‘mass kill events’ only.

Written by:  Lisa Bond


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Header Image Credit – Gruban

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Lisa Bond
Lisa Bond
Since graduating from the University of Bradford in 2012 with a degree in archaeology, I have been digging as often as I can on various sites in Yorkshire, researching/writing, and volunteering my services on the HER (Historic Environment Record) and walkover field surveys in the Dales (I am also available for more lucrative opportunities!). I avoid specialising in a particular period in prehistory – I tend to write about identity and motivation through material culture. I am also interested in sensory archaeology and experimenting with textiles and colour using ethnographical data. I live on a narrowboat in West Yorkshire - and yes it's cosy...

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