Hunters or gatherers? Women’s everyday lives in the Ice Age

Recent debate about women’s roles in the Ice Age raises questions about how much can be said about everyday lives in this era. Elle Clifford and Paul Bahn examine the evidence for who did what in the Palaeolithic.


Studying the role of women in prehistory is by no means easy, especially in the Palaeolithic, where the material traces are partial and hard to interpret. The evidence that does survive needs to be examined in its entirety and with great care. We have recently looked at this subject for our book Everyday Life in the Ice Age, where we were determined from the start to provide a fully rounded and complete view of every aspect of life in the Upper Palaeolithic – including the roles of men, women, and children. To achieve this, we worked primarily from archaeological evidence, but turned to ethnographic comparisons to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge with possible scenarios. While the ethnography is important for producing hypotheses about the past, we strove to apply it judiciously and objectively, and where we simply do not know what the situation was in prehistory, we say so.

Face to face with a Palaeolithic artist? This reconstruction of a woman by Elisabeth Daynès is based on human remains found buried at Cap Blanc, in front of a sculpted frieze. It is likely that this woman was responsible for the artistry.

The challenges that the available evidence present are well illustrated by the reception to a documentary called Lady Sapiens, which was broadcast on French TV in September 2021, and accompanied by a book of the same name. It was the work of two journalists (Thomas Cirotteau, an author and film-maker, and Eric Pincas, a historian and author) and an archaeologist (Jennifer Kerner, who specialises in prehistoric funerary practices). They argued – rightly – that researchers have long underestimated the role of prehistoric women in society: they had become imprisoned by clichés, and, in contrast to men who were believed to hunt, invent, create, and draw, a woman’s role was limited to domestic chores and educating children. The book aims to debunk such a simplistic division of roles by highlighting advances in the study of bones, graves, art, and ethnography. An English-language version of the book and documentary are set to arrive in September.

The conclusions paint Upper Palaeolithic females as able to choose their partners, control their fecundity, take part – more or less – in the same activities as men, and exercise similar social influence. As the authors put it, Upper Palaeolithic women were ‘generous, skilful and daring, but also had a privileged status; they were respected, honoured, venerated.’ These findings swiftly proved controversial. Last year, no fewer than nine eminent French specialists – four male and five female, anthropologists and prehistorians – published a joint, virulent response to what they felt resembled a wishful-thinking approach to the past. As they argued, at first sight one might think that any attempt to emancipate females in the past should be welcomed. However, they considered the views presented in Lady Sapiens to be biased where gender relations in the Palaeolithic are concerned.

This chalk figurine from Renacourt, France, dates back to c.23,000 years ago. We do not know who made such objects, nor the intended recipients, but one Czech terracotta example has a child’s fingerprint on the back. IMAGE: photograph by S Lancelot, Inrap

Such debate raises the question of just how much can reliably be said about life in the era. Although we wrote our book before becoming aware of Lady Sapiens, we believe that our approach provides a valuable way to think about this important subject.

Understanding ancient lives

Given the gaps in the archaeological evidence, it is useful to start a consideration of roles during the era by assessing what ethnographic parallels reveal about the kind of allocation of activities that can occur in hunter-gatherer societies. The French specialists responding to Lady Sapiens employed this as a way to examine the causes and mechanisms of male domination, as observed in the great majority of hunter-gatherer societies. This domination is often expressed in terms of sexual and matrimonial rights – examples of which can include the husband being able to lend out or disown his wife, whereas she has no equivalent rights. There are cases, too, of women being abducted by men (usually individually rather than collectively), while polygamy is also widespread. According to the Ethnographic Atlas, only 16 of the 178 recorded hunter-gatherer groups practised monogamy. In the vast majority of the other cases, it is the men who have multiple wives, rather than the other way around.

How it used to be seen. This now lost painting by Paul-Joseph Jamin (1853-1903) shows an early 20th-century view of a Cro-Magnon artist at work. In such works, the artist is always a white bearded male, while women – often topless or naked – gaze on admiringly.

Ethnography also points to techniques geared towards creating male social dominance, including initiation religions, in which they were informed of secrets that no uninitiated person or child or adult woman could learn without incurring a death sentence. Studies of all hunter-gatherers known to ethnology, on all continents, have shown that women are consistently subjected to a series of prohibitions – such as using the most lethal cutting or piercing weapons. But how far back in time do such restrictions go, and how prevalent were they?

When Pedro Saura and Matilde Múzquiz were producing the facsimile of the Altamira ceiling, they formed the view that the artist responsible for the bison (above) was most likely male. Matilde was also alive to the possibility of women artists, and wondered if they might be responsible for the horses there (below).

The Lady Sapiens view is that Upper Palaeolithic women were so involved in numerous everyday activities and indispensable to survival that they simply could not be dominated: their economic importance excluded the possibility of their subordination. On the other hand, as far as the group of French specialists are concerned, this idea is contradicted by the whole history of gender-domination.

To try to move on from these opposing views, it is essential to turn to the archaeology, and see how much actual evidence there is for a sexual division of labour among Upper Palaeolithic societies.

Ice Age artistry and burials The most-celebrated archaeological traces of Upper Palaeolithic people are their cave and rock art. Indeed, the very first novel about the Palaeolithic, Adrien Arcelin’s Solutré ou les chasseurs de rennes de la France centrale (1872), featured a young woman who was both chief and artist. Despite this, it has previously been generally assumed – by the almost-exclusively male scholars – that only men were artists, and that the imagery reflected male preoccupations of hunting and sex. We now know that this is nonsense, and since women do produce rock art in other cultures – such as in Australia – there is no reason whatsoever to assume that all, or even most, Ice Age imagery was created by ­­men.

There are instances where the sex of the artist has been guessed at, sometimes based on generalised assumptions relating to size. In the case of the great bison on the Altamira ceiling, drawn with such extensive and sweeping lines, it was the joint opinion of Pedro Saura and Matilde Múzquiz, the husband-and-wife artists who produced the facsimile of the ceiling, that the artist was clearly a large individual and so most likely a man, although naturally this does not rule out a woman. At the other end of the scale, some cave art is located in such cramped and narrow spaces – such as in the Diverticule aux Bisons in France’s Bédeilhac Cave, with its small crawlway and narrow chimney – that the sophisticated figures are thought to have been drawn by a very small adult – rather than a child – and that this could, by the same reasoning, have been a woman.

A hand stencil from El Castillo, Spain. Various factors make it difficult to ‘sex’ such stencils, including differences in technique and the shape and position of the wall. IMAGE: Pedro Saura

It has been wondered, too, whether the creation of numerous stencils from human hands in caves might seem to offer a guide to who was creating this art. In reality, though, it is by no means easy to ‘sex’ the hand stencils in the caves – modern studies of hand stencils made by indigenous Australians, European students, and other groups have all shown that there is tremendous overlap between those made by adult females, adolescents, and small males. It is therefore a myth that the Ice Age hand stencils were certainly made either by predominantly men or predominantly women. It is in any case very hard to obtain reliable measurements of Palaeolithic hand stencils, while the sexing of hands is also difficult due to differences caused by the technique, the position of the hand, the shape of the wall, and so on. Experiments in making such marks have revealed that an individual can create varied measurements that appear suggestive of different sexes – in short, one person can produce very different stencils.

In most cases, then, we simply do not know the sex of the artists. The carvers of female figurines and vulvas were traditionally assumed to be male, but of course could just as easily have been female – it is known that women do produce sacred art in some hunter-gatherer societies – and one can extend this argument to the whole of Palaeolithic art, invoking initiation ceremonies to explain menstruation, with lunar notation as supporting evidence, but once again with no certainty.

Palaeolithic art includes these life-size sculptures of female figures in Angles-sur-l’Anglin, France (above), and what are believed to be images of vulvas in Tito Bustillo, Spain (below), although there could be lots of other explanations.
IMAGE: Geneviève Pinçon; Pedro Saura

We do, however, have one site where a good case can be made for a female artist. The Magdalenian sculpted frieze of Cap Blanc (Dordogne) comprises six horses, several bison, and one or two deer heads. Close examination of the carvings and the direction of tool-blows had suggested to some researchers that the artist was left-handed. An adult skeleton was found buried beneath the centre of the frieze; it was dug up in 1911, and subsequently sold to the Field Museum in Chicago. Long thought to be a male, it was subsequently identified by more-detailed analysis as a female, probably aged between 25 and 35. In 2001, a cast of her skeleton was acquired and placed in its rightful location beneath the frieze; the anthropologist who positioned the cast noticed that she had greater muscular development on the left and was thus left-handed. So it is reasonable to suspect that she was indeed the sculptor, buried in a place of honour in front of her work.

There are other examples of burials providing hints of an individual’s status, although we have so few well-excavated burials for the European Upper Palaeolithic that it is impossible to know what funerary treatment was special or normal for the period. Lady Sapiens refers to two old excavations of Palaeolithic female burials from Europe: the Dame du Cavillon (Italy), and that of St-Germain-la-Rivière (France). In both cases, the women were carefully buried with grave goods and jewellery, doubtless denoting status of some kind. We have also considered in our book the burials of a number of women who died in or shortly before childbirth, as well as a remarkable and more-recent discovery in Spain. In 2010, the incomplete remains of a female buried in El Mirón cave in Cantabria were uncovered. She has become known as the ‘Red Lady’ due to the unusual ochre used in her burial – it is rich in haematite crystals, giving it an intensely sparkling effect. To date, this woman is the only adult Ice Age burial found anywhere in the Iberian Peninsula. Osteological analysis revealed she was about 35-40 years old when she died, and she was buried sometime around 18,700 years ago. We have absolutely no idea why she was singled out for burial, but it seems likely that she was highly respected during her life to warrant such an elaborate interment.

The cast of the Cap Blanc skeleton lying in front of the sculpted frieze’s central horse.

Hunter-gatherers and the sexual division of labour

Just as there has been a traditional reluctance to credit Upper Palaeolithic women with rock art, so too early sexism – especially in the 19th and early 20th century – is responsible for women usually not being associated with many important roles within hunter-gatherer societies. Even then there could be exceptions, though. While most early researchers tended to dismiss the possibility of women making stone tools, no less a figure than the renowned rock-art scholar abbé Henri Breuil depicted female toolmakers in a book of 1949, Beyond the Bounds of History: scenes from the Old Stone Age – a pioneering contribution.

Where human remains are concerned, any sexual division of labour is unlikely to leave much trace on skeletons, and future archaeologists would be hard pressed to detect many modern professional specialisations from our bones. The problem is especially acute for the Upper Palaeolithic, where we have so few human remains for the 30,000 years in question, and most of what does exist is poorly preserved. Yet one 2014 study, by Sébastien Villotte and Christopher Knüsel, showed that a sexual division of labour can sometimes be strongly indicated in prehistoric populations, when they detected evidence of ‘thrower’s elbow’ in the right elbows of men – and only men – which suggests repeated throwing of spears; this certainly matches numerous ethnographic observations in which thrown weapons are exclusively the province of men.

Although Lady Sapiens mentions this study, it places greater emphasis on the recently reported discovery of a female big-game hunter in South America. The 9,000-year-old remains of a young adult were excavated at the Andean highland site of Wilamaya Patjxa (Peru). A ‘hunter’s tool-kit’ comprising projectile points and animal-processing tools was buried with the deceased. Osteological analysis revealed this young person had been around 18 years old at death, while analysis of tooth enamel suggested that the deceased could be female, so some see this as evidence for a woman hunter.

Henri Breuil, in a book of 1949, was one of the few scholars to depict Ice Age women making stone tools.

Of course, strong, agile women would have been just as capable of hunting as men, but despite this reality, among modern hunter-gatherers the hunting of big game is usually a male pursuit – although when, where, and why this division first occurred remains a mystery. There are, though, several reasons why women may have been excluded, or opted out, from hunting at times.

Keeping women and children safe from the dangers of hunting large animals would have been a good strategy for the survival of our species. Also, if a woman is carrying a child in a cradleboard, it could place her at a disadvantage during hunting activities. Most modern hunter-gatherer women report that hunting is not compatible with child-rearing roles, unlike fishing and the necessary daily task of ‘gathering’ a nutritious and more-reliable supply of food. These women report, too, that their contribution is just as valued as bringing home parcels of meat – which is by no means guaranteed – and typically join hunting expeditions for the tracking and flushing out of animals, without taking part in the killing of large beasts.

One of the engraved stone plaquettes from Gönnersdorf (Germany, c.12,600 years ago) depicts what seem to be four highly stylised women, one behind the other, with a small form behind the back of the second one. It is generally interpreted as the representation of a baby being carried tied to the back of a woman.

However, it is important to note the Agta women of the Philippines, who provide an example of a modern hunter-gatherer population where the women hunt for wild pigs, deer, and monkeys as often as their male counterparts. These are not seen as dangerous prey, and the Agta women state that pregnancy in no way limits their activities. Indeed, these hunters carry infants in slings, which keeps them close enough to feed, while the women’s hands remain free to use spears.

There are, then, grounds to believe that women hunted in the past. At the same time, there may have been periods when some women kept their offspring safer by staying close to home. But even if child-rearing did become a priority, surely women would still have acquired skills relating to hunting and butchering animals, and be self-sufficient in order to survive if hunters failed to return from an expedition, leaving the remainder of the group to fend for themselves and their children.

A reconstruction of an Upper Palaeolithic woman and child by Elisabeth Daynès.

It makes absolute sense that both sexes would have to be competent at every skill necessary for survival: females would need to gain expertise in hunting, tracking, and toolmaking, along with the men in these communities. So it seems outdated to assume that hunting was confined to men in the prehistoric past. Both sexes are perfectly capable of the many skills required: knowing the possible location of herds, following tracks, good listening and sight and smell, coordination and long-distance accuracy with weapons – and last, but not least, physical endurance.

The logical conclusion is that Ice Age women could hunt and make tools, even if these activities might decline during times of pregnancy and rearing their young.

In the same vein, Ice Age men could have been efficient and proficient at all the tasks listed in the box below: able to forage, cook, process hides and sew, and care for and teach their children. Presenting Ice Age men merely as tool- and weaponmakers and as hunters is to portray them as well in a very one-dimensional way.

Embracing uncertainty

A reconstruction of an Upper Palaeolithic group, by Elisabeth Daynès. The seated woman is painting a pattern of pigments on the child. The man is holding a spear. While modern ethnographic parallels show that women are often prohibited from using the deadliest weapons, it is likely that Upper Palaeolithic women were also skilled hunters.

Hunter-gatherer populations live in environments they feel no need to tame or shape to their own ends, a natural world that they know they can neither control nor dominate, and where they depend entirely on one another for survival. In this milieu, the pattern of daily life and concerns seems to have little need of gender politics. Of course, we will never know what traditions different cultural groups observed over tens of thousands of years, although ethnographic comparisons indicate that observing rules/taboos regarding specific male/female roles is often present and ritualised, and not without consequences for those who fail to observe them.

We know absolutely nothing about Ice Age language or thinking, but undoubtedly both must have been fairly advanced in order to communicate thoughts and desires to each other, and in order to organise complex everyday activities. The lives of Ice Age populations necessarily required advanced levels of mental-processing.

Returning to the recent debate, what can we say about the roles of Palaeolithic women? The inescapable truth is that we cannot confidently assume anything about the roles of women, or men, in the Palaeolithic. Would Ice Age cultures have understood the concept of male or female dominance or superiority? Should we be thinking instead about individuals gaining ‘status’ by certain achievements, or fulfilling their obligations to the group’s well-being? The issue in particular of whether hunting in the Ice Age was usually by men alone, or both men and women, is a conundrum that is unlikely to be resolved. Indeed, there may be no single answer, with different groups in different times and places adopting different approaches. Either way, it seems no more important than the question of who did any of the other essential activities over this period of our long cultural development. Whatever activities men and women participated in, separately or together, it does not follow that there would have been a direct link between men hunting and their dominating women. We simply do not know!

Economic activities other than hunting – who did these jobs?

Butchering and skinning animals
Processing skins and furs for clothing etc
Netting animals
Fishing and gutting
Collecting wood, bones, animal dung for fires
Keeping the fires going continuously
Gathering seasonal foodstuffs like roots and plant food, eggs, berries and nuts
Collecting water
Processing food for storage
Exploring/trading away from home

Making containers
Making textiles for clothing, ropes, and nets
Collecting stone, bone and antler, and ochre
Processing ochre Making stone, bone, and antler tools
Making tools (needles, awls) for sewing and skin processing
Making beads and jewellery
Teaching children skills they need to survive

Further reading
Elle Clifford and Paul Bahn (2022),
Everyday Life in the Ice Age
(Archaeopress, ISBN 978-1803272580, £24.99).
All images: courtesy of Elle Clifford and Paul Bahn, unless otherwise stated.