The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Women and Warfare: It's Not Just For Amazons Anymore

Early women were nothing more than the spoils of war: or were they?

The hunter-gather mythos tells a pretty straightforward story: Men did the hunting, women did everything else.

Everything else included gathering berries and plucking fruit and digging tubers. Women tended the fire and cooked the food and reared the children. And in these days before birth-control or reproductive knowledge, those kids came in an endless stream.

Since the notion of peace with one’s neighbors really didn’t come into vogue until after the industrial revolution, warfare was a constant threat and one that was often worse for the women. Why? Because that’s what people fought over before there was such thing as property. Women were the spoils of war. The reason tribes attacked other tribes was to steal their ladies. There was good reason for this: at a time when the only people who had your back were kin, stealing women who could then bear you more children made good evolutionary sense.

But this entire story hangs on one simple notion: that women, being smaller and slighter than men, couldn’t properly defend themselves.

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Even tools, those great sexual equalizers, didn’t help the situation. Our ancestry had three main weapons of war: the spear, the club, and the bow and arrow—and all are tools that rely on strength to wield.

But not so fast. There’s a new idea in the works and this idea reshapes much of what we think of when we think of prehistoric warfare.

The new idea isn’t really that new. It’s a 70,000 year old machine known as the “atlatl.” The word itself is borrowed from the Aztecs and describes a combination sling-shot and a spear. The atlatl is not a spear, but a device used to throw a spear: essentially a long stick (usually about a meter in length) with a curved backside. The spear is balanced atop the atlatl, with its back end tucked neatly into the curved end of the device. When the spear-thrower hurls their weapon, the atlatl acts as an extension of the arm, amplifying spear propulsion to speeds of almost 150 m.p.h.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with early feminism? Well, as Grinnell College anthropologist John Whittaker figured out, it turns out, throwing a spear with an atlatl doesn’t actually require that much strength. Instead, it requires a ton of balance and dexterity. And those are two things that women have in spades.

The balance part comes from having wider hips and, thus, a lower center of gravity than men. The dexterity part comes from having to do things like avoid thorns to pluck berries and such. Both are just part of the feminine skill set.

Plus, in the days before armor (or before anything but leather armor), 150 mph is more than enough velocity to throw a spear almost clear through a human torso or, for that matter, a large mammal.

The point is this, by wielding an atlatl, women could have fought and hunted right alongside the men. Thus the whole notion of the defenseless stay-at-home mom goes right out the window.

So why, you might wonder, am I writing about this in a column about the science of sport? Well, the same story that says that men were hunter and women gatherers also says that our earliest sports were extensions of this same division of labor.

The story goes that women didn’t play sports back on the veldt because women didn’t need to practice for the battleground. But the atlatl changes that entire equation, meaning there might have been female games going on eons before anyone ever conceived of Title 9.

Is this a "just so" story or an accurate picture of reality remains to be seen, but the notion does raise plenty of interesting questions about the early history of women athletes.

 

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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