unizeit Schriftzug

Gender stereotypes from the Stone Age

Were the roles of men and women already determined back in the Stone Age? No doubt about it – at least for the archaeologists of the 19th century. And for a long time, this shaped our perspective of the way our ancestors lived.


Illustration: Three persons with arrow and bow and three animals.
© pur.pur

The women sit with their children around the fire in front of the cave, providing warmth and comfort, while the men roam the wilderness on the hunt for dangerous animals - this is more or less how we imagine family life in the Stone Age. And often enough, these stereotypes are quoted as facts, and used as a justification for modern gender roles. »Men hunted, women gathered. Men protected, women provided food. As a result, their bodies and brains developed in completely different ways,« according to the best-seller »Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps» by Allan and Barbara Pease.

Is that true? Has gender always determined the role that a person played in society, and the activities they pursued?

»Recent research results suggest that in both the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic period) and New Stone Age (Neolithic period) there were times when a person’s biological and social gender were unimportant. During these times, there were no typical burial gifts given only to women or only to men at their burial. In Europe, the gender roles only seem to become fixed as from the Middle Bronze Age onwards, i.e. from the second millennium BC,« said archaeologist Dr Julia Katharina Koch.

In the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1266 »Scales of Transformation« at Kiel University, she focusses on archaeological gender research - a relatively new discipline which investigates the cohabitation of men and women in prehistoric times.

The most important factor here is an unbiased analysis of finds. »Our approach as researchers is always to rethink our own point of view, and to ask ourselves: what own ideas, images and prejudices do I have, and how do these affect my interpretation?« emphasised Koch.

The archaeological sciences are a product of the emerging bourgeoisie of the 19th century. For a long time, men dominated archaeology, with their patriarchal view of gender roles influencing research. Accordingly, it seemed obvious that weapons had to be the burial objects of a man, while the gifts for a woman's grave would be jewellery. Often, this was also true.

However, the seemingly obvious can also be misleading, as shown by the case of the child known as Windeby I. The bog body, which is now on permanent display at the State Archaeological Museum in Gottorf Castle, was long believed to be a girl, because of its slight build and accompanying burial objects. It was only in 2008 that DNA analysis proved it to be a boy. Previously, doubts about the gender determination had been ignored by the scientific community.

»It is not certain that the men in the Palaeolithic period went out big game hunting and the women stayed at home tanning the leather. With archaeological cultural groups which had no system of writing, we must accept that there are some things we will never know for sure,« said Koch. The scientist organised an international conference for the CRC, at which these aspects of our past were discussed.

The fact is: the talkativeness and parking abilities of men and women – as well as many other gender stereotypes - cannot necessarily be derived from Stone Age behaviour patterns.

Author: Angelika Hoffmann

The author works in the coordination office for the CRC 1266.


Transformation processes in human history

CRC 1266 »Scales of Transformation: Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies« was established at Kiel University in 2016. The Collaborative Research Centre examines the interaction between humans and the environment during the period from 15,000 BCE until the beginning of our calendar. The focus is primarily on the great transformation processes such as sedentism, the introduction of new technologies or urbanisation. (ne)