More on Neandertal women hunting

2 minute read

Some readers have asked whether the skeletons of Neandertal females don't provide a test of the idea that they were hunting. For instance, could we find evidence on Neandertal female arm bones for the kind of spear-thrusting behavior that we believed Neandertals used?

Or maybe we would expect that hunting would reduce the level of sexual dimorphism in Neandertals. If women were smaller than men, the logic goes, then they would be less capable of the highly strenuous and athletic Neandertal hunting style, which involved direct confrontations with large animals.

The evidence that we have is (a) Neandertal women have beaten-up skeletons also, not significantly different from the men, although the number of injured Neandertal female skeletons is itself very, very small (b) there are not enough Neandertal women to really answer the question about limb bone use, and (c) they were not very different in their dimorphism than modern people.

The problem is that these data don't really answer the question. For instance, a hunting Neandertal woman might be expected to take a less risky role than the men, and that might be a role that didn't involve spear thrusting, or at least not nearly so much. So the limb bone use doesn't clearly test the hunting hypothesis.

Nor do injuries -- since Neandertal women could have been injured in many other ways besides hunting. In fact, if we really thought that Neandertal women should have taken a less risky role in hunting, then they should have fewer injuries attributable to hunting than men. Which makes it really problematic that they don't differ. The sample size of injuries is small enough that I don't think any special explanation is required.

And dimorphism probably can't predict foraging effort. For instance, female lions do most of the hunting within prides, but lions have high sexual dimorphism compared to humans. Large body size in males means that fitness increases with size, but it doesn't mean that foraging success increases with size.

To my mind, the key question is why females in carnivorous human societies don't hunt, when female carnivores do. The answer comes from life history. Human females have single births spaced several years apart, female carnivores (even large carnivores like lions) have litters spaced 1-2 years apart. Female humans cannot afford the kind of mortality risk faced by female lions, because of the much lower fecundity of humans.

That doesn't by itself preclude female hunting by early hominids, but it suggests that such hunting must have been constrained to situations where mortality risk was minimal (such as, several times lower than the mortality risk for hunting lions).

My own argument (made last week) is that Neandertal female foraging behavior was apparently flexible and plastic, so that female organizational strategies and sexual division of labor are unlikely to explain Neandertal extinction. Considering their flexibility, it would be unlikely that they never hunted, but such hunting could not have long persisted unless it was very low risk.