Three years ago, scientists re-examined the remains of a 10th-century Viking warrior excavated in Sweden at the end of the 19th century by Hjalmar Stolpe, an archaeologist. The skeleton had been regally buried at the top of a hill, with a sword, two shields, arrows and two horses. For decades, beginning with the original excavation, archaeologists assumed the Viking was a man. When researchers in the 1970s conducted a new anatomical evaluation of the skeleton, they began to suspect that the Viking was in fact a woman. But it wasn’t until 2017, when a group of Swedish archaeologists and geneticists extracted DNA from the remains, that the sex of the warrior indeed proved to be female.
The finding led to controversy over whether the skeleton was really a warrior, with scholars and pundits protesting what they called revisionist history. Although the genetic sex determination thus was indisputable (the bones of the skeleton had two X chromosomes), these criticisms led the Swedish researchers to examine the evidence yet again, and present a second, more contextual analysis in 2019. Their conclusion again was that the person had been a warrior.
The naysayers raised fair points. In archaeology, as the researchers admitted, we can’t always know why a community buried someone with particular objects. And one female warrior does not mean that many women were leaders, just as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was not part of a larger feminist movement.
Challenges to “man the hunter” have emerged in new examinations of the early cultures of the Americas as well. In the 1960s, an archaeological dig uncovered in the ancient city of Cahokia, in what is now southwestern Illinois, a 1,000-to-1,200-year-old burial site with two central bodies, one on top of the other, surrounded by other skeletons. The burial was full of shell beads, projectile points and other luxury items. At the time, the archaeologists concluded that this was a burial of two high-status males flanked by their servants.
But in 2016 archaeologists conducted a fresh examination of the grave. The two central figures, it turned out, were a male and a female; they were surrounded by other male-female pairs. Thomas Emerson, who conducted the study with colleagues from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois, alongside scientists from other institutions, said the Cahokia discovery demonstrated the existence of male and female nobility. “We don’t have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts,” as he put it.