A new survey of a very ancient technology – stone tools – has provided evidence that supports the theory that a gender-based division of labour emerged with the adoption of farming, at least as far as Europe is concerned. A team of four scientists from Spain, France and the UK, led by Alba Masclans of the Spanish National Research Council, analysed more than 400 stone tools collected from Early Neolithic graves in Central Europe.
The Neolithic period, popularly known as the New Stone Age, was the last period of the wider Stone Age. The evidence suggests that it emerged in the Middle East some 12 000 years ago and slowly spread north, west, east and south. While Greece entered the Neolithic some 9 000 years ago, Britain and Scandinavia did not follow suit until about 5 000 years ago.
In terms of stone tools, the Neolithic was marked by the development and use of tools created from harder rocks by means of grinding and polishing, in place of tools created by chipping softer rocks into the desired shapes. But the Neolithic also saw a much greater advance: the invention of agriculture, especially through the cultivation of cereals, and the domestication of animals. This ‘Neolithic Revolution’ transformed humans from food-gathers to food-producers and allowed people to settle down and create villages and develop new specialities. For example, pottery and weaving emerged during the Neolithic period.
In Central Europe, the Early Neolithic period was some 5 000 years ago. Masclans and her team (Caroline Hamon of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, Christian Jeunesse of France’s University of Strasbourg and Penny Bickle of the University of York in the UK) examined the physical characteristics of the tools. This analysis included microscopic wear patterns on the tools. This allowed them to determine what the tools had been used for. The sex of the individuals in the graves from which the tools where retrieved was determined by the analysis of isotopes found in their bones as well as from osteological data.
They found that stone tools buried with men had been used for woodworking, hunting, butchery and “interpersonal violence” (as the team phrased it). The stone tools buried with women had been used on animal hides or leather. They also found regional variations in their results, suggesting that the gender-based division of labour spread through Europe with the spread of agriculture.
“Our study points towards a complex and dynamic gendered social organisation rooted in a sexed division of labour from the earliest Neolithic,” stated the four researchers. But they warn against “simple models of either binary gender hierarchy or complete equality”. Their research was published in the online journal PLOS ONE.