Gender Age families organized themselves into small


Gender roles in the
Stone Age

Starting in the
Paleolithic period, hominids made a significant divergence from other animals.
As opposed to adjusting to their environment primarily through biological
evolution, which was the case with other organisms, the hominids further
developed through cultural adaptation. They started using their social as well
as intellectual skills to adjust to their surroundings while improving their
survival chances. These Stone Age families organized themselves into small
kinship groups and started traveling from one place to another. As their intellectual
capacities grew, the hominids established better ways of adapting to the
environment (Dupré 540). They gained knowledge on what plants to eat and the ones that
were dangerous and also learned hunting skills using crude stone tools.
Furthermore, they developed the art of making fire that was used for cooking,
keeping wild animals at bay, and providing warmth and light in the nighttime.
Therefore, even as cave men and women were discovering various essentials such
as fire and language, it is interesting to discover that gender roles were also
deeply ingrained in their societies, hence calling for a close examination of
the same to identify whether such patterns are still present in the
contemporary world.

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The debate
regarding gender roles has long permeated the human society, and to-date men
and women are still discussing their positions in the family and the world with
numerous implications over the years. Seeing that this topic continues to
generate such heated arguments from both sides, anthropologists have extended
their curiosity back to the Stone Age to assess whether the gender debate was
existent in times when men and women lived in caves. Apparently, the early
hominids were scavengers who lived in small nomadic groups. Therefore, their
survival primarily depended on gathering wild nuts and berries, even as they
would at times feed on the carcasses of dead animals in a particular area
before proceeding to the next one after exhausting the readily available food
resources. Learning to hunt meant that their meat consumption had increased and
they had to live a nomadic lifestyle as they periodically moved in search of
new sources of game. These groups are often referred to as foragers because
their subsistence depended on hunting and gathering. Since no written records
of the early foraging societies exist, archeologists have studied them through
the examination of their remains. They compare such remains with what is
evidenced by the practices of few foraging societies that are existent today in
the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and Siberia.

It is logical to
understand the societal setup in the Paleolithic period to perceive how roles
were divided along gender lines, with men and women performing specific tasks.
The archeological sources suggest that people of the Stone Age moved in
foraging bands, which comprised of around thirty to sixty individuals with
kinship ties. Members of a kinship group that incorporated grandparents,
parents, uncles, aunts, and siblings, were also linked through familial
affections and obligations. As opposed to other mammals that grow to maturity
within several years, the human children remain dependent on adult caregivers
for a longer period. Therefore, the aspect of protecting them while offering
supervision and nutrition rests on parents and other relatives. Moreover, adult
humans have traditionally been predisposed to forming enduring emotional bonds
with one sexual companion. The family has been seen as a central institution of
society. In the family, the roles of male and female have been biologically
determined since time immemorial and such identities are integral to the
assigning of tasks and duties in the household.

Family concerns
have been used by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists to explain why
the early humans divided their work along gender lines. According to
archaeological evidence, men in the Stone Age or foraging societies were often
tasked with roles such as hunting, painting in the caves, and occasionally
engaging in fighting to ascertain dominance over territories. Women usually
handled the tasks of gathering edible plants for food, tending the temporary
settlements, and primarily caring for the young and child-rearing. These
insights from archaeological evidence bring into focus the theory of division
of labor, which points to the process through which members of the society are
assigned almost fixed duties. Although it is hard to ascertain the exact time
when the human society started witnessing proper division of labor, early manifestations
in the hunting and gathering societies allude to the assignment of duties along
the lines of gender and age (Owen 20). For example, young men were deemed
strong and vigorous, thus placing the expectations on them to go hunting and
engage in fighting, whereas women, children, and older members of the society
stayed closer to the foraging group’s settlement. Often those left behind, majority being the women, were
tasked with cooking and gathering food.

According to Linda
Owen, a seasoned Paleolithic researcher, the theory of division of labor along
gender lines may not have been as strict as most scholars postulate. She
demystifies the male supremacy and female limitation ingrained in the division
of labor theory by asserting that such roles were not entirely rigid. The women
were also handy when it came to making tools since they remained at home
guarding the group’s
site when the men were away hunting big game. The societal notion of the
division of labor often tasks women with the most labor-intensive duties of
childbearing and food production, meaning that their roles are traditionally
perceived as not requiring tools. However, scholars of the Stone Age such as
Owen refute this ideology and term it as a misrepresentation of facts since
women also helped with hunting and defense. Therefore, ethnographic reports are
quite biased and present inaccurate data when they depict the female in an
entirely subservient role in the society (Owen 51). It is prudent to note that
such reports were originally written and presented by men. In the course of
their writing and comparing the Stone Age societies with the present groups of
hunters and gatherers in few places on earth, the researches may also have been
influenced by limited encounters with men from such communities.

The aspect of male
dominance is widely covered in the sociological theory of gender. In this
theory, gender is differentiated from the physiological or natural distinction
between the sexes. In fact, it comes across as the cultural ranking and categorization
that is grounded in the sexual division of labor. Male patriarchy, in which the
men dominated the women, is propagated by assigned gender roles that introduced
and legitimized inequality in the society. The cave men and women did not have
books explaining gender issues, but their biological differences seem to have
played a significant role in defining the sexes and dividing labor along male
and female lines. Families were integrated through the sexual division of
labor, and masculinity appears to have been differentiated from femininity even
in the earliest cave art works dated back by archaeologists to almost
thirty-five thousand years (Owen 74). The sociological theory of gender alludes
to the development of consciousness of male and female differences in the Upper
Paleolithic Era. Therefore, activities in the Stone Age societies or groups
became gender-related and tasks were defined differently for men and women.

The continuous
realization of the biological differences between men and women paved the way
for the evolutionary psychology theory, which asserts that individual
differences emanate from people’s
unique genetic inheritance coupled with their personal experiences and culture.
The roots of this theory are traceable to Charles Darwin who argued from the
point of natural selection whereby the biological endowments of sexes
determined their capabilities and survival. According to evolutionary
psychology, the brains of men and women are hardwired differently, which also
forms their predisposition to certain tasks (Dupré 543). Men and women
are believed to have evolved differently regarding their genetic makeup, and
the changes increasingly favored men to do the “hard” work of hunting and fighting, while women
were left to deal with the “softer”
duties of gathering
food and tending to children. Such genetic determinism is what Dupré
refers to as
determining the essential nature of organisms such as humans. Furthermore,
these views underlie the popular belief that gender roles, starting from the Stone
Age to the present times, are biologically determined. However, the
evolutionary theory of assigning gender roles to men and women as exhibited
from the Paleolithic period is often frowned upon in the contemporary world
since it regrettably implies that changing such roles is akin to an

evidence has for a long time postulated that gender roles in the Stone Age were
divided in two. The men have always been portrayed as the hunters and the women
as the gatherers. However, archaeologists have also unearthed some representations
of the female form referred to as “Venus”
figurines, which
were created during the Upper Paleolithic period by the hunter-gatherer
communities. The detailed examination of various figurines portrays the dressed
females with headgears and skirts made of plant fibers. Therefore, textiles are
represented as having played an important role in the Stone Age cultures, and
the technologies to make such are linked to women, thus giving them a sense of
power, prestige, as well as value (Soffer, Adovasio and Hyland 513). What most
people in today’s
society know about the Stone Age is that it had brave male hunters; however,
history has mostly omitted the consideration of activities done by women,
children, and the elderly. In fact, historical accounts that often rely on
written records, which were not present in the Stone Age, usually give a
limited and biased reconstruction of the Upper Paleolithic. Such stereotypical
reconstructions of the imagined activities of men raise the question as to what
the women were doing besides admiring the males and serving them in the homes.

The ethnographic
evidence and data that archaeologists have recovered from excavation sites show
that the surviving stone materials, which are only a small percentage of the
Paleolithic Period’s
artifacts, were used for hunting. However, scholars have noticed this gender
bias when examining the Stone Age men and women, which has been propagated by
the considerable attention given to the “Venus”
figurines. The
iconographic evidence of woven clothing, that is often noticed on such
figurines, is the basis for arguing that the weaving and basketry technologies
used by the women were valuable enough to be immortalized in fired stone,
ivory, and clay (Soffer, Adovasio and Hyland 517). Scholars have established
that women were busy with the plaiting of baskets and making textiles to adorn
themselves and their families, besides wearing the skin cloths that were made
from hides of the animals killed by the hunting men. Researchers hold that the
appearance of textiles in the Paleolithic Period points to the evidence of
implements or tools that the women used for net making, weaving, and sewing.
The figurines have caught the attention of many scholars since they only
depicted the female body and showed that the role of women in the Stone Age
society was not downplayed and brushed aside as has been the case throughout

Numerous scholars
in the fields of Archaeology, Sociology, History, and Anthropology have
extensively considered the role of women in the Stone Age society since the
stone and ivory artifacts do not necessarily suggest that such tools were made
and used by men for hunting. The evolutionary theory found wide acceptance at
the time when stone tools were in their initial stages of being studied by
archaeologists leading ethnologists to decipher that such artifacts had
masculine connotations of savagery and bravery in hunting (Dupré
547). However, the
female figurines or Venuses discovered from the southern part of France to
Siberia show that raw materials such as fired loess, horse teeth, limonite,
jet, ivory, bone, and stone were used in their making. The Stone Age people who
created the statuettes were nomadic hunters and gatherers. According to the
androcentric interpretation of these Venuses, men are deemed as the creators
since they had an objectified understanding of the female representation and
made such figurines for their pleasure. Nonetheless, the second feminist
movement of the sixties and the seventies countered such androcentric views and
sought to re-conceptualize the gender roles regarding archaeological evidence
by considering the figurines as representing the Stone Age Mother Goddess,
deifying female fecundity and sexuality.

The balanced view
of gender roles in the Stone Age shows that the division of labor was flexible
(Owen 88). This assertion points to women as having been called upon at times
to hunt and defend the group, whereas the men also occasionally assisted in
tending the fireplace and caring for the children. In fact, this view alludes
to the notion that gender roles in the Stone Age did not mean that women were
less valuable than men. Quite the opposite, the functions of females may have
been taken as more important than those of the males. This idea arises from the
fact that a group depended on the women to bear children for its survival and
the plant food gathered acted as a more reliable nutrition source than hunting
wild animals. In fact, the sociological theory of gender deems that a community
can survive if it loses several of its male adults, but it needs its women and
children for survival in the long-run. This statement makes sense because the
men in the Stone Age performed dangerous duties of hunting wild game and
defending the camp against outsiders and predators, hence increasing their
mortality rates. Conversely, it was expedient to have the women handle the
essential responsibilities of tending the campfire, foraging for plant food,
and nurturing children, which were considered safer tasks.

Despite being assigned
the tasks of bearing and rearing children, it is prudent to note that pregnancy
and childbirth in the Stone Age were processes that mandated women to survive
through labor in hard or harsh environmental conditions devoid of medical
attention. Midwifery studies exploring the Paleolithic Era show that women
supported themselves during birth due to the skills and knowledge they gained
from observation of other mammals. Their preparation for labor entailed getting
into a squatting position, cutting the umbilical cord, the initiation of
breastfeeding, as well as creation of safe and warm environments for the
newborns. Such basic techniques, based on observational knowledge, are part of
the current core concept of midwifery that entails supporting natural and safe
births. Despite the women playing this role alone, both genders participated in
the tasks relating to the care of the pregnant women and their newborns and
subsequent child protection. Given the environmental circumstances,
gender-specific roles arose in the Stone Age as the men maintained the family
security while the women managed their labor and gave birth (Owen 106).

Artists and
scientists have significantly portrayed human evolution from the male point of
view where people are considered to have been hunter-gatherers before
developing sophisticated tools or technology for agricultural endeavors.
Feminist theorists have argued against this notion since they assert that the
food gathered by women and later planted by them amounted to a more significant
portion of the Stone Age society’s nutrition. In the New Stone Age or Neolithic period, grinding stones
served as evidence that women engaged in a substantial part of the food
production since they planted as well as made bread from their farm supplies.
Agriculture in its earliest forms is deemed as a major point of progress for
human beings in the New Stone Age, which can rightly be attributed to the
formation and development of gendered identities coupled with certain roles.
Patriarchy is often alluded to when examining the technology used in the Stone
Age, which is prevalent in the scholarly world through various archaeological
findings. Therefore, despite the unearthing of Venus figurines, today’s society, that is
mostly patriarchal, continues to propagate the gendered history of subjugating

The crisis in the
modern world regarding the roles of women and men in the society is rooted in
the traditional imposition of gender. Strong assumptions have persisted in
academic circles regarding the duties of males and females in the Stone Age,
more so the Paleolithic Era, where men are naturally perceived as having been
the hunters due to their physique and women were gatherers who tended to their
homes and children. Despite the seeming accuracy of such a division, little
evidence points to this situation as having been the norm. It is safe to assume
that the societies in the Old Stone Age were more egalitarian since the people
banded in small kinship groups and had to cooperate with one another to ensure their
survival (Owen 153). Since there was no property acquisition and the aspect of
riches was farfetched, anthropologists assume that the Stone Age was a period
without patriarchy or matriarchy. This means that power was not concentrated or
perceivably attached to one gender. Therefore, the families must have mutually
supported one another in their kinship groups to guarantee their survival, and
the work of women was equally important as that of the men.


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