Women's role helped Homo sapiens survive

By Archita Bhatta
Published: Saturday 31 March 2007

neanderthal, a species of the Homo genus, disappeared from Earth about 35,000 years ago. Homo sapiens who had the same ancestors as them, continued to live on. The reason behind their sudden disappearance has intrigued scientists for a long time. Anthropologists have propounded three theories explaining their disappearance. One group says tha Homo sapiens, who were technologically more advanced in warfare, wiped them out. The second group says they died of disease. The third says that it was a combination of these two factors.

Scientists have now found a new explanation in the differences in the role women played in the society of Neanderthals and that of Homo sapiens. A research paper says Homo sapiens had an evolutionary advantage over Neanderthals.While female Neanderthals helped their men hunt, female Homo sapiens developed skills like preparing stones to grind nuts and seeds, sewing for making clothes and shelters. This gave them access to more diverse sources of food and protection from adverse weather conditions, says the paper published in the journal Current Anthropology (Vol 47, No 6).

"The competitive advantage enjoyed by modern human beings has come not just from new weapons and devices but from the ways in which their lives were organised and tasks distributed between men, women, and children," say Steven L Kuhn and Mary C Stiner of the University of Arizona, the authors.
Efficient Homo sapiens The middle palaeolithic Neanderthal records show that Neanderthals lacked the artefacts to make weather-resistant clothing and artificial shelters, such as bone needles, which was not the case with Homo sapiens. The emergence of female roles--subsistence and skill-intensive craft--allowed Homo sapiens to take advantage of a range of sources of food and live at higher population densities in ecologically diverse tropical and sub-tropical regions.

"Among the earlier Homo sapiens, women's activities complemented men's. They were geared towards finding alternatives in terms of food and shelter," say the authors. "It is impossible to argue that Neanderthal females and juveniles were fulfilling the same roles or even an equally diverse set of economic roles," they add.

Some anthropologists, however, say that though Neandarthals depended primarily on hunting for food, division of labour was not completely absent. "Division of labour was found among Neanderthals but definitely not as prominently as in Homo sapiens. Needles have been found among Neanderthals, too, and they were used to make clothes. There is, however, no direct evidence of grinding of nuts and seeds but some instruments, which look like they were used for hunting, have been found earlier. They could have been used for other purposes as well," says P R Mondal who teaches anthropology at Delhi University.

"Fossils of female Neanderthals found in Iraq and other places show that they were confined to their homes. While we find injury marks to be common among remains of Neanderthal males, females have thinner limb bones. The female remains show evidence of osteoporosis and anaemia indicating a lifestyle confined to the cave. Also, the drawings of Neanderthals found in different caves give similar indications," adds Mondal.

Explaining the system, Mondal says the period of the Neandarthals and archaic Homo sapiens had martifocal societies. All activities focused on the cycle of childbearing. Since women were busy in childbearing, lighter work was given to them. "In their art, women are represented with very prominent fertility syndromes, indicating that their role in childbearing and nurturing became more important," says Mondal.
Interbreeding There is a theory that progressive Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens competed against each other. Mondal says that they later started mingling with each other without competition and interbred. But the theory of interbreeding has been contested by other anthropologists like Mark Stoneking of the Max Plank institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. According to him, there is no evidence of interbreeding. Randall White, an archaeologist specialising in European ice age culture at New York University, says everything depends on what the real dates of their possible contact are.

Despite these disagreements, there is consensus that there was a difference in female roles among Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, which gave the latter an advantage. But the degree of the difference is yet to be agreed upon.

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