Neanderthals divided tasks by gender, Spanish research study reveals

Dental evidence points to fact that males and females performed different jobs

A child peers into the eyes of a model of a Neanderthal man.
A child peers into the eyes of a model of a Neanderthal man.Neanderthal Museum/H. Neumann

For years now, the Neanderthals have been forcing Homo sapiens to eat humble pie again and again. A species that we once wrote off as primitive and brutish was in fact so similar to ours that thousands of years ago we even turned them into our sexual partners, and into the early fathers and mothers of our own children.

Recent findings show that the Neanderthals also had a culture of their own, producing drawings and using decorative elements and symbols, which all denote complex thought.

And now, new research has unveiled another similarity between our own species and those distant cousins who became extinct around 35,000 years ago: they, too, divided labor by gender.

Individuals used their mouths as a third hand, using their teeth to hold pieces of meat that they then cut with stone tools

Previously, researchers had found evidence that Homo sapiens hunter-gatherer societies had divided jobs by sex, something that a few modern groups still do, such as the Hadza people from Tanzania.

Such evidence can be found in teeth: individuals used their mouths as a third hand, using their front teeth to hold pieces of meat that they then cut with stone tools. Occasionally the tool would hit the teeth and leave a characteristic mark, which paleoanthropologists now use to analyze the “cultural” uses of this third hand.

Several studies on primitive Homo sapiens and modern African hunter-gatherers show these marks are different on men and women, providing proof of job specialization.

Antonio Rosas and Almudena Estalrrich, researchers at Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC), have now found similar markings on the teeth of Neanderthals who lived in Asturias in northern Spain, France and Belgium around 49,000 years ago.

A microscopic view of dental striation.
A microscopic view of dental striation.Journal of Human Evolution

In a paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the researchers describe their analysis of 99 incisors and canine teeth from 19 Neanderthal male and female individuals of various ages. The largest sample was found in El Sidrón cave, in Asturias, where DNA analysis confirmed their gender. The other samples are taken from sites in l’Hortus (France) and Spy (Belgium).

Results show that, in general, women’s teeth have longer striations than men’s. The researchers also found gender differences in dental chipping in connection with the way teeth were used to hold objects.

The study suggests that all individuals probably used the same kinds of tools, but worked with different materials (such as soft or tough meat) and for different periods of time. This “could mean that there was a division by sex,” say the authors.

With studies already having showed that the Neanderthals exhibited much more complex behavior than initially believed – they had symbols, used plants for medicinal purposes and even mated with Homo sapiens – this work contributes new insight into the “modern behavior” of the species, the authors conclude.

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“This is a very stimulating study,” said María Martínón-Torres, an expert in hominid teeth at the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, northern Spain. She underscored the importance of the Spanish site, where many quality teeth samples used in the research were found. “The most complicated part now is explaining the mechanism by which the women ended up with different marks.”

“One possibility may lie in dexterity or strength: women, being less strong, may have needed to make more cuts, and thus have more teeth marks,” she added.

Martinón-Torres, who did not take part in the research, suggested studying modern hunter-gatherers for clues.

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