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Women in Prehistoric Communities: The Start of the Division of Labor

Updated on September 7, 2013

As prehistoric man slowly evolved from our ancestors, Homo Neanderthal, the need for division of labor was recognized amongst the bands of hunter-gatherers. This division created a riff in many camps in the anthropology and archeology fields that have lasted until today and the cultural impact of the sexual division of labor is still felt. Some theories suggest that the strength of men versus the weakness of women is a theory; others claim it is because of a woman’s ability to nurse an infant and take care of children. In the end the true theory does not matter, what matters is the preconceived notion put forth by such anthropologists as Murdock, Nerlove, and Brown that have impacted today’s society and views on sexual division of labor. Without these prehistoric examples, the understanding of women’s status in the world with regard to labor would be hard to explain and examine. It is the beginning of the division of labor in prehistoric communities that shape the sexual divide relationship between men and women.

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The start of the sexual division of labor

As young children, we have learned that men work to provide for the family and the women stay home to care for the children. It is a long-standing tradition that goes back thousands of years to our hunter-gather ancestors. In these societies, the men hunted game while the women foraged for food. “All societies have some division of labor-some customary assignment of different kinds of work to different kinds of people.” (Ember & Ember, 1993, pg. 255) In some societies the division of labor was done by gender. This was termed, the sexual division of labor. “The sexual division of labor refers to the rules and norms that govern assignment of work to men and women in any society.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 97) The argument for this division is multipart depending upon your school of thought. “Such arguments include women’s immobilization due to reproductive roles and child care, women’s lack of necessary muscular strength, lesser ability at running or throwing spears, and proscription from or inability in using weapons like arrows, spears, darts, harpoons, and guns.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 98) As we have evolved as a society, these arguments have been seen as inconsistent with modern needs. Yet, these arguments were very valid when hunter-gather societies were predominating the planet.

Within the confines of the prehistoric communities, women and men shared vastly different working roles in their communities. The evidence that has been gathered over the centuries suggests that the roles of the male was more important than that of the women. “The archaeological literature on hunter-foragers remains focused (even obsessed) on male hunting activities and often narrowly fixated on the challenge and drama of the kill.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg.102) In many hunter-gather societies, men are seen as the providers and women as the keepers of the children and the fire. “That female foragers generally perform a variety of nonsubsistence collection activities and preferentially procure high-return resources in hunting-based economies.” (Waguespack, 205, pg. 666) We do not truly know why this is the standard, but there are many theories. “What is clear is that because the act of killing large prey is documented ethnographically to be a predominantly male activity, inferences regarding other attributes of prehistoric foraging societies—such as mobility regimes, technological strategies, and mating systems—are often (whether purposefully or by default) structured largely around male activities.” (Waguespack, 205, pg. 666) This is where the concept of man the hunter was conceived and the theory developed. Women on the other hand were not given such an idealistic task in the prehistoric hunter-gather societies. “Women are portrayed in a limited array of roles—primarily as plant gatherers, hide scrapers, and breast feeders, all of which are often presented as secondary to the primary male Clovis occupation—the killing of megafauna.” (Waguespack, 205, pg. 668) Although these roles are seen as being secondary, they are far from so.

Hunting VS Gathering

Without women staying behind to tend to the children as well as gather plants and clean the kills, the hunt would be far from successful. “Processing and storage technologies developed by women have been crucial for the survival of hunter-fishers and hunter-herders and their successful occupation of northern environments characterized by comparatively few edible plant food resources, extreme climatic variability, and pronounced seasonal fluctuations in resource availability.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 102) In essence, men and women had equally divided tasks, but due to the risks involved with hunting, men’s tasks have been recorded as more ‘heroic’ and more ‘important’ than women’s tasks. Yet there is evidence that show women have hunted game. “Women concentrate on smaller prey, arguably, not because they lack strength or prowess to tackle larger quarry, not because of taboos against women using more formidable weapons, and not because they might pollute men’s hunting gear.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 105) The reason behind the lack of hunting on the woman’s part was because they developed the skills necessary to process the game that the men returned with, yet this contribution still seems small in retrospect to the hunting and killing of the game.

The hunting of game has been romanticized by scholars since the discovery of evidence regarding hunter-gather societies. What could be more masculine than hunting megafauna with only spears, clubs, and other weapons fashioned from rocks and sticks, crude weapons at best against mighty beasts. “The dispatching of large game, especially by men, therefore, has a hallowed place in the archaeological literature.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 102) This is the beginning of men’s role in many societies as not only the protector of the familial unit, but also the provider. Although men would primarily hunt, they were not restricted to hunting alone. This could be due largely in part to their diet. “Hunters rarely relied exclusively on a single prey species, and often the bulk of their diet was based on plant foods.” (Bodley, 1938, pg. 47) This allowed for some of the men to take on more non-traditional roles. Men partook in the more feminine tasks of gathering plants and roots, cleaning carcasses, and watching after children and the elderly.

Women on the other hand have been historically been seen in what appears to be a lesser role of processing the food that was hunted. “Studies that attempt to clarify the role of female labor in Clovis economies tend to gravitate almost exclusively to the role of plant-product provisioning, the manufacturing of perishable technological items from plant products, or the processing of animals killed by men.” (Waguespack, 205, pg. 668) What has not been as readily seen is the importance of the work done by women in hunter-gather societies. “The role of women as the gatherers of plant foods often contributed more than half of some foraging people’s subsistence in tropical and temperate environments.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 100) It is not only the foraging of food sources that was important an important task to the bands of hunter-gatherers it was also the processing of the freshly killed game and the remains. “In addition to preserving and storing animal products in order to ensure a regular supply of food, women use the products of the hunt to manufacture the hides and tailored skin, gut, and fur wardrobes that allow people to live and work in the prolonged cold of arctic and subarctic winters.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 102) Women required the necessary intelligence to perform these tasks while pregnant, nursing, and caring for infants and small children.

The processing of these tasks were time consuming and kept women too busy to join in the hunts. “They are intensely occupied with the processing, storage, and management phases of hunting. Highly specialized knowledge and skills are required to manufacture food products, cold weather clothing, and other technologies from large kills.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 104) In comparison to modern day society, women would have to work a full time job, while caring for the children, preparing meals and performing housekeeping tasks. In essence, women’s tasks are just as important as men’s are. According to Burton, Brudner, and White, (1977) women’s tasks included “trapping of small land fauna work in bone, horn, and shell butchering, collection of wild honey, fishing, generation of fire, manufacture of leather products, burden carrying, preservation of meat and fish, gathering small aquatic fauna, fuel gathering, manufacture of clothing, preparation of drinks, gathering wild vegetal foods, water fetching, cooking, preparation of vegetal foods”. All this while pregnant, nursing, and/or caring for small children.

Keepers of the hearth and children

One of the main theories that surround the sexual division of labor is the ability of women to nurse infants. “Women’s tasks may be those that do not take them far from home for long periods that do not place children in potential danger if they are taken along, and that can be stopped and resumed if an infant needs care.” (Ember & Ember, 1993, pg. 289) For women to participate in giving back to the community, they must be able to do their tasks with interruptions. “Uninterruptible tasks are not consistent with the demands of child care and nursing is the primary interruption requiring consideration in discussions of sexual division of labor.” (Burton, Brudner, & White, 1977, pg. 228) The interruptions can last until the child is five years of age and ready to contribute to the community through various small tasks such as gathering berries and roots. A prehistoric mother cannot possibly take an infant and small children with her on a hunt, and so her role is reduced to that of “care-giver”, yet her role as a care-giver is the most important because the prehistoric woman ensures the continuity of not only the community, but the future of humanity as well.

There is a medium in between the strict division of labor between the sexes. This medium is called specialization. “It is argued that specialization allows families and other small-scale social units to perform a wider array of tasks and skills than any individual alone could master.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 99) This specialized knowledge of tasks allows many members to perform various tasks that are needed to be accomplished. “Specialized knowledge and experience permit both women and men to make conscious choices about how to best allocate their labor in the face of fluctuating resources and changes in the composition of the workforce.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 99) Specialization is a logical choice when faced against the harshness of the hunter-gather societies faced in the early days of human existence. It would allow for the most important of tasks to be triaged out amongst the members of the unit who could best perform the tasks no matter what their gender was. Yet there are limits to men and women working on the same tasks. “Deployment of both women and men in the direct harvest phase of large mammal hunting might produce twice as many kills, an outcome that may appear beneficial in the short run. Unless such harvests could be processed for future consumption, however, they would remain only large piles of kills or rotting carcasses, not the basis for a viable subsistence economy that demands a regular daily supply of food and other animal products.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 105) This is another reason why tasks were divided amongst members of the tribe.

Under the specialization theory, different arts and crafts developed. “Crafts such as making baskets, mats, and pottery are women’s activities.” (Ember & Ember, 1993, pg. 289) Such leisure activities allowed women in later societies to earn a sort of wage through trading their goods for beads, meats, furs, or other necessities. The development of these crafts helped to propel along human civilization and society. “It can therefore be argued that the crucial steps in human development were predominantly inspired by females. These include economic and technological innovations, and the role of females as the social center of groups.” (Brettell & Sargent, 2009, pg. 20) Although ‘man the hunter’ is quite striking of a figure, it is actually the nurturing mother who is responsible for the continuance of human existence and society.

Specialization, unfortunately, is not readily taught with regard to the sexual division of labor, instead many are taught that men are the hunters and women are the gatherers. “Unfortunately, such extreme views, rendered as mutually exclusive ‘man the hunter’ versus ‘woman the gatherer’ models, have come to sum up the way many archaeologists interpret the economic roles of women and men.” (Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 2006, pg. 100) This is a view that has impacted gender roles in modern society. “Recent theorists have also emphasized the importance of sexual division of labor for the status of women and place importance on some aspects of women’s contributions to subsistence that had been neglected by earlier anthropologists.” (Burton, Brudner, & White, 1977, pg. 227) It is this impact that has created the existing labor division roles between the genders to this day. A man can be a nurse and a woman can be a soldier, yet these are not what are considered to be traditional roles that a man and woman should have in the eyes of modern societies. Although the sexual division of labor began in the early days of human history, the effect of this division has created cultural definitions in many societies that are patrilineal in nature.


Women’s roles in the prehistoric communities may have been greatly downplayed by the imagery of ‘man the hunter’ by the anthropologists who romanticized the hunter-gather societies of the past, yet the contributions cannot be dismissed. If women were fully involved in hunting megafauna alongside the men, there would be no one to care for young children, to tend to the fires, to gather the berries and roots that provided the needed substance when the prey eluded the hunters, and there would be no one to be ready to process the game when the hunters returned. The men’s contribution of the fresh meat was significant, yet not as significant as the women’s role that has been greatly underestimated. Women allowed for the perpetuation of humans to survive through their meager contributions of staying behind and waiting for men to return while caring for the tribe and ensuring the welfare of future generations.

This sense of need to care for the past and future of humanity is an enduring legacy that has been passed down throughout the generations, from mother to daughter, with pride that as a woman they care for their familial unit. It should not been seen as a role that is diminished by men, but as the most important of all roles there is in human societies, that of caretaker of humanity. Men may provide the food, but it is the woman who cooks the meal. Men may provide the majority of the substances that is requires by the familial unit, yet it is the woman who manages that familial unit and ensures that the unit survives when the men cannot. This is a legacy that many women should feel proud to be a part of and many men should recognize as the reason why humanity continues to exist. ‘Man the hunter’ is a wonderful notion and concept, yet is outdated, for the society that the gathering women have created now distinguishes that the influences of the gathers is as great as that of the hunters. It is an impact that has not only prolonged human existence, but has enhanced human civilization and society through the simple act of staying at home, caring for children, and cooking the meal.


Bodley, J. H (1983) Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems. Mayfield Publishing: London

Brettell, C & Sargent, C. (2009) Gender in Cross Cultural Perspectives. Pearson Prentice Hall: New Jersey

Burton, M. L., Brudner, L. A. and White, D. R. (1977), A model of the sexual division of labor. American Ethnologist, 4: 227–252. doi: 10.1525/ae.1977.4.2.02a00020

Ember, C. R and Ember, M. (1993). Anthropology. Prentice Hall: New Jersey

Jarvenpa, R. and Brumbach, H. J. (2006), Revisiting the Sexual Division of Labor: Thoughts on Ethnoarchaeology and Gender. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 16: 97–107. doi: 10.1525/ap3a.2006.16.1.97

Waguespack, N. M. (2005), The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies: Implications for Early Paleoindian Archaeology. American Anthropologist, 107: 666–676. doi: 10.1525/aa.2005.107.4.666


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