Physiological and archaeological evidence rewrites assumptions about a gendered division of labor in prehistoric times

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Prehistoric men hunted; prehistoric women gathered together. At least that is the standard narrative written by and about men to the exclusion of women.

The idea of ​​”man the hunter” is deeply rooted in anthropology, convincing people that hunting made us human, that only men hunted, and therefore evolutionary forces must have acted only on men. Such representations are found not only in the media, but also in museums and introductory anthropology textbooks.

A common argument is that there is a sexual division of labor and an unequal division of power today; therefore, it must also have existed in our evolutionary past. But this is an unfounded story without sufficient evidence, despite its ubiquity in disciplines like evolutionary psychology.

There is a growing body of physiological, anatomical, ethnographic, and archaeological evidence suggesting that not only did women hunt during our past evolution, but that they may have been better adapted to an activity so dependent on their endurance.

We are both biological anthropologists. Cara specializes in the physiology of humans living in extreme conditions and uses her research to piece together how our ancestors adapted to different climates. Sarah studies Neanderthal and early modern human health and conducts excavations at their archaeological sites.

It is not uncommon for scientists like us – who attempt to include the contributions of all individuals, regardless of sex and gender, in reconstructions of our evolutionary past – to be accused of rewriting the past to suit a woke and politically correct program. The concrete evidence speaks for itself: gender-specific work roles did not exist during the Paleolithic era, which lasted from 3.3 million years ago until 12,000 years ago. History is written in human bodies, today and in the past.

We recognize that biological sex can be defined using multiple characteristics, including chromosomes, genitalia, and hormones, each of which exists on a spectrum. Social gender is not a binary category either. We use the terms female and male when discussing physiological and anatomical evidence because that is what the research literature tends to use.

Female bodies: adapted for endurance

One of the main arguments put forward by proponents of “Man the Hunter” is that females would not have been physically capable of participating in the long and arduous hunts of our evolutionary past. But a number of characteristics associated with women, which give them an advantage in endurance, tell a different story.

All human bodies, regardless of gender, have and need the hormones estrogen and testosterone. On average, women have more estrogen and men more testosterone, although there is much variation and overlap.

Testosterone often gets all the credit when it comes to athletic success. But estrogen – technically the estrogen receptor – is very ancient, appearing between 1.2 billion and 600 million years ago. It predates the existence of sexual reproduction involving the egg and sperm. The testosterone receptor is originally a copy of the estrogen receptor and is only about half as old. As such, estrogen, in its many forms and ubiquitous functions, appears necessary for the lives of both women and men.

Estrogen influences athletic performance, particularly endurance performance. The higher concentrations of estrogen that women tend to have in their bodies likely confer an advantage in endurance: the ability to exercise for a longer period of time without becoming exhausted.

Estrogen signals the body to burn more fat, which is beneficial during endurance activities for two main reasons. First, fats contain more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates. And it takes longer to metabolize fats than carbohydrates. So fat offers better value overall and slow burning provides sustained energy over longer periods, which can delay fatigue during endurance activities like running.

In addition to their estrogen advantage, women have a greater proportion of type I muscle fibers than men.

These are slow-oxidizing muscle fibers that prefer to metabolize fat. They are not particularly powerful, but they take a while to tire, unlike the powerful type II fibers of which men have more but which tire quickly. When doing the same intense exercise, women burn 70% more fat than men and, unsurprisingly, are less likely to fatigue.

Estrogen also appears to play an important role in recovery after exercise. Strenuous exercise or exposure to heat can be stressful to the body, causing an inflammatory response via the release of heat shock proteins. Estrogen limits this response, which would otherwise inhibit recovery. Estrogen also stabilizes cell membranes that might otherwise become damaged or rupture due to the stress of exercise. Thanks to this hormone, women suffer less damage during exercise and are therefore able to recover more quickly.

In the past, women probably did everything men did

Forget the Flintstones nuclear family with a housewife. There is no evidence of this social structure or gendered work roles during the 2 million years of evolution of the genus “Homo” until the last 12,000 years, with the advent of agriculture .

Our Neanderthal cousins, a group of humans who lived in western and central Eurasia around 250,000 to 40,000 years ago, formed small, highly nomadic groups. Fossil evidence shows that females and males suffered the same bone trauma throughout their bodies – a signature of a harsh life hunting deer, aurochs and woolly mammoths. Tooth wear resulting from using the front teeth as a third hand, probably in tasks such as tanning hides, is equally evident in women and men.

This gender-neutral image should not be surprising if we imagine life in a small group. Everyone must contribute to the tasks necessary for the survival of the group, mainly producing food, shelter and raising children. Mothers are not solely responsible for their children; Among foragers, the whole group contributes to childcare.

You might imagine that this unified working strategy then changed in early modern humans, but archaeological and anatomical evidence shows that is not the case. Modern Upper Paleolithic humans leaving Africa and entering Europe and Asia show very few sex differences in trauma and repetitive motion wear and tear. One difference is that there are more signs of “pitcher’s elbow” in men than in women, although some women share these conditions.

And it was also the time when people were innovating with hunting technologies like atlatls, fishing hooks and nets, and bows and arrows, thereby alleviating some of the wear and tear that hunting would put on one’s life. their body. A recent archaeological experiment found that the use of atlatls reduced gender differences in the speed of spears thrown by contemporary men and women.

Even in death, there are no gender differences in the way Neanderthals or modern humans buried their dead, or in the possessions associated with their graves. These indicators of differential social status by gender do not come before agriculture, with its stratified economic system and monopolizable resources.

All of this evidence suggests that Paleolithic women and men did not occupy different social roles or domains.

Critics might point the finger at recent foraging populations and suggest that since they use subsistence strategies similar to those of our ancient ancestors, their gender roles are inherent to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

However, this approach has many flaws. Foragers are not living fossils, and their social structures and cultural norms evolved over time and in response to patriarchal agricultural neighbors and colonial administrators.

Additionally, ethnographers over the past two centuries have brought their sexism with them into the field, which has skewed their understanding of foraging societies. For example, a recent reanalysis showed that 79% of cultures described in ethnographic data included descriptions of women hunting; however, previous interpretations often forgot them.

It’s time to bust these myths about cavemen

The myth that women’s reproductive abilities made them incapable of gathering food other than those who could not escape does not only underestimate Paleolithic women. This fuels narratives that the contemporary social roles of women and men are inherent and define our evolution. Our Paleolithic ancestors lived in a world where everyone in the group did their own job, completing multiple tasks. It wasn’t a utopia, but it wasn’t patriarchy either.

Certainly accommodations must have been made for members of the group who were ill, recovering from childbirth or temporarily incapacitated. But pregnancy, breastfeeding, child-rearing and menstruation are not permanently disabling events, as researchers have found among living Agta in the Philippines who continue to hunt during these periods of life.

Suggesting that the female body is uniquely designed to gather plants ignores female physiology and the archaeological record. Ignoring the evidence perpetuates a myth that only serves to reinforce existing power structures.

Gn Health

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