Prehistoric women actively hunted animals both large and small and may even have invented devices to bring down prey.
Volunteers tested an ancient weapon and found that the 'atlatl' – a rod-shaped device used to launch darts – could be used as easily by women as men.
The researchers believe that the ancient weapon may have been an 'equaliser', helping women play a hunting role tens of thousands of years ago.
The atlatl was a major human technological innovation used in hunting and warfare, starting in the Stone Age.
The first javelins are at least hundreds of thousands of years old, while the first atlatls are likely at least tens of thousands of years old.
Michelle Bebber, an assistant professor in Kent State University's department of anthropology, said: "Many people tend to view women in the past as passive and that only males were hunters, but increasingly that does not seem to be the case.
"Indeed, and perhaps most importantly, there seems to be a growing consensus among different fields – archaeology, ethnography and now modern experiments – that women were likely active and successful hunters of game, big and small.
"This result indicates that a javelin to atlatl transition would have promoted a unification, rather than division, of labour.
"Our results suggest that female and male interments with atlatl weaponry should be interpreted similarly, and in some archaeological contexts females could have been the atlatl's inventor.
"One hypothesis for forager atlatl adoption over its presumed predecessor, the thrown javelin, is that a diverse array of people could achieve equal performance results, thereby facilitating inclusive participation of more people in hunting activities."
Bebber's study tested this hypothesis via a systematic assessment of 2,160 weapon launch events by 108 people, all novices, who used both javelins and atlatls.
The results are consistent with the idea that the atlatl worked as an equaliser – showing that the atlatl not only increases the velocity of projectile weapons relative to thrown javelins, but that the atlatl equalises the velocity of female and male-launched projectiles.
Bebber said she noticed that females picked it up very easily and could launch darts as far as the males with little effort.
She said: "Often males became frustrated because they were trying too hard and attempting to use their strength to launch the darts. However, since the atlatl functions as a simple lever, it reduces the advantage of male's generally greater muscle strength.
"Given that females appear to benefit the most from atlatl use, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that in some contexts females invented the atlatl. Likewise, in some primate species, females invent tool technologies for hunting as documented amongst the Fongoli chimpanzees."
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