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When it comes to hunting down a sabre-tooth tiger or slaying a woolly mammoth, the fairer sex has the upper hand, according to two new studies.
It has long been claimed that in prehistoric times men were hunters while women were gatherers.
Males stalked and killed animals and women picked berries while tending to children.
But scientists have reviewed the evidence and found that women were likely the superior prehistoric hunters, and biologically better suited to the arduous job of finding meat.
Previous studies have shown that women are better suited physiologically to endurance activities and sports, which would provide an advantage as primitive hunters.
Women have a metabolism better suited to endurance, according to Dr Cara Ocobock, director of the Human Energetics Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.
‘Going for the kill’
“[This] would have been critical in early hunting because they would have had to run the animals down into exhaustion before actually going in for the kill,” she said.
The reason for this metabolic advantage, she says, comes down largely to hormones.
Oestrogen, often dubbed the female hormone, and adiponectin are both present in women at higher levels and provide physical advantages over men.
The female hormone, she says, is “really the unsung hero” as it better modulates how quickly a person burns their energy reserves and delays fatigue.
Adiponectin protects the muscles from wasting away and this would have been crucial in long, drawn out hunts.
The wider hips of a woman also are an advantage, a physiological study published in American Anthropologist found.
Likely an adaptation to aid in childbirth, they also allow women to rotate more when walking or running, which elongates the stride, making movement more efficient.
“The longer steps you can take, the ‘cheaper’ they are metabolically, and the farther you can get, faster,” Dr Ocobock said.
Natural marathon runners
The combination of skeletal structure and hormones makes women natural marathon runners, she adds, and men powerlifters.
A second study, also published in American Anthropologist, examined archaeological evidence of bones and found that women often suffered wounds associated with hunting, just like men.
Both sexes often suffered head and chest injuries caused by getting into a melee with prey, Dr Ocobock said. Animal kicks to the torso were common across the board, as were broken limbs and bite marks.
“We find these patterns and rates of wear and tear equally in both women and men,” she said. “So they were both participating in ambush-style hunting of large game animals.”
Women in some cultures were also buried alongside hunting apparatus and equipment, likely high-value items that had meaning for the individual, indicating they were prolific hunters in life.
The scientists view their research not as rewriting history, but as trying to correct a history that has already erased the role of women.
“I want people to be able to change these ideas of female physical inferiority that have been around for so long,” Dr Ocobock said.