Sex-Based Roles Gave Modern Humans an Edge, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 7, 2006

A division of labor according to sex and age gave modern humans an advantage over Neandertals, a new study says.

The emergence of "female labor roles" played an important role in human evolutionary history, because it allowed early-human hunter-gatherer societies to draw on more food resources and live in larger communities, researchers say.

It may help explain why the Neandertals (also spelled "Neanderthals"), who occupied Europe until modern humans arrived some 45,000 years ago, went extinct.

"The competitive advantage enjoyed by modern humans came not just from new weapons and devices but from the ways in which their economic lives were organized around … roles for men, women, and children," said Steven Kuhn, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Kuhn co-authored the study with University of Arizona colleague Mary Stiner. It appears in the December issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Out of Africa

Some research has suggested that the practice of dividing labor according to sex dates back as far as two million years.

But the new study suggests the changes didn't occur until the upper Paleolithic period, which lasted from about 45,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago.

"We argue that the typical patterns of labor division emerged relatively recently in human evolutionary history," Kuhn said.

At sites dating back to the upper Paleolithic, researchers have found evidence of an emergence of skill-intensive crafts, such as bone awls and needles used to make clothes. They have also found small animal and bird remains.

As in hunter-gatherer societies of the recent past, men likely hunted large animals while women gathered small game and plants, enabling a more efficient use of available food sources.

When small game and plant foods were scarce, women and older children were often involved in other vital activities, such as producing clothing and shelter.

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