Globally, women and men live in unequal worlds. This inequality is expressed in many ways, including wage gap, the feminization of poverty, sexual violence, workplace harassment, and the objectification of women. The latest Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum estimates that “today, the Global Gender Gap score stands at 69%,” and that no country has currently achieved parity. To combat this state of affairs, world leaders adopted, in September 2015, Agenda 2013 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals with the aim of improving the prosperity and well-being of women. This project focuses on one of these challenges: gender equality.
To confront gender inequality requires a scientific understanding of the social and historical contexts in which it arose and developed. Prehistoric archaeological evidence have a relevant role to understand the deep roots of gender inequality, going back in time to the period of early complex societies. First and foremost, gender inequality cannot be taken as ‘natural’: it is the product of a long and complex social process that we need to understand in order to act on it. Specifically, this project aims to address the role of mobility on the origin and development of gender inequality, focusing on societies from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in Iberia (c. 5500-850 BC). With the onset of the Neolithic, human societies were able to accumulate surplus, which opened up entirely new possibilities for political and economic development. Accumulated wealth became subject to inheritance, which made the control of inheritance lines through the control of women’s sexuality essential for potential powerful men. With increasing social complexity, women also could have become relevant to the creation of alliances through marriage, which would have further objectified them. Residential patterns also became crucial in the evolution of gender inequality, as patrilocality would have caused women to be displaced from their families, which would have rendered them more vulnerable to male domination. All of the above invites us to think that mobility was a crucial factor in the origin and development of gender inequality. To approach this issue, the project will focus on a region of the world where there is growing archaeological evidence to track the relationship between mobility and gender inequality: Iberia.
When, why and how did gender inequality take place? Although anthropologists, have long explored these questions in ethnographic studies without obtaining a common explanation, many agree that kinship and residence patterns are key factors. As aforementioned, with a shift from matrilocality to patrilocality, women’s social networks are weakened which could have led to their displacement to a secondary position in relation to men. Cross cultural research can provide new data to demonstrate to what extent mobility is a key factor in the understanding of the development of gender inequality. Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and D-Place databases are powerful tools in the ethnographical research.
To truly advance our understanding, research on the origin of gender inequality requires not only the insights from Anthropology but from Archaeology. The transformation from patrilocal to matrilocal residential pattern is likely to have taken place after the onset of sedentism and the domestication of plants and animals, which in Europe occurred following the Neolithic (post-6000 BC). Archaeologists are, therefore, well positioned to investigate this process. The integration of ethnographic and archaeological data can provide new insights to an old question.
The application of a gendered perspective in archaeology has grown significantly in recent decades, especially in the United States and Western Europe. However, much work has narrowly focused on specific practices, such as burial or rock art, most often at the local or regional scale. With few exceptions, no research has tackled the origins of gender inequality from a macroregional scale through a holistic methodological approach. At the same time, the gender perspective has been criticized for being “politicized”, “biased” or “non-scientific”. As a new approach, the gender perspective indeed needs work to be improved. Nevertheless, it is thanks to a gender perspective that questions such as the origin of gender inequality have been put on the agenda.
Examining the role of mobility in the process of rising differences between men and women in the past can contribute not only to the development of gender perspective, but to Archaeology as a discipline. Archaeology has now the potential to make unique contributions to this question and this potential must be realized. It is now possible to investigate the mobility and residential patterns of past people through the high-resolution analyses of strontium (Sr) and oxygen (O) isotopes in their bones. Preliminary research in Denmark, Central Europe and Iberia suggests that women were more mobile during the Copper and Bronze Ages than in previous periods, which could point to incipient patrilocality. The combination of a comparative, science-based and statistical approach with a feminist one offers a new and original way to address one of the central issues of human sciences.
Are you interested in knowing more about the study of gender in Prehistory?
Visit the section ‘Resources’.