Neolithic Age women

Anthropology: A Brief Study of Women’s Roles in Ancient Times


Throughout recorded history, women have been slated as occupying a lower status than their male counterparts. When discussing gender roles in recent popular culture, stereotypes may come to mind in which women were regarded as delicate flowers whose main task in life was to keep house and take care of children. At the same time, their husbands acted as active breadwinners and heads of the family.

Such concepts only served to reinforce the idea that a woman’s role was always secondary to that of a man’s and never before. Although the concepts of “women’s liberation” and “feminism” have typically been regarded as recent phenomena of the late 20th century, archaeological evidence suggests instead that the ancient world’s gender gap has been contested throughout various cultures and millennia.

In the face of such evidence, this blog post will review the contributions made by women to early humanity. It will also discuss how the subsequent rise of farming and urban communities contributed to the rise of patriarchy, elaborating on the diminished importance of women and their contributions to the ancient world.

Neolithic Age women
Prehistoric women played a large role in cultivating crops and the hunting and gathering of wild food. Image Credit: Look and Learn.

Before we begin our tentative examination of the place and roles of these ancient women, we must first understand the time period in which they originated and how their circumstances affected their lot in life. Popular culture would have us believe that our ancestors were merely clusters of men, women, and children residing in cold caves and attired in furs to stave off the elements.

In truth, the earliest human societies were foragers, i.e., hunters and gatherers. In the modern age, hunting is commonly viewed as a male occupation. Some may view the hunting-gathering lifestyle of our ancestors as being chiefly patriarchal.

However, women were more than likely a common sight on hunting grounds, providing aid to the process of butchering animal carcasses and transferring the meat back to camp after consuming their fill. In addition, gathering herbs and berries, among other flora and fauna, proved to provide more food than hunting. In this sense, women’s contribution was just as important as men’s.

Women’s Roles in Contemporary Foraging and Hunting

Cave art
In ancient cave art, the majority of handprints were found to be left by women, contradicting the belief that prehistoric societies held males inherently superior and the earliest painters were predominantly male. Image Credit: National Geographic.

Readers can find evidence of more equal roles between the sexes by studying the famous cave paintings scattered throughout Europe. Virginia Hughes’ article, “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” attempts to dispel the previous misconceptions that the images were largely men’s creations.

She cites the discoveries of archaeologist Dean Snow, who “determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female” (Hughes 4). “Using several measurements – such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to the little finger,” Snow’s findings concluded that “24 of the 32 hands – 75 percent – were female” (Hughes 5). Given women’s contribution to hunting grounds and foraging as a whole, it would not be illogical to assume that said prints could be the work of female shamans casting some incantation or charm to bestow good luck on the hunters.

When comparing traditional foraging lifestyles with the rise of agriculture and farming, it becomes apparent that male dominance was uncommon in these early societies. While hunting was undoubtedly important and provided invaluable protein sources, prehistoric women may have arguably collected just as much food as men hunted, perhaps even more so.

In early societies, women were therefore equally, if not more, responsible for generating and distributing food and taking on leadership roles (Quill 2021; Scheidel 1995; Singh 2020; Hans and Hedge 2020; Inhetveen 1998; Vijaya and Maheswari 2020).

Women’s Roles in Agriculture and Farming

However, women played more of a role even as society transitioned towards farm-based production than previously believed by many historians. These transitions in modes of farming were not as simplistic in the real world as the traditional historical way of viewing a “Stone Age” leading to a “Bronze Age” would have one believe. No matter which period or civilization is the focus of study, there are often nuances that don’t fit into such tidy and convenient “eras.”

Highlighting its relevance to history as a whole, Margaret Ehrenberg cites several examples of women’s contributions to an agrarian society. Logan and Dixon (1994) also point to women’s deep connection with plants, and Ehrenberg argues that it may have been women who made the first observations of plant behavior and learned how to grow and tend crops through trial and error over several generations (15).

Female agriculturalists initially accomplished this via hoes or digging sticks for making holes or drills to plant roots and seeds. Modern horticulture societies display a correlation between non-plow agriculture and the subsequently enhanced status of women (Baumann 1928).

The increasing use of the plow and larger animals on bigger farms increased the importance of men’s roles in farming. First, large-scale herding and tending to animals was mostly done by men. Further, because cattle and oxen were highly prized in the mechanized farming of large fields, they were also at a high risk of being stolen in raids. Therefore, men’s role increased in part because of the need to protect their livestock.

In light of these events, sons were likely considered more precious than daughters, as they would learn to till the land and tend to the animals alongside their fathers (Ebenstein 2021). Women were more likely to spend their time child-rearing as larger plots of land typically required more workers and thus more pregnancies.

As a result of increased childbirth and rearing, “urban women had less time for heavier agricultural work and the long intensive hours needed for cultivation” (Clay et al. 22). Subsequently, due to the influx of field workers, women “no longer contributed so much to the daily production of food, which had previously been a crucial factor in maintaining the equal status they had previously enjoyed” (Ehrenberg 19).

The advent of plow agriculture highlights an evolution in women’s roles in traditional farming practices. Image Credit: Oxford University Press.

Work-Family Conflicts and Gender Role Attitudes

Inherent gender bias in the arenas of economics and culture has had longstanding impacts on female labor supply and support, especially in agriculture (Özen et al. 2020; Fernandez 2007; Recalde-Vela et al. 2020; Sivakumar 2021; Patil and Suresh Babu 2018). According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, women make up 30% of the country’s farmers.

However, the problem of land rights is widespread across many countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, and India, despite widespread participation in farming (Brumfield and Ozkan 2020Rehman et al. 2021Özen et al. 2020Carranza 2012; Rao 2016), subsequently creating obstacles such as lack of markets, financing, agricultural training, literacy, socio-cultural barriers, and substandard working conditions that put women at a distinct disadvantage even before they produce a crop.

The practice of inheritance and business building, among other concepts, is further hampered by these regions’ entrenched gender roles, sometimes resulting in “honor killings” (Gibbs et al. 2019; Flintoff 2010), wherein women are murdered by their spouse or other male relatives to preserve the family reputation.

In terms of land rights, some extreme cases of patriarchal views harm the relative value of women and girls to a household, yielding a distinct lack of collateral or agency.

Resolutions to Gender Barriers in Women’s Roles in Agriculture

Despite the prevalence of sex-based discrimination and gender-specific barriers within agricultural societies, however, steps have been made to give the women of these regions access to the same resources and education as men, including:

Provision of goods and services

  • Asset transfer programs.
  • Indirect provision – Makes a good service more available.

Strengthening organizations

  • Form new groups or strengthen existing groups.
  • Work with farmer/producer groups or credit/savings groups.
  • Can have levels or groups or networks of groups.
Building knowledge and skills
  • Agricultural training and extension.
  • Projects can focus on men, women, or both (sometimes in the same household).
  • Nutritional education was given historically to women but has been expanded to men to broaden join decision making.
Influencing gender norms
  • While women are the targets, men and boys are also involved.
  • Awareness raising: Making people aware of biases can reduce them.
  • Community conversations: Community members learn and discuss (Brumfield and Ozkan 378-79).
Photo of an archaeological dig site. Two ancient skeletons, both female, lying in a shallow pit.
Like those killed in western France 6,500 years ago, agrarian women were probably essential manual laborers; the physical condition of their skeletons subverts stereotypes about gender roles in prehistoric societies. Image Credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Significance in Anthropology

From the foregoing paragraphs, we now have a better understanding of these pre-historical societies with special emphasis on the foragers and farmers, which carried elements of gender equality that gradually lessened over many centuries. A recurring sociocultural marker is the advent of mechanized agriculture, which Ehrenberg hypothesized fostered such a condition or was a mechanism that reinforced the misogyny prevalent in urban civilizations.

If we can generally support the fact that the spectrum of gender roles was much wider in some past societies than traditional opinions, it would not be illogical to ponder the fate of this social mindset. Where did it go, and why did it vanish so efficiently that modern-day scholars must rediscover its existence? The answer may lie within social trends of the last hundred years that, considering gender equality in the present day, gave rise to much bias in archaeological and anthropological evidence.

In either case, it now appears fully supportable (despite the remaining conservative interpretations) that many prehistoric women enjoyed access to a wide range of social roles, such as shamans, and political, economic, and legal roles in cultures such as the Vikings and the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. As such, perhaps the boundaries of gender roles are not as rigid as they would appear.

Indian woman sitting
Women have historically played a prominent role in agricultural societies, comprising 43 percent of the global workforce, rising to 70 percent in some countries. Image Credit: Global Volunteers.


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Brumfield, Robin, G., and Ozkhan, Burhan (2020). “Empowering Women Farmers and their Families.” ResearchGate, pp. 375-389. Available at

Carranza, Eliana. “Soil Endowments, Production Technologies and Missing Women in India.” (2012). Open Knowledge Repository. Available at:

Clay, Catherine, et al. “Women in the First Urban Communities.” Worlds of History, edited by Kevin Reilly. 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 21-25.

Ebenstein, Avraham. “The Historical Origins of Son Preference: Patrilocality and Missing Women.” Available at SSRN 3829406 (2021).

Ehrenberg, Margaret. “Women in Prehistory.” Worlds of History, edited by Kevin Reilly. 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 14-22.

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Gibbs, Andrew, et al. “Factors Associated with ‘Honour Killing’ in Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Two Cross-Sectional Studies.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 8 Aug. 2019,

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