A new investigation of stone tools buried in graves provides evidence supporting the existence of a gender-based division of different types of labour at the start of the Neolithic period.
The new findings were laid out in a new paper published recently in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Previous research has suggested that a gender-based division of labour existed in Europe during the transition to the Neolithic period, when farming practices spread across the continent.
However, many questions remain as to how different tasks became culturally associated with women and men at the time.
To provide further insights, Alba Masclans of Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues analysed over 400 stone tools buried in graves in various cemeteries across central Europe. The burials took place about 5,000 years ago during the Early Neolithic period.
They examined the tools’ physical characteristics, including microscopic patterns of wear, in order to determine how the tools were used. They then analysed these clues in the context of isotopic and osteological data from the graves.
The analysis showed that males were buried with stone tools that had previously been used for woodwork, butchery, hunting, or interpersonal violence. Meanwhile, females were buried with stone tools used on animal hides or leather.
The researchers also found geographic variations in these results, hinting that as agricultural practices spread westwards, sexual division of labour may have shifted. The authors note that the analysed tools were not necessarily used by the specific people they were buried with, but could have been chosen to represent activities typically carried out by different genders.
These findings provide new support for the existence of sexual division of labour in the early Neolithic in Europe.
The authors hope their study will contribute to better understanding of the complex factors involved in the rise of gender inequalities in the Neolithic, which may be heavily rooted in the division of labour during the transition to farming.
“Our study points towards a complex and dynamic gendered social organisation rooted in a sexed division of labour from the earliest Neolithic,” the authors added.