Let’s talk about sex: the lack of gender in the Palaeolithic

I recently had to review three core assumptions made in Palaeolithic archaeology based on a very thought-provoking article by J. Speth (2018) – see below for the full citation. The most implicit assumption I ended up reviewing, in my opinion, is that of a lack of gender. There are countless articles about mobility patterns, raw material transportation, subsistence strategies and food processing that do not mention the possibility of gender division. It is well-documented that gendered labour division is a characteristic of modern hunter-gatherer societies (Marlowe 2007), even if some groups are stricter about it than others, and labour division is a way of ensuring the necessary tasks are completed efficiently. Why are Palaeolithic archaeologists, especially when looking at the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, inclined to avoid this idea? One reason is, as for many things, the lack of substantial evidence. It is very difficult to find gender in the archaeological record for such early periods. However, this has not stopped scholars from assuming gendered divisions in the Upper Palaeolithic, as a more sophisticated way of organising labour (eg. Kuhn and Stiner 2006). The similarities we assume early Homo sapiens has to us in our way of life probably facilitates this.

However, the increasing evidence for a broad Neanderthal diet that included a wide range of plant foods (eg. Hardy 2018) and often also small mammals raises the issue of labour organisation. If the whole group spent their day hunting, who would be collecting the plant foods? Hunting is not a reliable form of food procurement and depending solely on hunting outcomes is risky; gathering is a much more reliable food source, and according to Marlowe (2007), women actually tend to target more reliable foods than men. Considering both archaeological evidence and methods such as stable isotope analysis are showing us that Neanderthal diets were broader than previously assumed, it is worth discussing subsistence strategies in new ways.

While I do not have any brilliant ideas of how we might perceive labour division, specifically sexual division of labour, in the archaeological record, I do think it is an area of study that deserves more attention. An interesting approach taken by Estalrrich and Rosas (2015) is to look at dental wear from male and female Neanderthals – they show that different activities were undertaken both by different genders and different ages across three sites. Another starting point for the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic may even be site organisation – the division of activities within a site could reflect the division of individuals carrying out those activities. As mentioned above, gendered labour division is universal in modern hunter-gatherer groups; several examples are provided by Gamble and Boismier (1991) in their Ethnoarchaeological Approaches to Mobile Campsites. Gender is mentioned in several of the articles in relation to how activities are carried out and how this may affect the way sites or artefact distributions appear once the camp is abandoned. This does involve speculation, but in combination with other approaches such as use-wear analysis, it may provide new information or hypotheses. It would be nice to move on from the occasional mention of the male hunter to a broader approach of how gender mattered (or did not) in communities before the Upper Palaeolithic.



Estalrrich, A., and Rosas, A. 2015. Division of labour by sex and age in Neanderthals: an approach through the study of activity-related dental wear. Journal of Human Evolution 80, 51-63.

Gamble, C. and Boismier, A. 1991. Ethnoarchaeological Approaches to Mobile Campsites. Hunter-gatherer and Pastoralist Case Studies. USA: International Monographs in Prehistory, Ethnoarchaeological Series 1.

Hardy, K. 2018. Plant use in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic: Food, medicine and raw materials. Quaternary Science Reviews 191, 393-405.

Kuhn, S. and Stiner, M. 2006. What’s a Mother to Do? The Division of Labour among Neanderthals and Modern Humans in Eurasia. Current Anthropology 47(6), 953-980.

Marlowe, F. 2007. Hunting and Gathering. The Human Sexual Division of Foraging Labour. Cross-Cultural Research 41(2), 170-195.

Speth, J. 2018. A New Look at Old Assumptions. Paleoindian Communal Bison Hunting, Mobility and Stone Tool Technology. In: Carlson, K., and Bement, L. (Eds), The Archaeology of Large-Scale Manipulation of Prey. Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 161-285.

Neanderthal cave art in Spain

Earlier this year, Hoffmann et al (2018) published an article revealing the dates they obtained for cave art from three sites in Spain: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales. Using uranium-thorium dating on the carbonate crusts that had formed over the art to obtain a minimum age, they concluded that these examples of cave art are older than 64.8 thousand years. Of course, this places the creation of this cave art well before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe, and implies Neanderthals were the makers.

For the actual techniques used, I would refer you to the article by Hoffmann et al (2018) – the reference can be found below. The art includes linear motifs, dots and hand stencils. The authors go on to suggest that while the dots and lines found are questionable in terms of symbolism, the hand stencils are evidence of planned production, and their placement in relation to natural features on the cave wall makes it ‘difficult to see them as anything but meaningful symbols placed in meaningful places’ (Hoffman et al 2018).

Considering the ongoing debate concerning Neanderthal cognition and ability, especially whether they were capable of symbolic activities, it is unsurprising this article drew some criticism. I am not in a position to judge whether the criticism is well-founded or not, as I do not have knowledge of the dating or sampling techniques used. However, over the last few years of reading scholarly articles about Neanderthals and early modern humans, I have found that there is often a double standard in place for evidence of symbolism. It is assumed modern humans were symbolically inclined, and anything reminiscent of art or symbolism is thus accepted. Similar evidence for Neanderthals needs to be argued through and through, until no other possibility seems plausible, to gain widespread acceptance. I am not saying this is always the case, as there are enough scholars who approach any evidence with an open mind, and I am not necessarily arguing for Neanderthal symbolism, but it does seem a pervasive issue. It will be very interesting to see if these old dates become acceptable and verified, and what implications this will have for research into Neanderthal behaviour.

Article source: Hoffmann, D., Standish, C., Garcia-Diez, M., Pettitt, P., Milton, J., Zilhao, J., Alcolea-Gonzalez, J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., de Balbin, R., Lorblanchet, M., Ramos-Munoz, J., Weniger, G-Ch., and Pike, A. 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359(6378), 912-915. DOI: 10.1126/science.aap7778