Gender equality in prehistoric society, not in 21st century Australia
Gender equality in prehistoric society, not in 21st century Australia

Women and men in early hunter-gatherer societies were more equal than we are in modern capitalism, says new research published in the journal Science.

Anthropologists came to the conclusion while trying to explain an apparent paradox. In hunter-gatherer societies, individuals try to fill their camps with siblings and blood relatives.

Yet, in the handful of tiny hunter-gatherer societies which still exist, such as the Agta and Mbendjele BaYaka peoples, there is significant bloodline diversity. In fact, in any given hunter-gatherer camp, very few people are blood relations.

Why is it, asked the researchers, that a camp’s social composition is the opposite of any given individual’s preference?

Their simple answer is gender equality. If either gender had the power to enforce where they and their children, pairing partner and other associates could live, they would fill the camp with those related to them.

However, if both women and men had equal influence over these decisions, they would pull this process in both directions and the overall level of blood-relatedness would plummet. This is what lead anthropologist Mark Dyble and his associates from the University College of London concluded.

That these early societies had a level of gender equality far beyond our society destroys the argument that sexism is part of human nature, innate to our species. It means sexual oppression is a product of particular societies. This confirms the argument made by Marxists.

For example, Frederick Engels in The origin of the family, private property and the state (penned in 1884) referred to the historical “stage when unrestricted sexual freedom prevailed”. Engels traced the beginning of the systematic subordination of women to the development of class society.

Social change, in particular the development of agriculture, allowed groups of people to accumulate more resources than they needed immediately to sustain themselves. Control of this surplus raised the question of inheritance after the owner’s death. This led to the control of women’s sexuality in order to know the genetic lineage of children.

Engels refers to these developments as “the world historic defeat of the female sex”. Or, as Dyble told the Guardian: “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”.


Our society has come a long way from that ancient history. Women have made many gains over the last decades. But still we face a profoundly sexist society. The latest investigation into the gender pay gap in Australia revealed that it is currently the highest it has been since relevant statistics began to be recorded several decades ago.

The 2015 budget rips $1 billion from the paid parental leave schemes. Karl Stefanovic from Channel Nine asked Tony Abbott a simple question in the post-budget round of media: “As minister for women, are you sorry?” In his capacity as both minister for women and prime minister, Abbott proves every second that he has not an iota of concern for the lives of most women.

Just ask the Aboriginal women facing the forced closure of their communities, the Rohingya refugee women desperate for settlement or any of the other millions of working class women whose lives are made that much harder by the Liberal government.

The numerous ways sexism and gender inequality manifest could fill the sheets of this newspaper. But sexism and inequality have not been features of all human societies. If in the past human beings were capable of forming communities free of sexism, it is possible to do it again in the future.

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