Gender equality was a real thing—over 10,000 years ago

If you ever hear a “meninist” say that the patriarchy is totally “natural” and a part of their history, you can now call their bluff. Two University College London anthropology lecturers recently published a study that suggests our ancestors were much more egalitarian than we are today.

Let’s back up for a second. According to researchers Andrea Migliano and Lucio Vinicius, in their paper published by The Conversation, humans started creating societies centered around food production about 10,000 years ago, which led to the formation of concepts like inheriting wealth, as well as wealth accumulation. This led to the social ranking in hierarchies based on wealth that we all know today. This was also expressed in terms of gender. “The sex that could monopolize resources could also take charge of territories, wedding decisions, family life,” claim Migliano and Vinicius, “and was ultimately able to control the opposite sex. . . the powerful sex (most often men) could dictate alliances between the relatives they lived with.”

Pretty much, this meant that women generally had to follow their husbands, who made the major decisions in the family. . . enter gender inequality.

But this isn’t always how it’s been. In studying two communities of “modern hunter-gatherers”—the BaYaka from the Congo and the Agta from the Phillippines—Migliano and Vinicius found that gender inequality is practically nonexistent.

“. . . there are no chiefs, no large households, no property of land or resources, and couples are welcome to come and go between camps as they please,” they explain. “Couples must constantly move around between camps in search of food or in search of people to share food with, and for this reason group composition keeps changing. As a result individuals in a camp can be highly unrelated to each other, which prevents the formation hierarchical structures.” The researchers also note that these communities live in “harsh environments” and thus must work together equally as an essential part of their lifestyle.

So what does this all mean? It means that gender inequality is a man-made construct, but it’s not in our DNA. We can draw parallels from the Bayaka and the Agta people to our own ancestors who lived over 10,000 years ago in hunter-gatherer groups . . . and they likely cooperated on an equal playing field, sans gender inequality.

This research also suggests that, at least, some of our gender gap issues stem (going way back) from the way we consume food. It seems as though food-sharing communities maintain more of a gender balance compared to societies based around food production. And yeah, food production is kind of our thing. Too bad we’ve been doing it for 10,000 years. That might be a hard habit to break.

But at least we can learn something from our ancestors, and actually we’ve already learned a lot. As the researchers put it: “The few surviving hunter-gatherers groups show us that without the equality and cooperation between sexes that they share with our distant ancestors many of the characteristics that we like to call ‘uniquely human,’ such as caring for others and fairness, would probably not have evolved.”

The study is totally fascinating, so check out the full report here.

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