Women of the European Neolithic could hunt and fight on an equal footing with men

(ORDO NEWS) — Study of the oldest known burial field in the Netherlands is changing the understanding of gender roles in the Neolithic.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of Leiden (Netherlands) conducted a study of bone remains and grave goods from burials in Elsloo in the south of Limburg. This is the name (after a nearby village) of the largest Neolithic burial field in Holland.

The study of the Elsloo burials began in the late 1950s. But the technology that scientists have now did not exist then – and thanks to this circumstance, new discoveries are still being made even on such “old” material.

Women of the European Neolithic could hunt and fight on an equal footing with men 2
Reconstruction of the settlement of representatives of the culture of linear-band ceramics

The Neolithic burial field at Elsloo belonged to the Linear Ware culture (ca. 5500-4000 BC). This is the first and most widespread Neolithic culture in Central and Western Europe.

Having begun their distribution from the Middle Danube basin, representatives of this culture mastered the upper reaches of the Vistula, Oder and Elbe, the Rhine basin.

The culture of linear-band ceramics is the culture of the first European farmers. More than seven thousand years ago, its representatives used the slash-and-burn method and grew wheat, legumes, millet barley and rye.

The transition from a nomadic way of life (hunting, gathering) to a settled way of life (agriculture, cattle breeding) is called the Neolithic revolution.

The burial field at Elsloo is the oldest known Neolithic burial in the Netherlands (ca. 5100-4950 BC). Although the Line Ware culture is usually characterized by cremation, some graves in Elsloo contain cremation remains. Typically, different funeral rites indicate the cultural or religious heterogeneity of the population.

But even from the cremated remains, scientists were able to determine the sex and age of some of the dead. Then these data were compared with descriptions of grave goods in specific graves.

It turned out that flint arrowheads and stone axes, which are traditionally attributed to men, are also often found in female graves on the field of Elsloo.

This goes against the traditional idea that grave goods, as personal possessions, reflect the daily life and gender of the deceased. The researchers suggested that, in fact, grave goods are less dependent on gender than previously thought.

Women of the European Neolithic could hunt and fight on an equal footing with men 3
Samples of linear band ceramics after restoration

The graves of the elderly, especially women, were the richest. There seems to be a certain status associated with age.

Many items related to hunting, cooking, woodworking and body decoration were found in these burials. For example, many of the dead were sprinkled with red ocher.

Almost all parts of the grave goods were intensively used before they ended up in the grave. And this also does not depend on the sex and age of the deceased.

Apparently, these are ordinary household utensils, possibly belonging to the relatives of the deceased, who collected funeral gifts from their household items.

It could be assumed that the women, in whose graves there were axes and arrowheads, were warriors or hunters. Such burials are known, Naked Science talked about one of them. But for burials in Elsloo this is unlikely.

Warriors (both men and women) are identified not only by the presence of weapons in the grave, but also by characteristic lifetime injuries – and here women do not have them.

Whether these Neolithic ladies could have been hunters is not clear, although hunting, in principle, was no longer particularly important for survival, people took up cattle breeding.

Previously, scholars have confidently argued that the gender roles of the Neolithic in general and the Linear Pottery culture in particular are firmly established: men were warriors, hunters, herders, and builders, while women were housewives and pottery makers.

The results of the new study can be interpreted in two ways. Or the grave goods were actually distributed without paying attention to the sex of the deceased (although there are no unambiguously female items found in male graves).

Or anthropologists will have to reconsider earlier findings and admit that we do not fully understand how early Neolithic peoples in northern Europe shared their day-to-day responsibilities.


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