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Ideas | Kelly Kasulis

The 2,500-year-old roots of gender inequality


WOMEN STILL STRUGGLE for equal rights around the world — and considering patriarchy’s deep-seated roots in human history, it’s no wonder. In China, gender inequality may have its seeds in the Bronze Age more than 2,500 years ago, according to a recent study from Queens College in New York City.

Scientists examined Neolithic Age graves from the Chinese Central Plains about 5,000 years ago, plus graves from the more recent Bronze Age. They documented the riches accompanying male and female skeletons and examined their bones for signs of stress. Then, they tested the chemical differences between sexes — a process that involves grinding human bones into a fine powder, dropping that powder into an acid to extract its protein, and running that protein through a mass spectrometer.


“These are really tough data sets to get, and they’ve done really difficult work by pulling all of these together,” said Tristram Kidder, an anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “What they found is a very significant change in China’s history — this shift towards patrilineal, male-dominated society.”

By examining carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bones, scientists could see the types of plants and the amount of animal products people ate in roughly the last decade of their lives. Diets were about the same between sexes during the Neolithic Age, but that changed in the Bronze Age when new crops and domesticated animals were introduced. Men continued to live on traditional millet and animal products, while women were anemic and relied on wheat — a newer crop described as a “poor man’s food” in later historical records.

Wheat isn’t significantly less nutritious than millet, but it’s a sign that males and females started eating and socializing separately.

“During the Neolithic [Period], females were probably contributing more to the farming community, and male and females were dependent on each other for survival,” said Kate Pechenkina, an anthropology professor at Queens College and the study’s lead author. “As soon as that relaxes, the balance tips toward gender inequality.”


The Neolithic burial site showed no clear sign of gender inequality — which is quite unusual, Pechenkina says. But in the Bronze Age, inequalities became obvious: Males were buried with more riches, and female skeletons became significantly shorter, likely because of childhood malnourishment.

“If their family or their community were short on food, girls were the first to be deprived,” Pechenkina said. “When your body doesn’t get enough food, it has to sacrifice something.”

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how the inequality rose or whether this evidence can speak for the rest of the world. But finding a historical turning point inevitably gets us closer to understanding ourselves as people — and where our social issues were born.

“Last I heard, women make up 50 percent of the population in this world,” Kidder said. “Their stories in human history are very important because they shape who we are today.”

Kelly Kasulis is a journalist living in Boston and the deputy digital editor of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter @KasulisK.