A family of Neanderthals in Eurasia, during the Pleistocene epoch

Did light-skinned, redheaded Neanderthal women hunt with the men?

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A team of Spanish researchers theorizes, based on grooves and nicks on the teeth of Neanderthals, that gender roles among that species were similar to gender roles of modern Homo Sapiens. Neanderthal men prepared the cutting tools and weapons, while women saw to the leather garments and clothing.

But there was at least one duty that men and women may have shared: Neanderthal women, these researchers think, hunted big game with the men.

Almudena Estalrrich, a researcher at the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences, said: “… We believe that the specialization of labor by sex of the individuals was probably limited to a few tasks, as it is possible that both men and women participated equally in the hunting of big animals.”

Another researcher on the project, Antonio Rosas, also with the museum, told Phys.org :  “The study of Neanderthals has provided numerous discoveries in recent years. We have moved from thinking of them as little evolved beings, to know that they took care of the sick persons, buried their deceased, ate seafood, and even had different physical features than expected: there were redhead individuals, and with light skin and eyes. So far, we thought that the sexual division of labor was typical of sapiens societies, but apparently that's not true.”

Restoration of a Neanderthal woman cleaning a reindeer skin.

Restoration of a Neanderthal woman cleaning a reindeer skin. ( Wikimedia Commons )

A study of ancient DNA by other researchers showed a mutation that may have resulted in red hair and light skin among Neanderthals, according to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. An article on the Smithsonian’s website says two Neanderthals, one from Spain and one from Italty, had a mutation in a gene controlling skin and hair color. “The mutation changes an amino acid, making the resulting protein less efficient. Modern humans have other MCR1 variants that are also less active, resulting in red hair and pale skin. The less active Neanderthal mutation probably also resulted in red hair and pale skin, as in modern humans.”

For much of history, men in most societies were the hunters. An exception was Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, seen above in a calyx with bow in hand.

For much of history, men in most societies were the hunters. An exception was Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, seen above in a calyx with bow in hand. (Marcus Cyron photo/ Wikimedia Commons )

Phys.org says one of the main conclusions of a study of 99 incisors and canines of 19 Neanderthal people showed that their communities divided work according to sex. The study by the Spanish National Research Council was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The Neanderthals’ teeth came from sites in El Sidron, Asturias, Spain; Spy, Belgium; and L’Hortus, France. The study said grooves in the teeth of women appeared to follow the same pattern. The pattern of the grooves in women’s teeth differed from that in men’s.

Analyses show that all Neanderthals, regardless of age, had grooves in their teeth. "This is due to the custom of these societies to use the mouth as a third hand, as in some current populations, for tasks such as preparing the furs or chopping meat, for instance,” Rosas told Phys.org.

A comparison of Homo Sapiens, left, and Sapiens Neanderthal skulls from Cleveland Museum

A comparison of Homo Sapiens, left, and Sapiens Neanderthal skulls from Cleveland Museum (KaterBegemot photo/ Wikimedia Commons )

The researchers found that the grooves in men’s teeth were longer than women’s and made the assumption from this that the tasks the two sexes performed differed. Also, they found tiny nicks in the enamel and dentin of the upper teeth of men and in the lower teeth of women.

Researchers are unable to make rock-solid conclusions about which tasks men performed and which tasks women performed. But they said in modern hunter-gatherer society women typically prepare furs and other garments and men retouch the edges of stone tools. They say this may have been how it was among the Neanderthals they studied.

Featured image: A family of Neanderthals in Eurasia, during the Pleistocene epoch ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller


Donna L. Brown's picture

Why is it that illustrations of Neaderthals always show them as dark and swarthy as opposed to having light skin and eyes.  It almost seems as though this is a throwback to the Victorian assumption that they were very simian and crude, which we now know is not true. 

Donna L. Brown

Tsurugi's picture

Cheers, Rizzman :D

Being a few drinks into my Saturday, I replied without noticing the author of that reply was you Tsurugi, brandishing your signature wit.

Was that rightous outrage or are you being cheeky?  I didn’t say anything about equality.  I was stating that men and women are, in ways and by nature, well suited to different roles in the family and in the community.

Tsurugi's picture

What did you just say...?? There are no distinctions or differences marring the shining uniform equality that exists between members of the proletariat.

Off to the gulag with you.


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