Early men and women had gender equality, say anthropologists

The study suggests inequality only occurred when people started to accumulate resources

Louis Dore
Friday 15 May 2015 11:37 BST

A study has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes men and women tend to hold equal standing and influence, suggesting that sexual equality was the norm for humans throughout most of our evolutionary history.

Mark Dyble, the leading anthropologist on the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

After collecting genealogical data from two hunter-gatherer groups from the Congo and the Philippines, the scientists found that sexual equality may have been a survival advantage and played an important role in shaping human society and evolution.

“Sexual equality is one of an important suite of changes to social organisation, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans,” he said. “It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.”

Through computer modelling the study found that when only one sex had influence over living conditions and decisions, as is typically the case in male-dominated pastoral or horticultural societies, tight hubs of related individuals emerged.

However, the average number of related individuals was predicted to be much lower when men and women have an equal influence, which closely resembled the populations studied.

“When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” said Dyble. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.”

The study set out to address the conundrum that while people in hunter-gatherer societies show a preference for living with family members, in practice they live with few closely related individuals.

Having tracked movement and residence traits through hundreds of interviews they found that in both case studies, people tended to live in groups of around 20, moving roughly every 10 days and subsisting on hunted game, fish and gathered fruit, vegetables and honey.

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