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Sexual Revolutions: Gender and Labor at the Dawn of Agriculture

Author(s):Peterson, Jane
Reviewer(s):Steckel, Richard H.

Published by EH.NET (June 2003)

Jane Peterson, Sexual Revolutions: Gender and Labor at the Dawn of Agriculture. New York: Altamira Press, 2002. xii +177 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7591-0256-2; $26.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7591-0257-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard H. Steckel, Departments of Economics and Anthropology, Ohio State University.

Generations of economic historians have examined the evolution of labor organization, emphasizing patterns of the industrial era. Many recent efforts consider changes in women’s work over the past century that accompanied declining fertility, rising levels of education and new opportunities for employment in the industrial world. Sexual Revolutions extends the agenda far back in time, to the dawn of settled agriculture. Jane Peterson, who is assistant professor of Anthropology at Marquette University, asks how the rise of farming may have created or changed the sexual division of labor in the southern Levant (the modern regions of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) as long as 10,000 years ago. One strand of the literature cites biological differences between men and women such as size, strength and the burden of pregnancy and childrearing as the fundamental sources of sexual labor patterns. Others claim that agriculture triggered significantly new labor roles for men and women.

There are no drawings or graphic images, much less written accounts of the process, and so anthropologists and archaeologists must construct their portraits from surviving remains of ancient cultures. Skeletons occupy center stage in this study, suggesting ways that the body adapted to mechanical and biological stress. Peterson explains that the wellsprings of this methodology originated in the late nineteenth century, when surgeons and anatomists observed that the type and intensity of work helped to sculpt the body. Doctors identified skeletal modifications with various occupations or habitual activity patterns, features that have been refined by modern industrial, sports and forensic medicine.

Skeletal Markers of Occupational Stress (MOS) may be confounded by nutrition, disease and other factors, and so Peterson is appropriately cautious in qualifying results. Bony changes are commonly interpreted within the framework of Wolff’s Law, which states that skeletal tissue places itself in the direction of functional demand. Because it has a blood supply, the skeleton remodels or responds to mechanical forces throughout life. Indicators used in the book include joint modification, trauma, and the sizes and shapes of ligament attachments. The latter take the form of bone buildup, rough patches and projections that can be graded using a visual reference system, as illustrated by photos in the book. Some repetitive motions, such as throwing, leave well-defined bony signatures, but other actions are the complex outcome of a large suite of muscle groups that are not easily identified with particular activities. Many actions utilize similar muscle groups, making it impossible, for example, to distinguish repetitive downward blows in pulverizing soil from chopping wood. Contextual information about inhabited sites, obtained from the remains of structures, tools, material goods, animal bones and so forth help to identify likely activity patterns associated with specific skeletal formations.

Although Peterson draws upon the work of other researchers to formulate and test hypotheses, her major contribution originates from careful study of 158 individual remains (93 males and 65 females) that were excavated at 14 sites. Seventy-two of the skeletons fall into the Natufian period, which predates settled agriculture. The hypothesis of sexual division of labor is supported for this period, with well-developed muscle attachments for overhand throwing among the males, while female musculature was oriented toward bilateral tasks associated with processing. During the Neolithic, male activities became increasingly bilateral, more closely resembling the female pattern while activity patterns became more intense for both sexes.

In appraising the book by standards familiar to economic historians, who often work with large quantities of data, one could easily complain about the small sample sizes. Economic historians are familiar, however, with ambiguous or qualified results, which in this case follow from limits in connecting detailed features of skeletal development with specific activities. On the upside, this is a local study and far more evidence is available on a continental or global scale for the transition under consideration. Moreover, the methodology on display is relatively recent and the outlook is promising for developing more nuanced and robust interpretations of activity patterns from skeletal evidence.

At first blush the methods articulated in Sexual Revolutions may appear to be uninteresting or of little use to economic historians, but applications do exist. One involves interpretation of high rates of productivity among American slaves, reported by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross. They claim this follows from the organization of work in gangs — a type of factory in the field. An alternative explanation, however, is exertion or speed-up– drivers simply forced slaves to work more intensively so that they produced more than free white farmers. Skeletal evidence may be able to distinguish between these explanations, in that slaves who worked intensively in the field should have had more robust skeletons and larger muscle attachments than those of free whites. Second, Robert Fogel recently argued that prior to the agricultural revolution of the nineteenth century, many European peasants had such poor diets that they were incapable of a full day’s work (and by extension, considerable physical exertion). If correct, their skeletons should have been relatively frail and lacking large muscle attachments that characterize more vigorous populations. In sum, skeletons provide useful markers of physical vigor and activity that can be useful for interpreting sources of long-run productivity growth. Thus, economic historians have good reasons to remain tuned to developments in this area of research.

Richard H. Steckel’s latest book (co-edited with Jerome Rose) is The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere (Cambridge, 2002), which employs skeletal remains to investigate long-term trends in health.

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Prehistoric