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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)