Roles of Women in the Stone Age

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  • 0:03 Stone Age Women
  • 0:54 The Paleolithic Woman
  • 3:47 Neolithic Women
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Gender is a concept that changes across time and around the world. So, what did it mean back in the earliest days of humanity's existence? In this lesson, we'll examine women's roles in Stone Age societies and see how they changed with time.

Stone Age Women

Long, long ago, humans lived in bands of roving hunter-gatherers, surviving off the land and their wits alone. Men were strong, brave, and stoic as they battled mammoths and saber-tooth cats. Women were nurturing and domestic, gathering plants to eat. That's just the way it was.

Wait, hold on there. Did all men hunt, while all women gathered? Were all chores segregated by gender? How did they decide? We may have some assumptions about what life was like in the Stone Age, but as it turns out, not all of our assumptions are realistic. Gender segregation is not something that has ever been natural or universal in human history, so to understand the role of women in the Stone Age we need to put aside our assumptions, and take a closer look at what life was really like way back when.

The Paleolithic Woman

To start, let's divide the broad category of ''Stone Age'' into some more specific periods. Most of this lengthy era can be classified as the Paleolithic, or the Old Stone Age. This was the world before the advent of agriculture, when all societies were nomadic or semi-nomadic, relying on their skills as hunters and gatherers.

For a long time, we had some pretty strong assumptions about Paleolithic life. It was assumed that men (who do have greater capacity for physical strength) were better suited to act as hunters in a world where prey included massive beasts like mammoths. Women, on the other hand, were assumed to control more domestic chores, primarily due to the responsibilities of child raising.

In some cases, this division may have been accurate. However, there is less and less evidence that this was the norm. Archeologists and paleoanthropologists have realized that the assumed segregation of labor placed disproportionate demands on the time of men and women. In a small society where everybody had to work in order for the group to survive, it seems unlikely that anyone would be sitting idly while others labored. It's more likely that nearly all chores were shared between men and women, depending on the needs of the group at that time. Realistically, mammoth hunts would have been relatively rare events; this wasn't something you did every day. So, even if those hunts were gender segregated, does it mean that more common chores like gathering nuts and berries were?

This logic extends beyond just food acquisition. As scholars reexamined our assumptions, we realized that there was essentially no evidence to support the notion that men were the only ones making stone tools. There's also evidence that children may have been raised in a more communal fashion, with parenting being a group effort. Furthermore, studies in 2012 found that of Paleolithic handprints painted onto cave walls in France and Spain, 3/4 belonged to women (we can tell because men and women have different finger lengths relative to palm size). This forces us to question the assumptions that men were responsible for Paleolithic art.

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