Archaeology and the Question of Gender Roles in Society

We still hear it as an excuse against feminism and equality: Society being led by men "since the dawn of time".

For a long time, women of the past were ascribed the role of gatherers; they were the cooks. Women were considered weaker than men, and only given certain roles by the interpretations of the past. On the extreme opposite men were perceived and ascribed as hunters, the featuring of their strong bodies were supposed to be made to win battles, explaining with certainty why they were meant to be leaders of the society.

"In a prehistoric wilderness, a woman faces the Gods of Winter". Daniel Eskridge. Istock. 2019

This way of interpreting prehistoric societies goes back to the ideas of the 19th century when the cultural norm of the time was that of the elitist white man. Whether one realises it or not, seeing the world primarily from the male point of view is the mindset that has shaped our perception of past societies. Taken almost as scientific evidence, this way of referring to prehistoric populations seems to serve a naturalistic view of society that justifies the domination of certain species over others by the nature of their biological traits, in this case, the domination of men over women.

Is this idea of society still relevant? Has this role really been limited to one gender over time?

What role does science play in this perception of society?

Many scientific fields such as anthropology, sociology, and archaeology, study human behaviour, but each of them approaches this subject from a different angle. Thus, if the subject matter of archaeology is the study of ancient civilizations conducted through the remains of material artefacts in their context, it works hand in hand with anthropology, which, as Françoise Héritier, anthropologist, ethnologist and French feminist activist, described in 2017 in the journal Science et Avenir, "(...) helps to understand how things we take for granted and natural are in fact social constructions."(1)

From this point of view, we will try to understand to what extent archaeology contributes to this lack of knowledge about the role of women in society, and to what extent science itself can be influenced by oldfangled moral concepts. We will also discuss the importance of gender archaeology for the purpose of criticizing the biased male gaze that has hovered over archaeology and more generally in the academic world.

The Story of the Hunter Who was not a Man

Although anthropology is concerned with theories of gender, the field of archaeology is still heavily influenced by sexist misinterpretations, specifically while assigning tools and roles within prehistoric societies. Only recently have preconceived notions about prehistoric gender roles been called into question, leading archaeologists to question their original hypotheses, as archaeologist Randy Haas (2) admitted in his report after excavating the archaeological site of Wilamaya Patjxa (Peru) in 2018:

"Likely because of [historic] sexist assumptions about division of labour in Western society - archaeological findings of females with hunting tools just didn’t fit prevailing world views. It took a strong case to help us recognize that the archaeological pattern indicated actual female hunting behaviour." (2)

Illustration of female hunter depicting hunters who may have appeared in the Andes 9,000 years ago. (Matthew Verdolivo/UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services)

T. he archaeological excavation in question was led by Randy Haas of the University of California and Jim Watson of the University of Arizona. Located in southern Peru, Wilamaya Patjxa is an archaeological site that is known to have been occupied by hunter-gatherers about 9,000 years ago. As many other excavations in this region had been conducted in the past, the discovery of human bones (called "WMP6") buried alongside a toolbox of projectile points and stone blades were fast attributed by R. Haas to a male hunter. It was only after the osteological and genetic analysis to eventually determine that the human remains belonged to a woman who died between the ages of 17 and 19, and she was a big game hunter.

This discovery prompted Haas and his team to investigate other ancient burials sites in Southern America, only to discover that at least ten more accounts of women buried with projectile points, suggesting that at least in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, women were also big-game hunters.

« No, the prehistoric women did not spend all their time sweeping the cave and babysitting while waiting for the men to return from the hunt. To imagine them reduced to a domestic role and the status of mothers is a matter of prejudice. They too pursued large mammals, made tools and ornaments, built habitats, explored forms of symbolic expression. No archaeological data prove that, in the oldest societies, certain activities were forbidden to women, neither that they were considered inferior and subordinate to men. This vision of prehistory comes from the a priori of the founders of this discipline which was born in the 19th century. It is time to take another look at the history of evolution and to deconstruct the processes that have made women invisible through the centuries. »

Marylène Patou Mathis. 2020 (3)

If this example proves that some common ideas about sex-specific hunting, at least in prehistoric times, wrong, I believe it should be taken as a rediscovery of the past as it has been told. Other previous discoveries have already shown that in prehistoric societies roles were not necessarily as gendered as one might assume, and many similar misconceptions have already been refuted, as shown by the example of the 10th-century tomb at Birka, in southeastern Sweden, and the Natufian site in Israel, which we will now discuss.

The Viking Warrior was Actually a Woman

Another well-known example is the 10th century Viking tomb at Birka in southeastern Sweden. Discovered in 1878 by the Swedish archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe, this tomb contained two horses buried with the deceased in a seated position, indicating that he was a horseman. Many weapons accompanied the skeleton: two shields, a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a combat knife, and next to the skeleton a strategy set, suggesting that this was the tomb of an important military strategist.

Valkyrie by Peter Nicolai Arbo (oil on canvas, 1864)

For over 139 years, this tomb was considered one of the most iconic graves of a Viking warrior, until 2014 when new research proved that the pelvis of the skeleton discovered in Birka belonged to a woman. The archaeological community initially found it inconceivable that a woman could occupy such an important position and rejected these findings until three years later when they had no arguments against DNA research led by Charlotte Hedenstierna - Jonson (4), which clearly proved that the skeleton was female.

« Reconstructions of the past that fail to gender archaeology can only reinforce current stereotypes and are therefore particularly reprehensible, especially when affixed with the "scientifically proven" stamp. »

Sarah Milledge Nelson. 1999 (5)

Woman Hunters, Woman Warlords: Did Women Have Other Roles to Play in Prehistoric Societies?

The Natufian site of Hilazon Tachtit in Israel has shown that women had important functions in the first Neolithic societies. The Natufians are a people who lived in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago (before the Neolithic A pre-pottery), and whose culture stretched from Israel to Syria. They heralded the Neolithic with a partial sedentarization, which they may have been the first to achieve. The tomb of a shaman discovered by Leore Grosman (6), an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is considered one of the oldest known examples and in any case the only one in the region. This tomb, which contained only one corpse, was surrounded by a large number of offerings that seemed to reflect the importance of his position within society.

An artistic reconstruction of the Shaman grave. Illustration by P. Groszman, Jerusalem, Israel, drawn to scale.

The offerings consisted of 50 whole turtle shells, a leopard basin, golden eagle bones, marten skulls, a human foot, pestle and mortar. In the region and at the time, obtaining 50 turtles represented a major investment of time and energy for a small group of people and thus testifies to the importance attached to this woman who visibly suffered from the deformity of her body.

These examples illustrate the variety of roles women may have taken throughout history. It has been studied that in many prehistoric and protohistoric societies a wide range of important roles were performed by women. They may have been representatives of the cult, healers, traders, or even leaders. (Sarah Milledge Nelson, 2004, p. 106 (7)).

This was particularly true for the Aztecs where women, like men, could be traders and travel long distances. During the Neolithic, the women of Çatal Höyük (Turkey) probably played a central role in agriculture and were also involved in long-distance trading activities (8). In Korea, from the first century BC to the seventh century AD female shamans were the norm. Some examples of female scribes and singers - an activity traditionally reserved for women - were observed in the New Kingdom (c. 1500-1000 BC) in Egypt.

Mother goddess with felines. 6th millennium BC, Çatal Höyük, Turkey

Further Discussion on Gender and Archaeology

As these examples demonstrate, it is important avoid voicing the kind of statements such as "since the dawn of time" that is proven to be merely archaeological "theories".

The most delicate phase of the archaeological process is interpretation because it is directly linked to the cultural prism of the one who undertakes it. Since the field of archaeology was originally initiated in the 19th century by men - exclusively for men - and was professionally reserved for the male elites of Europe, it is obvious that they applied their contemporary cultural prism to their research and discoveries and classified the objects found during excavations according to their contemporary cultural prejudices. Archaeology was thus partly based on gendered stereotypes applied to objects and practices, which limited the possibilities for further discussions.

However, Gender Archaeology developed since the late 1970s (9), and it intends to change the mentality within archaeological practices. In order to move beyond biological determinism as the dominant element in characterizing individuals, Gender Archaeology examines categories such as social status, cultural practices, and sexual orientation in societies without excluding prejudices of biological sex, sexual orientation, or gender. This field of study is a valuable tool that helps deconstruct archaeology as a hermetic discipline in which the heterosexual white men remain the norm, distorting interpretations and excluding all other groups. Conversely, this discipline interprets gender as a social construct that is in no way connected to biological sex, but rather as a relational and power process that changes over time and goes beyond the question of biological determinism as a category of analysis.

By bringing women back into the history and practice of the social sciences, Gender Archaeology challenges the entire interpretive model that emerges from it. It takes a fresh look at gender as a social construct and puts social and cultural interactions in perspective without copying a predefined way of thinking.

Driven by activism and social equality, this discipline renews research perspectives, supported by new generations of researchers and as Marylène Patou-Mathis said in her book, Prehistoric Man is also a Woman (2020):

« Gender archaeology is a necessary and integral part of other types of archaeology. It makes a major contribution to the discipline, as it establishes that it is possible to know, at least in part, the role and status of women in ancient societies. This is the subject of recent work by archaeologists Anne Augereau, Chloé Belard (10) and Caroline Trémeaud. [...] We are on the cusp of a revolution. From the Viking warrior chief who turned out to be a woman to the Scythian Amazons to the prehistoric women artists whose presence in the decorated caves is attested by the recent work of archaeologists, certain preconceived ideas on the distribution of roles between the sexes shatter.
Deconstructing sexist arguments, more ideological than scientific, is the task that gender archaeology has taken on, which is only in its infancy. The breach is open and will not close until the woman finds her rightful place in history. Prehistoric science plays an essential role and probes the depths of time, where patriarchy is supposed to find its original justification. However, the more our knowledge grows, the more it turns out, on the contrary, that patriarchy has no anthropological basis


  1. Mulot, Rachel. “Françoise Héritier : "LES Hommes Et Les Femmes Seront ÉGAUX Un Jour, Peut-Être...” Sciences Et Avenir, 15 Nov. 2017,

  2. Haas, Randall, et al. “Female Hunters of the Early Americas.” Science Advances, vol. 6, no. 45, 2020. Crossref, doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd0310,

  3. Patou-Mathis, Marylène. "L’homme Préhistorique Est Aussi Une Femme - Une Histoire de l’invisibilité Des Femmes". Allary, 2020.

  4. Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte, et al. “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 164, no. 4, 2017, pp. 853–60. Crossref, doi:10.1002/ajpa.23308.

  5. Kehoe, Alice. “Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige.:Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige.” American Anthropologist,1999.

  6. Grosman, Leore, et al. “A 12,000-Year-Old Shaman Burial from the Southern Levant (Israel).” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, no. 46, 2008, pp. 17665–69. Crossref, doi:10.1073/pnas.0806030105.

  7. Milledge Nelson, Sarah. "Gender in Archaeology. Analyzing Power and Prestige." 2e édition, Plymouth. 2004.

  8. Parrot André. Mellaart, James. « Earliest Civilizations of the Near East. » In: Syria. Tome 43 fascicule 1-2, 1966. pp. 125-126.

  9. Conkey, Margaret W., D. Spector, Janet. “Archaeology and the Study of Gender.” Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, 1984, pp. 1–38.,

  10. Belard, Chloé. « La Notion de genre ou comment problématiser l’archéologie funéraire », Nouvelles de l’Archéologie, 140, p. 23-27. 2015.

Recommended readings

  • Bertelsen, William. LillehammerArnvid. et Naess Jenny-Rita. (éds.), 1987. Were They All Men? : An Examination of Sex Roles in Prehistoric Society, actes du colloque se déroulant à Utstein Kloster, Rogaland, 2-4 novembre 1979.

  • Brumfiel, Elizabeth. « Weaving and Cooking : Women’s Production in Aztec Mexico », in J. M. Gero et M. W. Conkey, Engendering Archaeology : Women and Prehistory, Oxford, p. 224-251. 1991

  • Conkey, Margaret. « Beyond art: Pleistocene image and symbol. » University of California Press. 1997.

  • Conkey, Margaret. Gero, Joan. « Programme to Practice. Gender and Feminism in Archaeology », Annual Review of Anthropology 26, p. 411–438. 1997

  • Destro-Bisol, Giovanni. Donati, Francesco. Coia, Valentina. Boschi, Ilaria. Verginelli, Fabio. Caglià, Alessandra. Tofanelli, Sergio. Spedini, Gabriella. Capelli, Cristian. « Variation of Female and Male Lineages in Sub-Saharan Populations: the Importance of Sociocultural Factors, Molecular Biology and Evolution. » Volume 21, Issue 9, September 2004, Pages 1673–1682

  • Ehrenreich, Barbara. English, Deirdre. « Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, A History of Women Healers. » Cambourakis.1973.

  • Milledge Nelson, Sarah. « Diversity of the Upper Paleolithic «Venus» Figurines and Archaeological Reality », dans S. M. Nelson et A. B. Kehoe (éds.), Powers of Observation : Alternative Views in Archaeology, p. 11-22. 1990.

  • Millerge Nelson, Sarah. « Women in Antiquity. Theoretical Approaches to Gender and Archaeology. » Plymouth. 2007.

  • Omvedt, Gail. « The Origin of Patriarchy.» Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 22, no. 44, 1987, pp. WS70–WS72. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Sept. 2021.

Author Photo

Loreleï Verlhac

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