Ancient tools found in graves across Europe suggest women and men performed specific gender-based tasks in farming societies about 5,000 years ago, according to scientists.
An analysis of 400 stone objects from the Neolithic period – when farming practices spread across the continent – showed that tools found in female graves were most likely used for the working of animal skins and hide.
Meanwhile, objects found in men’s graves were associated with hunting, woodwork, butchery, and potential conflict.
However, UK scientists involved in the study point out this division of labour based on biological sex is not a sign of gender inequality but rather shows how “the different roles of men and women were a crucial part of the transition to farming in human societies”.
Dr Penny Bickle, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said: “The gendered roles, far from being a sign of early gender inequalities, actually shows how dynamic farming societies were and how aware they were of the different skills of members of their community.
“The tasks attributed to women were difficult manual work and complemented the work of the men as equal contributors to their community.
“The fact that you see these objects in the graves of men and women, demonstrates how marked out and valued they were for these jobs.”
The researchers also found geographic variations in these results, hinting gender-based division of labour may have shifted as agricultural practices spread towards the west.
In the east, there is evidence to suggest women moved around more than men, the experts said.
This is regardless of sex, shell ornamentation and jewellery were carried in their graves, they added.
On contrast, analysis indicated that in the west men moved around more and had tools more associated with hunting than women.
Alba Masclans Latorre, a postdoctoral researcher from Barcelona and the lead on the study, said: “Women’s roles and contributions to these very early human societies are often downplayed; but here we show that they took an active role in shaping early farming communities.
“So important was their role that these activities were chosen to mark them out in death, but we see the same in the graves of men, suggesting that there were indeed specific gendered roles, but all of these jobs were hugely significant to the proper functioning of their society.”
The findings are published in the journal Plos One.