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The thing that's easy to forget about history is that so much of it is bullshit. It's the result of modern people trying to piece together the past from fragments, all of it skewed by their own point of view. And that screwed-up understanding of the past changes how we think about the present.

For instance, we assume ancient women probably didn't fight wars or make art because we didn't allow women to do so until embarrassingly recently. But, it turns out that archaeology has proven a whole bunch of our assumptions to be wrong, which -- in addition to tricking Nazis into melting their own faces off -- is exactly what archaeologists are supposed to do. Thanks to them, we know that ...

5
Women Fought as Roman Gladiators

Uni Desseldorf

Most of what we know about Roman gladiators comes from the movie Gladiator -- male slaves and criminals were forced into the Colosseum to maim each other to death, as a means of entertaining the populace and finding a use for all of the exotic animals that the Romans collected like Pokemon. There was one woman in Gladiator, but she got to ride in a chariot and shoot arrows at all of the other gladiators, so that hardly counts.

DreamWorks Pictures
"I did get to technically invent the 'drive-by' though."

But Really:

The gladiatorial arena wasn't just a meat grinder for male slaves with rippling abs. In fact, many of the people who participated in history's most notorious blood sport were volunteers -- trained soldiers and politicians looking for a little extra street cred. And, as it turns out, plenty of them were women. Written records of female gladiators are persistent, but sparse, almost as if the Romans didn't think the concept was so bizarre that they needed to specify when the combatants were women.

Thomas Couture
"Who cares? In the dark, we're all the same!"
"Well, sir, actually ... "
"Shut up and fetch me more wine!"

Lady gladiators weren't the result of some particularly progressive emperor who believed in gender equality in death sports, either. It was quite the opposite -- women's participation was the norm for 200 years, with evidence of various restrictions (no direct female relatives of a general or a senator could be recruited as gladiators, for instance) until Emperor Septimius Severus finally banned it, possibly because he had a cousin or something that got his ass chopped off by Lucretia the Crusher.

So, why haven't you heard about this before now? Well, this serves as a nice example of how this kind of unintentional exclusion works: When archaeologists dug up this statue of a female gladiator, threateningly brandishing some kind of weapon in a victorious warrior pose, they originally described it as "a cleaning tool" -- because cleaning is a thing that women do. And, if you're going to clean something, you might as well do it with the power of Grayskull.

Alfonso Manas/National Geographic
They had other theories about how women used the tool ...
but couldn't say them without blushing and giggling like assholes.

Then, back in 2000, archaeologists discovered the grave of a decorated gladiator, but were confused when they saw that the body inside was female -- as if a woman had accidentally fallen in the grave by mistake.

This isn't to suggest that the Romans were any less of an aggressively patriarchal, chest-thumping society of dudes, only that they had a surprisingly equal-opportunity attitude about who could be thrown into a pit to get their head bashed in with a mace for the sake of entertainment. But, for about two thousand years, we have had a really hard time wrapping our heads around that idea. Likewise ...

4
Women Samurai Were More Common Than You Think

Kuniyoshi Utagawa

In feudal Japan, the samurai were gruff, honor-bound, and invariably male badasses marching single-mindedly toward poetic deaths. This was a society in which women were often relegated to the caricature of demure, heavily painted geishas, whose most important wartime responsibility was crying over their dead fathers/brothers/husbands. But, under no circumstance could they actually join the men in the fight as equals -- female samurai just weren't culturally acceptable at the time, sort of like when people briefly tried to wear their clothes backward in the wake of the heavy Kriss Kross influence of the early 1990s.

Gion Seitoku
A geisha is no Mac Daddy. She's barely even a Daddy Mac.

But Really:

Women in feudal Japan would fuck shit up. They were raised with the same Bushido code as their male counterparts -- death before dishonor, which basically means "never be taken alive" (women always had daggers at the ready for the specific purpose of lancing them through either an attacker's chest or their own hearts at a moment's notice). They didn't just fight as the last line of defense in an emergency either -- DNA analysis of the victims of one particular battle, the battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580, showed that 35 of the 105 bodies tested were female. So, almost one-third of the warriors killed in that fight were packing ovaries.

Toyohara Chikanobu
Big brass ones.

Upper class women in feudal Japan were actually taught a different form of martial arts than men, specifically training in the use of a type of spear tipped with a curved blade, called a naginata. This doesn't mean that women were any less deadly, just that the specific method of murder-training received was dealt out along gender lines and according to particular strengths (for the same reason that you wouldn't give Johnny Hatchetslayer a baseball bat). Wives of samurai were expected to know every bit as much about warfare as their husbands and would sometimes even follow them into battle if the situation demanded it -- aka, "if they didn't feel like staying home to manage the estate while their husbands were out stabbing things."

It was actually a law that a military commander's wife would assume command if her husband was absent from duty. By way of analogy, if the president of the United States was kidnapped by ninjas, the line of succession would not go to the vice president, but to the first lady. In fact, one of the more popular samurai legends in Japan is that of Tomoe Gozen, a 12th-century female samurai known for straight-up lopping motherfuckers' heads off.

Kikuchi Yosai
The heads on their necks, we assume.

But, to this day, say "samurai," and whoever is listening is going to automatically picture a dude. That's a real shame -- children could really benefit from learning about a heroic lady role model who dealt out powerful life lessons in the form of righteous decapitations.

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3
The Legendary Amazon Warrior Women Really Existed

History of Alexander

Amazons -- unnaturally huge and bloodthirsty warrior women -- are a mythological warrior race dating back to Greek antiquity and the poems of Homer, so it's easy to lump them in with the rest of the great epic poet's fevered imaginings, such as Cyclopes, mermaids, and Armand Assante.

Outside of Wonder Woman and that one episode of Futurama, the legend of the all-female warrior society commonly involves a number of memorable tropes -- they were giants, they killed male babies at birth, and they frequently sliced off one boob so that they could better wield a bow and arrow. But, by far the most fanciful notion regarding the legendary Amazon warriors is that they existed at all.

20th Televison
They will exist, in the 31st century, but did they exist?

But Really:

Modern archaeology is slowly coming to terms with the revelation that the Amazons actually did exist, even if they weren't 10 feet tall and they generally had two intact breasts. They didn't come from the jungle (the Amazon rainforest and river were named after the Amazons, not the other way around), but what the Greeks were probably referring to were what we now know as the Scythians, warrior tribes from around modern-day Iran and Turkey.

PHGCOM/Wikimedia
Which may explain why a large part of the region is so scared of women today.

The scientific consensus during most of the 20th century was that the Greeks, when talking about "warrior women," were actually referring to beardless lady-men that they mockingly referred to as female -- just to throw some shade. It's not too far-fetched to think that the bearded biceps from 300 would call a bunch of clean-shaven men with fabulous bone structure "women" in a derogatory fashion. People still do that shit today. But, modern excavation of Scythian grave sites in the 1990s has revealed that their warrior ranks included both men and women in equal number. Also, the female warriors were emblazoned with just as many tattoos and battle wounds as their male counterparts. They were even buried with their armor and weapons, just like the men -- almost as though the Scythian culture didn't think that was weird at all.

Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona
Plus, it looks like half of Scythian warriors were velociraptors.

Also, studies of parenting traditions reveal that these female Battlelords probably didn't murder their male children at birth. For one, that doesn't make a whole lot of biological sense, unless the Amazons were able to reproduce asexually like giant gremlins, which most scholars agree is unlikely. It's now thought that boys were sent back home to be raised by their fathers (or by neighboring tribes as a sign of good will) while the warrior women focused on the more important task of beating the shit out of the Greeks.

On a similar note ...

2
Vikings Brought Their Wives Along

Johan Peter Raadsig

We said earlier that the word "samurai" conjures up a specifically male image, but that's even more true with "Viking," which brings to mind bearded rapists hopping on their longboats to burn new and exciting lands to the ground. The one thing everyone knows about viking culture is that the men spent their days splitting people's heads open with axes, while the women stayed at home to become obese, grow pigtails, and sing opera songs (our knowledge of Viking culture is drawn primarily from Hagar the Horrible).

King Features Syndicate
Norse women were quick to anger and hit their Viking husbands with mops.

But Really:

The idea that exploration and conquest was purely a man's job is almost entirely based on romanticized modern fiction than actual history. In fact, the word "Viking" itself is a misnomer when referring to the ancient Norse people -- according to historian Professor Erika Hagelberg, it's the same thing as referring to all Americans as "Marines."

Christian Krohg
And, hell, just referring to soldiers as "Marines" is enough to get your ass kicked.

Really, the Norse were much more interested in peaceful trade and colonization than they were in beating people up and taking their shit. And women took a much more active role in Nordic society than most contemporary representations of Norse people would have us believe. While it's long been assumed that screaming, bloodthirsty Norsemen went out and conquered Europe alone and repopulated it with sexual violence, modern DNA evidence shows that they commonly brought their entire families along on voyages and established new colonies. If anything, they were more like Scandinavian pilgrims than straight-up murdering reapers (although any colonial society depends at least somewhat on murderous reaping).

Pierpont Morgan Library
There would still be murdering and reaping, but also family sing-alongs of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat".

To be clear, there isn't much evidence that women played an active role in those more stab-happy aspects of Viking invasions. But, we do know that lady-folks held a higher place in society than just waiting patiently back in Iceland and making sure the boar was properly roasted in time for their blood-soaked husband to return and slice off a man-sized portion with Englishbrainer, the sword that brained 100 Englishmen.

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1
Artists in the Stone Age Were Mostly Women

Roberto Ontanon Peredo

When the Stone Age rolled around and human beings suddenly became aware that their hands could be used for things other than punching food to death, they started producing copious amounts of artwork. Notably, the artwork include cave paintings and tiny sculptures that were incredible achievements for their time, even if all of them objectively look like shit.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Seriously, what is this crap?
Wait, no, this is modern art worth $37 million. Our bad.

What you might not know is that when archaeologists started digging up these ancient art projects, they made an interesting discovery -- the very earliest human artwork appeared to be pornography, a revelation that probably resulted in archaeologists high-fiving each other and making Tim Allen noises. We're talking about cave paintings of vaginas, giant penises carved out of animal bone, and the famous "Venus figurines" -- small statuettes of women found all over the ancient world that depicted females as headless tree trunks with comically huge breasts.

Archaeologists have just always assumed that these ancient carvings were made by men because who the hell else would spend their free time drawing rudimentary porn and sculpted Titty Action Figures?

University of Tubingen
Either men, or someone with a chicken fetish.

As for cave paintings, the predominant assumption has always been that they were done by men because... well, pretty much just because.

But Really:

You know where this is going: Many archaeologists have recently decided that most cave paintings were probably made by women. How the hell can they possibly know this, outside of finding ancient signatures scribbled on the backs of charcoal mammoths? Well, on average, female hands have a ring finger that is shorter than the index finger (whereas in men, it's the other way around), and this difference is believed to have been more pronounced among ancient people. Applying this rule to the handprints left on cave paintings, scientists have come to the conclusion that nearly three-quarters of them were made by females.

Roberto Ontanon Peredo
Compare that to so-called progressive kindergartens, where girls make only half of all hand turkeys.

The paintings could have been part of some kind of ritual (some hunter-gatherer societies had female shamans), or they could have just been the result of too many hours sitting alone in a dusty cave on Saturday afternoon.

And when female archaeologists began studying the Venus figurines, they noticed that they seemed awfully familiar when viewed from a certain angle -- that is, from the top down. The figurines bear a striking resemblance to the way women, particularly pregnant women, would have seen themselves while looking straight down at their bodies -- basically, just a tidal wave of boobs, belly, and thighs.

Don Hitchcock
Although, it doesn't explain why they thought their heads were made of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

This female perspective has given rise to the alternate theory that, far from being masturbation aids for beta males, the Venus figurines might actually have been self-portraits, something for the pregnant, cave-bound women to occupy their time with -- while the menfolk were out on their food-battling runs or in order to track the progress of their pregnancy, sort of like an ancient growth chart.

Either way, the fact that when we stumbled across these figurines, our first assumption was, "I bet dudes use to jerk off to these things!" says a lot. Though, we suppose, just because a woman made them doesn't necessarily mean some dude didn't jerk off to them later.


A travel addict and writer, Kristance Harlow likes to waste time laughing at ridiculous gifs. Tweet at her. William Kosh writes about the samurai, death metal, and other things 12-year-olds like for Gamevolution U.K. He also rages impotently against the machine as @WillKosh on twitter.

For more misconceptions about history, check out 6 Things From History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and 20 Things Everyone Pictures Incorrectly (Side by Side).

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