The discovery of the remains of a woman from 8,000 years ago with a whole arsenal to hunt has given archeology a good roll. That a 17 to 19 year old girl hunted large animals with spears (spears) in the Andes comes to question the image that hunting was a man’s thing and women, in any case, were in charge of cleaning and preparing the pieces. Other recent works show that this supposed division of tasks was not as universal or as old as previously thought. In fact, many scientists point out that it is a more recent phenomenon.
“Our study was limited to America and we would like to know if a similar pattern has been observed elsewhere,” says lead author of the huntress study, University of California Davis anthropologist Randy Haas. “There is some evidence that the sexual division of labor was also much less pronounced or absent in Middle Palaeolithic Europe,” he adds, and mentions the works of Mary Stiner and Steve Kuhn. These archaeologists maintain that the diet of those times, the era of the Neanderthals (between 150,000 and 40,000 years ago), was very limited, highlighting the meat, and they did not make tailor-made clothing. So there wouldn’t be much room for division of labor.
Kuhn tells in an email that “the division of labor by gender is more a product of social norms than of biology or psychology.” And he gives the example of the fact of motherhood, a biological argument of those who maintain that the differential distribution of tasks is something almost natural. “Motherhood can tip the balance in one direction, but it doesn’t completely close any avenue,” she says and reasons: “We have to remember that being a good hunter or a good gatherer depends on acquiring a lot of knowledge and reaching a high level of skill. . It would be difficult and dangerous for women to participate in hunting large animals when they are in the late stages of gestation or when they have nursing babies. It would make sense for these women to develop other skills, such as those related to gathering or processing plant foods. Of course, when they passed the age of having children or did not have them for some other reason, women could become skilled hunters and in fact they did.
The gender division of labor is more a product of social norms than biology or psychology
Steven L. Kuhn, anthropologist at the University of Arizona (USA)
Among the ancestors of Neanderthals there was no division of labor by sex. At least that’s what a study of your worn teeth indicates. “The [homininos] of the Sima de los Huesos [en Atapuerca] they already used teeth as a tool 400,000 years ago ”, says Marina Lozano, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES). “The teeth give a huge amount of information, they tell us their age, what they had eaten or some of the pathologies they suffered. But they used them, we use them, for other things apart from their biological function and they wear out according to the use we give them and the type of wear indicates a specific task “, Lozano details. In the teeth of the remains found in the Sima de los All bones had the same type of wear, “that is, the whole group did the same,” he concludes.
“In the Neanderthals, everyone went hunting in a group, something else was what they did later,” says Almudena Estalrrich, a scientist from the EvoAdapta research group at the University of Cantabria. In one of his works, also with worn teeth, he concludes that about 50,000 years ago there was already some specialization of tasks. After analyzing the teeth of dozens of Neanderthals, in particular their incisors, from three different sites in Spain, France and Belgium, they observed that they all had markings, but their number, intensity and shape were different. “In the women’s teeth, there were more and longer stretch marks. They did something different from the men,” he says.
The director of the National Center for Research on Human Evolution (Cenieh) María Martinón-Torres maintains that the division of roles at work has been common throughout the history of the human being. But not necessarily because of gender, “but because of the capacities necessary to carry out certain tasks that can be physically more demanding and that can limit the participation of some women but also of children, the elderly and some men who may be physically less prepared” , details. Regarding the conclusions of the Haas hunter study, Martinón-Torres recalls that “hunting in our species is a social type hunt, that is, it is organized and developed in a group, and implies the design of the strategy, the search for clues, tracking, creating decoys… hunting is not just muscle, it is also brain ”.
“Prehistory has been represented in heroic, masculine terms, always with young and biased men,” says Juan Luis Arsuaga, paleoanthropologist and scientific director of the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos. The also co-director of the Atapuerca Foundation recalls that melee hunting gave way to technology, to throwing weapons with which people killed at a distance. “That hunt, in which an aurochs were chased for a month, is there, but the children had to be fed every day.”
Arsuaga introduces one of the aspects that have most distorted the study of the past: doing it with the eyes of the present, idealizing some tasks and trivializing others. “What really counts for the group is the number of calories,” he specifies. For Martinón-Torres “the main thing is not so much to attack or not the possible stereotype of whether a job is female or male, but to emphasize that perhaps the stereotype is also in considering that the collection or hunting of small prey is a minor task compared to hunting large prey ”. Recent studies already analyze the diet in terms of cost. “In this sense, hunting large prey requires a lot of investment and search time, but in terms of return a lot of energy and time has been devoted to an activity whose success rate is very unpredictable”, completes the director of Cenieh.
Many scientists argue that it was with the advance of the Sapiens and, above all, with their Neolithic revolution and its transformations, that the gender division of labor became more acute. On the one hand, the introduction of agriculture radically transformed obtaining food, increasingly relegating hunting. In 2017, a study with dozens of skeletal remains of European women found that the bones of their arms were modified with agricultural advance.
The sedentarization facilitated by agriculture also generated the appearance of population centers and with them the gender division of labor flourished. Lozano had the opportunity to analyze with a scanning electron microscope the teeth of a hundred buried under the soil of Castellón Alto, a town of the El Argar culture, which flourished in the Iberian southeast some 4,000 years ago.
The wear of the teeth has shown that in the first cities there was already a marked division of labor by gender
“Of all the teeth, we found those of an elderly woman, with very few already, showing wear and very large grooves. It was missing pieces of enamel and had stretch marks caused by a very repetitive task, such as holding tightly and stretching, ”explains Lozano. This wear pattern could be caused, he says, by textile work, in the spinning of a plant or animal material, such as wool or linen, which are abrasive. “The most revealing thing is that we found the same wear on four other dentures, all for women.”
The prehistoric Marylène Patou-Mathis has just published the book in France L’Homme Prehistorique Est Aussi une Femme. Une Histoire de l’Invisibilite des Femmes (Prehistoric man is also a woman. A story of the invisibility of women). In an email, he explains how the division of labor was accentuated: “About 6,000 years before Christ there was a change in social organization.” It was a period marked by a local demographic explosion linked to the abundance of food and sedentarization and the appearance of accumulation and wealth. For Patou-Mathis, “these changes would have remodeled social relations, giving rise to elites and castes, including that of warriors, and resulting in a division of tasks more marked by gender,” he adds.