Ancient tools found in graves across Europe suggest women and men performed specific gender-based tasks in farming societies about 5,000 years ago, according to scientists.
An analysis of 400 stone objects from the Neolithic period – when farming practices spread across the continent – showed that tools found in female graves were most likely used for the working of animal skins and hide.
Meanwhile, objects found in men’s graves were associated with hunting, woodwork, butchery, and potential conflict.
However, UK scientists involved in the study point out this division of labour based on biological sex is not a sign of gender inequality but rather shows how “the different roles of men and women were a crucial part of the transition to farming in human societies”.
“The gendered roles, far from being a sign of early gender inequalities, actually shows how dynamic farming societies were and how aware they were of the different skills of members of their community,” said Dr Penny Bickle, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology.
“The tasks attributed to women were difficult manual work and complemented the work of the men as equal contributors to their community. The fact that you see these objects in the graves of men and women, demonstrates how marked out and valued they were for these jobs.”
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The researchers also found geographic variations in these results, hinting gender-based division of labour may have shifted as agricultural practices spread towards the west.
In the east, there is evidence to suggest women moved around more than men, the experts said. On contrast, analysis indicated that in the west men moved around more and had tools more associated with hunting than women.
“Women’s roles and contributions to these very early human societies are often downplayed; but here we show that they took an active role in shaping early farming communities,” said Alba Masclans Latorre, a postdoctoral researcher from Barcelona and the lead on the study.
“So important was their role that these activities were chosen to mark them out in death, but we see the same in the graves of men, suggesting that there were indeed specific gendered roles, but all of these jobs were hugely significant to the proper functioning of their society.”
The findings are published in the journal Plos One.
When did humans first start wearing clothes?
To expand into the cold hinterlands of Europe and Asia, our ancestors needed to keep warm. The earliest possible evidence for clothing in ancient humans is stone tools found at archaeological sites like Gran Dolina in the Spanish Atapuerca Mountains (associated with Homo antecessor and dated to around 780,000 years ago), or in Schöningen in Germany (Homo heidelbergensis, around 400,000 years ago), which may have been used to prepare animal hides.
We see clearer evidence from the Neanderthals, who lived as far back as 400,000 years ago: the pattern of musculature on Neanderthal arms suggests that they habitually carried out tasks like hide preparation. Despite having bodies that were more cold-adapted than ours, a 2012 study estimated that Neanderthals may have needed to cover up to 80 per cent of their bodies to survive the harsh winters.
In modern humans, (Homo sapiens), the adoption of clothing may have left its traces on some hangers-on: a 2011 study suggested that clothing lice began to genetically diverge from human head lice around 170,000 years ago, proposing a date for when we started to wear clothes.
During winter, we probably needed to cover as much as 90 per cent of the body, which may be why we developed more modern-looking clothing than the fur cloaks that Neanderthals are suggested to have worn. By around 40,000 years ago, we were using needles and awls, made out of bone and stone, to create sewn, fitted clothes to keep us warm.
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