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Archaeology: Origin of gender inequalities

Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2017)

Studying dietary change can provide powerful insights into the lifeways and social structures of ancient people and can be especially revealing of power relationships.


Yu Dong of Shandong University and colleagues asked whether a shift in subsistence from millets to wheat, barley and animal products during China's bronze age was associated with societal changes. They performed stable isotope analyses on human bone samples from archaeological sites in China's Central Plains. They found evidence of a dietary shift from the late Neolithic to the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–221 BC), which was more pronounced in women: although there was no gender difference in dietary signatures in early farming communities, Eastern Zhou females showed signs of a diet lower in animal products than males, suggesting that meals were no longer shared at the household. The sharp differentiation of male and female diets was associated with increased height disparity between the genders, as well as with a reversal in the distribution of burial wealth: females went from having more burial goods than men during the late Neolithic to having fewer burial goods in the Eastern Zhou.

By identifying biological and social correlates of a key dietary shift from the late Neolithic to the bronze age, the authors illuminate the potential origins of male-biased inequality, which persists to the modern day.


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Kousta, S. Archaeology: Origin of gender inequalities. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0059 (2017).

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