Gender equality may seem like a relatively new concept, but a new study shows that men and women may have shared equal status among many prehistoric societies. The dominance of males appears to have arisen with the adoption of agriculture and the accompanying excess resources that came with the lifestyle.

Equality between the sexes may have provided a survival advantage to groups of early humans, and may have helped bring about new social and language skills, researchers theorized. Investigators believe females had influence equal to men in decisions regarding where their groups lived, as well as with whom.  

Farming may have played a larger part than hunting in bringing about the dominance of men over women in most societies.

"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," said Mark Dyble, lead author, of the University College London.

Anthropologists uncovered the result while attempting to answer one of the outstanding questions in that field of science. People living in hunter-gatherer societies tend to express a desire to live with family members while, in reality, they tend to camp with few relatives. This choice is also surprising as hunter-gatherers rely heavily on family to help raise children, so they are rarely far from their relatives, including grandparents and siblings of offspring.

Hunter-gatherer societies living in the Philippines and the Congo were studied, including interviews with members of the group to establish familial relations. These people tend to live in camps of around 20 people, staying in one area for an average of 10 days before moving to the next area.

Computer models showed that the influence of each gender in forming these camps results in distinctive demographics in the residents. The results from simulations where men and women had near-equal say in decision-making nearly perfectly matched the living patterns observed in the societies. This pattern shows evidence that a widespread desire to live with family members may not achieved the desired effect.

"While previous researchers have noted the low relatedness of hunter-gatherer bands, our work offers an explanation as to why this pattern emerges. It is not that individuals are not interested in living with kin. Rather, if all individuals seek to live with as many kin as possible, no one ends up living with many kin at all," said Dyble.

Diets for the modern hunter-gatherers are comprised largely of fish, wild game, honey, fruit and vegetables. Although not everything about contemporary hunter-gatherer societies can be translated to ancient people, such an egalitarian society may have played a significant role in the development of society, researchers theorize.

Analysis of gender equality in prehistoric societies was detailed in the journal Science.

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