Forget about hapless mates being dragged around by macho mammoth killers. The women of Ice Age Europe, it appears, were not mere cavewives but priestly leaders, clever inventors, and mighty hunters.
In the Ice Age, human survival had little to do with manly men hurling spears at big-game animals. Instead, it depended largely on women, plants, and a technique of hunting previously invisible in the archeological evidence—net hunting.
This is not the image we’ve always had of Upper Paleolithic macho guys out killing animals up close and personal. Net hunting is communal, and it involves the labor of children and women. And this has lots of implications.
Women and children have set snares, laid spring traps, sighted game and participated in animal drives and surrounds—forms of hunting that endangered neither young mothers nor their offspring. They dug starchy roots and collected other plant carbohydrates essential to survival. They even hunted, on occasion, with the projectile points traditionally deemed men’s weapons.
Women played a key part in net hunting since the technique did not call for brute strength nor did it place young mothers in physical peril.
People seldom returned home empty-handed. Researchers living among the net-hunting Mbuti in the forests of Congo report that they capture game every time they lay out their woven traps, scooping up 50 percent of the animals encountered. Nets are a far more valued item in their panoply of food-producing things than bows and arrows are. So lethal are these traps that the Mbuti generally rack up more meat than they can consume, trading the surplus with neighbors. Other net hunters traditionally smoked or dried their catch and stored it for leaner times. Or they polished it off immediately in large ceremonial feasts.
Humans who consume more than half their calories as lean meat will die from protein poisoning.
To see if any of the flora that thrived in Upper Paleolithic Europe could be put to similar uses, scientists drew up a list of plants economically important to people living in cold-climate regions of North America and Europe and compared it with a list of species that botanists had identified from pollen trapped in Ice Age sediment cores from southern Germany. Nearly 70 plants were found on both lists.
The chief plant collectors in historical societies were undoubtedly women. It was typically women’s work.