Hidden in History: The Role of Women in Prehistoric Times

3rd March 2022

Image credits CEPAP-UAB, Francesc Ràfols (illustrator)

It’s another year of celebrating International Women’s Day, and we thought it fitting to reflect on something nobody typically does on this day—or probably on other day of the year.

That is the million-dollar question: how were concepts like gender roles and equality placed back in prehistoric times? Frankly, the only specific reference one can often think of instantly is that of The Flintstones!

But do we know if such references portray what might have been reality in that era? Lots of research has been done in this area, but we still don’t really know for sure.

So, in true CHL style, on the occasion of Women’s Day, Dr Sofia C. Samper Carro reflects on some thoughts from the lens of her subject expertise and research focus.

On the occasion of Women’s Day, we celebrate those referential women who challenged--and keep challenging--the established status quo, such as famous scientists and advocates for women’s rights, among others.

But have you ever wondered what we know about the role of women in prehistoric times? Was there a defined separation of gender-based roles way back then?

Traditional gender-defined narratives tend to portray prehistoric communities with males as the central figure, with women playing a passive role, limited to caring and nursing or low-risk subsistence practices, such as gathering.

Even though we cannot identify the role played by either men or women in these communities, we can be certain that women, as child bearers, were essential members to secure species reproduction, and therefore, group survival.

As such, the usual absence of female figures in audio visual resources and museum exhibits representing prehistoric activities seems surprising, even when some of the most popular and reproduced artistic representations from prehistoric times are the so-called Venus figurines, clearly portraying females.

This androcentric bias in the collective imagination was a fact already highlighted over 20 years ago by researchers. However, this issue is still relevant and is not limited to dissemination and artistic representations.

On the contrary, the androcentric bias is deeply embedded in formal scientific research. One of the reasons for this absence could be the difficulty to sex paleoanthropological remains due to the fragmentation of skeletal elements, the lack of reference material (this is, elements with a secure sex estimation), the low number of remains recovered in excavations, and the bad preservation of these remains.

As an example, one of the best-known fossils, Lucy “the grandmother of humanity” was identified as a female due to its small size, based on the application of sexual dimorphism principles from primates, and traits in the pelvis based on observations of modern humans, which could not be relevant for 2 million-year-old fossils. Even the original discoverer of Lucy’s remains, Donald Johanson, agrees that the pelvis is not a reliable element to sex this individual.

If we are not even sure about the biological sex of the few remains available, how can we even discuss gender, a socially constructed concept where a range of characteristics are expected from individuals based on their biological sex?

Recent findings have challenged gender stereotypes in prehistoric research. A study published last year in Science highlighted evidence of non-gendered labour practices, such as big-game hunting in the Americas over the last 10,000 years. An Australian-Indonesian team of researchers, with the participation of academics at CHL, have been investigating some human burials from Tron Bon Lei (Alor Island, Indonesia) in recent years, with the bioanthropological results to be published soon in Plos ONE. Some of the most exciting discoveries the team has made are the 13,000 years old fish hooks buried with an old female, placed under her neck presumably comprising a necklace, which reinforces the idea of women playing a significant role in prehistoric communities: as food providers, being cared for as suggested by the advanced age of some of these individuals, and placed in a relevant place in the community, as denoted by the care put into their burial places.

Recent findings and researchers revisiting old assumptions based on incomplete or biased interpretations are helping to break clichés about the role of women and men in past communities. The more data we can gain from the past, the better will be our attempt to interpret what we see in the archaeological and paleoanthropological record.

Nevertheless, we have to be cautious about applying our modern assumptions and concepts to the interpretation of the past, as well as generalising such ideas without acknowledging how complex they are within a wide diversity of cultural groups. Nowadays, we are becoming more conscious (and sometimes respectful) about gender identities. Whether a multiple gender identities scenario is relevant for the past is unknown, and researchers should avoid forcing this idea into the interpretation of the deep past.

Maybe the answer resides in limiting the introduction of gender roles in prehistoric research to only those cases where biological sex and associated material culture—such as grave goods, for example—inform us clearly about these roles.

As a first step to deconstructing gender-based paradigms, the need of the hour is an informed and conscious reflection on how researchers want to illustrate their research, making the role of every segment in the community visible and relevant for the general public.

And this is not an easy endeavour, as demonstrated recently, when the publication of the acclaimed research about female big-game hunters in the Americas, well-founded from an archaeological point of view, was accompanied by an artistic reconstruction of this young female hunter portrayed wearing a pink outfit. Presumably, this was to serve as a visual aid to identify her femininity, even though it seems quite unlikely for organic pink dye to have been a common occurrence in prehistoric communities across the Americas!

PinkieVerdolivo, UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services

By introducing cultural and anthropological diversity in the sense of biological sex, age and--when relevant—gender identities in popular science, new generations of researchers will be more aware and inclined to include women in their interpretation of the archaeological record.

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