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Status of Women in Prehistoric Communities: The Start of the Division of Labor

Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.

Aphrodite of Willendorf

Aphrodite of Willendorf

Gender Divisions or Lack There Of

The traditional roles of women as well as the divisions of labor vary from culture to culture. As anthropologists, historians and scientists scramble to unravel the mysteries of human origins and cultures of old new evidence continues to emerge regarding the vast complexities of gender separations. The perceptions of cultural diversions, specifically gender based theories, widely held as fact by the general consensus are currently under heavy scrutiny as more becomes known about the lifestyles and traditions of our prehistoric ancestors. Interestingly, women, it seems, were not simply objects for their male counterparts to own and dominate, nor were they helpless slaves relying on the food supplied by men, quite the contrary in fact. Men relied on women in many of these cultures just as much if not more than women relied on them. The evidence shows that in most cases the food consumed by males and females, the positions held by males and females, the attitudes towards both males and females as well as expectations and behavior during day to day life and even the treatment after death of both males and females was virtually indistinguishable save a few carved mementos displaying an adoration and appreciation of women alone proving that modern cultures may be more than a bit misguided when it comes to the nature of gender separations.

Gender and sexuality have been a topic steeped in heavy debate throughout the ages. Humans have consistently sought a clearly defined line between the male and female of our species. Often when speaking from a logical perspective the simplest answer is the best but for some reason when it comes to questioning things that bare cultural significance of any kind humans tend to seek deeper more meaningful insight often losing sight of the fact that the human race is simply a diversion from other primate lines and our behavior is merely an advanced mimicry of theirs. For many years zoologists and primatologists have observed social behavior in a wide variety of primate breeds, some display an obvious separation between males and females which is typically a response to environmental factors while others show very little if any division and often while it may seem that in those that do males are superior to females because they are domineering and the females seem to obey them, new evidence suggests that females actually have better health due to a better diet which comes from accepting gifts from males as well as foraging for their own food. So, in essence the female has found a way to provide well for herself and her young two fold, upon closer inspection this no longer appears to be a division in the males favor (Galdikas andTeleki, 1981) Current archeological evidence suggests a similar division among humans may originally have been misrepresented or misinterpreted.

In the U.S. “Early European explorers and missionaries interpreted the Indian woman's role as a powerless servant in a male-dominate society” (American Indian Culture Research Center, 2012). This unenlightened interpretation became the general school of thought for many scholars despite the fact that some of these particular cultures celebrated a matrilineal decent. This theory of the weak woman has persisted to some extent across cultural divides even into modern society. The truth is that women have long been seen, especially by Native American tribes as life givers who held revered places among their people. In fact, cultures from across the globe have had traditions of honoring women and many ancient religious practices centered on women either as goddesses or as mystical shamans and teachers.

Hunting and gathering societies have often been viewed as women gathering what little they could and men bringing home the bacon, this is still a phrase used today to describe the perceived divisions in labor, when in truth like the women of modern western civilization, women in early cultures were extremely important in many capacities. According to Galdikas and Teleki acquisition and distribution of food in many band societies, was an equally shared task among females and males. While traditional modern views hold that the importance of maintaining the traditional nuclear family and the home front has been the responsibility of women, historical evidence proves otherwise. It would appear that this vision of a mother barefoot in the kitchen is actually a relatively new ideal that recent generations and cultures have become used to and that perhaps nostalgia is the culprit driving its persistence as opposed to logic and the preservation of humankind. Without progress, however, cultures moving forward and away from what they were used to, permanent civilizations would never have come into existence and nomadic foraging and hunting and gathering would still be the typical mode of substance.

There are many great examples of the level of equality and lack of labor divisions among prehistoric and ancient people. The Neolithic people of the ancient city of Çatalhöyük in modern day Turkey are a great example of the lack of separation between men and women. The remains left beneath their dwellings tell an amazing story of an advanced culture where men and women had exactly the same diet, were subjected to the same amount of work in similar types of labor and where even men spent the same amount of time working inside the household as the women (Hodder, 2005). There is a great deal of information regarding labor practices and gender roles among the Early Paleo-Indian tribes but here again, it is not what many expect. Research into labor organization of these prehistoric cultures shows women as largely as providers, they were involved in production of material goods gathering vegetation, trading and even the procurement of game (WAGUESPACK, 2005). The Ipiutak a prehistoric tribe in Alaska also display evidence of indistinguishable differences between lifestyles and health of men and women(Madimenos, Felicia, 2005). In other prehistoric cultures men display their appreciation for women through carved iconic images of curvy females such as the ones carved by a band of hunter/gatherers near modern day Wilczyce Poland that date over15,000 years old (New Scientist Staff, 2007)., or the Aphrodite of Willendorf, that has been dated approximately 26,000 BC (Loizos, D.I., 2003). The interesting thing about these carvings is that unlike the preferred female body type in the U.S., these figures had large derrieres and heavy builds showing that ancient man was certainly not impressed by a tiny, weak, fragile woman (New Scientist Staff, 2007).

With all of the evidence gathered from unrelated cultures spanning thousands of years and thousands of miles it is difficult to ignore the fact that women in prehistoric time were regarded as highly as men and were most certainly honored as such. As anthropologists, historians and scientists continue to uncover new evidence we must ask ourselves if our current perceptions of gender divisions truly serve any purpose. The idea that this is how it has always been is definitely dispelled without question. So how then can we continue to justify the persisting misguided version of the past as natural? The truth is, we cannot nor should we. The time has come to put aside all previous, widely held perceptions of cultural diversions, specifically gender based theories, the time has come for our culture to move forward by looking to the past. Our ancient ancestors understood that men and women alike where intrical parts of society, culture, and ultimately survival,each relying on the other for support in a variety of capacities, which is why their day to day lives in all aspects were virtually indistinguishable as they should be still.


American Indian Culture Research Center, (2012) The Women's Role, "The Wind River Rendezvous"

Galdikas, Birute M. F. and Teleki, Geza (1981) Variations in Subsistence Activities of Female and Male Pongids: New Perspectives on the Origins of Hominid Labor Division, Current Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 3 pp. 241-256

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Hodder, I. (2005). Women and Men at Çatalhöyük. Scientific American Special Edition, 15(1), 34-41.

Loizos, D.I. (2003) Human Prehistory: An Exhibition, Prehistoric Cultures Parent Site:

Madimenos, Felicia (2005) DENTAL EVIDENCE FOR DIVISION OF LABOR AMONG THE PREHISTORIC IPIUTAK AND TIGARA OF POINT HOPE, ALASKA, Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University Archives

New Scientist Staff (2007) Curves were best for Stone Age men, New Scientist, 193(2594), 19.

WAGUESPACK, NICOLE M. (2005)The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies: Implications for Early Paleoindian Archaeology, American Anthropologist , Vol. 107, No. 4


Hebah Aboud from London on October 03, 2016:

Absolutely loved this article - I learnt so much and would love to discover more about this topic now. Thank you.

Kelsey on May 11, 2015:

Thinking about doing my thesis on this kind of thing! Thank you for your article. I plan on using some of it for a paper. I promise to cite you appropriately!

yousaf on February 06, 2015:

Societies that do not treat both sexes as equals are bound to fade out with the passage of time.By equal I mean physical not verbal equality,like in some cultures they say that they have given equal rights to women but keep them bound within four walls of the house under various pretexts

female-traveller on January 09, 2013:

The same as dmop, I also never understood the inequality of men and women. When I started living in India, the inequality seemed much greater. I hope that the culture and traditions of certain countries will change for the betterment of sacred females.

dmop from Cambridge City, IN on May 08, 2012:

This was a great article about gender roles and their history. I have certainly never understood the reasons why men and women aren't regarded as equal by so many. Good job, I gave you a vote up and interesting.

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