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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  “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) 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

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



BunnyOlesen's picture

I thought the same thing when I saw that illustration..  Especially now that we know it wasn’t true.  I also thought it looked very simian & crude as well, barely more than an ape by that drawing. 

I also have a hard time believing that ‘white skin’ is no older than 8k years as have recently been stated, as I presumed one of the things that made us ‘lighter’ and maybe created red hair was our Neanderthal DNA.

Dlbrownccr'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. 

BunnyOlesen's picture

They did what needed to be done, and most likely the people who did it were the ones who were both skilled at it and also ‘wanted’ to do it, like hunting.  I guarantee there were women making the stone tools and men working with leather. They needed the most skilled people to make things as important as that or they would not have survived.

The vast majority of all tasks would have been done by all members of the community.  I doubt very seriously only men made tools (and why would they use their teeth on a rock?) or only women made clothes. The study actually says they have NO IDEA what the tooth grooves actually mean, just that they are different on men and women and then they just ‘guess’ and make up what it ‘probably’ means and I hate it when they do that!  They weren’t human anyway.  Then they compare women’s work of African tribes, the only people on the planet who don’t have Neanderthal DNA.  From what I know ‘women’s work’ in Africa is literally almost EVERYTHING, except ‘herding’ and in some countries they do that too.  They grow the food, grind the grain, make the bread, raise the kids, make the clothes, fetch the water (probably made the ceramic pots & the mud ovens they cook in) collect the wood to cook on – it’s ridiculous.  I even saw a water conservation technique for dry season making small dams by hand and all the workers were women!  African tribal male/female roles – men are ‘warriors’ & herders – women do everything else.  It’s almost like the men just choose what is easiest or ‘most fun’ (who wouldn’t rather fish or run around the woods hunting than ‘collect & carry water’ or scratch the dirt and pull weeds in a field, pick grain & crush it with a rock to make flour).

Why would they be so ignorant and close minded to compare the behavior of neanderthals to humans anyway?  I don’t think the neanderthals were ‘war like’ or had like warriors & the like. 

As you said they neglected to think of cultures in which women were also hunters, etc., for example the pictish people who fought off the romans & the women were known to have fought just as ferociously as the men and right alongside them.  More likely to have been like the Picts than people on another continent who don’t even have their DNA.

Sexism and realism are a bit two different things. Stop throwing an ideology into everything. In my home country (called USSR) they killed thousands (i am not exaggerating, unfortunately) of scientists, if their theories contradicted the ideology. If something appears to be racist and/or sexist it doesn't mean, that it is not true.
As for the hunting women part... There is plenty of evidence, that women were a valuable resource and that tribal wars and theft over and of women were a common place, since many of them died in childbirth - direct result of humans getting a bigger brain. So, the possibility, that tribes would risk such a vital resource (tribe will die out if there will be no next generation) is unlikely, to say the least. In a more civilized times, when death ratio of women is lower and there is more humans around overall - sure. But before that - no.

Tsurugi's picture

Cheers, Rizzman :D


Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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