Neolithic grave tools indicate sexual division of labor among farmers

April 26, 2021
Gender division of labor is nothing new, it turns out. (AP Photo/Michael Casey)

Gender division of labor is nothing new, it turns out. (AP Photo/Michael Casey)

A technological and use-wear analysis of stone tools found at Neolithic gravesites suggests that men and women were assigned distinctively different work tasks in daily life, due in part to the onset of agricultural development.

Unlike previous research, which drew from ethnographic studies to suggest a sexual division of labor in prehistoric societies, this analysis — published April 14 in PLOS ONE — compiled new skeletal and burial evidence to provide a more complete picture of the work men and women performed in the Neolithic period. Its findings indicate that men and women performed distinctly different labor tasks: Men were buried with stone tools that were once used for woodwork, butchery, hunting or interpersonal violence, while women were buried with stone tools designed for working animal hides or producing leather.

The artifacts were distributed in an observable geographic pattern from modern-day Slovakia to eastern France, hinting that the westward spread of agriculture played a formative role in establishing the sexual division of labor. However, many questions remain as to how different tasks became culturally associated with women, men and perhaps other genders at this time. 

Direct insight into the conditions of daily life for men and women during the Neolithic period can also be extrapolated from the study of their bones. Although women were not buried alongside tools commonly associated with warfare and interpersonal violence, their skeletons bear the brunt of wounds from violence-related injuries, explained Alba Masclans, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the Institució Milà i Fontanals, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Barcelona, Spain.

"The mass murder sites together with the study of grave goods points out that only males had the means of hurting, killing and even torturing their neighbors," Masclans told The Academic Times. "Furthermore, female and juveniles were more likely to suffer violence-related injuries than males in non-mass murder contexts. All this gives an image very different from the idyllic Neolithic picture that we often have in mind, especially for women."

Researchers analyzed over 400 stone tools buried in graves in various central European cemeteries approximately 7,000 years ago during the Early Neolithic. For the first time, researchers sought to determine how grave goods — a term used by anthropologists to describe items buried with prehistoric bodies — were used in daily life prior to their selection for burial. They examined the artifacts' physical characteristics, including microscopic patterns of wear, in order to determine how the tools were originally implemented, then analyzed these clues in the context of isotopic and osteological data obtained from the gravesites.

Masclans and her co-authors noted that the grave goods analyzed in this study were not necessarily used by the specific people they were buried with, but could have also been selected to represent activities typically carried out by different genders in specific societal contexts.

"Our modern-day patriarchal conception of work also makes us impose our modern values to prehistory," Masclans said. "For example, if we identify females in association with care activities ... we automatically assume that those works and the people who carried them out were as undervalued then as they are now. But we actually do not know anything about the Neolithic or Paleolithic systems of work valorization."

Neolithic communities might have assigned higher value to care work or other female-assigned roles than we do today, Masclans pointed out; likewise, it should not be taken for granted that a binary concept of gender existed in preindustrial societies. An ideal approach, Masclans said, would combine results from this new gravesite analysis and similar studies — which explore the "symbolic" sphere — with knowledge obtained from the economic sphere, which outlines how settlements were organized around socioeconomic factors.

Considering the role of women during periods of socioeconomic transformation, Masclans hopes her and her co-authors' new research will contribute to a better understanding of the complex factors involved in the rise of gender inequalities before the Bronze Age. 

"For me it is important to not only acknowledge that women were 'there' — something that historians keep forgetting — but [to] actually understand [what] was their role in these changes and the consequences in their quality of life and life opportunities," Masclans said.

The study, "A sexual division of labour at the start of agriculture? A multi-proxy comparison through grave good stone tool technological and use-wear analysis," published April 14 in PLOS ONE, was authored by Alba Masclans, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, Institució Milà i Fontanals, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas; Caroline Hamon, UMR 8215 Trajectoires, French National Centre for Scientific Research; Christian Jeunesse, MISHA 5, Université de Strasbourg; and Penny Bickle, Department of Archaeology, University of York.

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