A combination of factors, not least Brexit and Russia’s war in Ukraine, has contributed to the current cost-of-living crisis. However, economic turmoil and soaring inflation is also being fuelled by an unprecedented labour shortage. This is particularly true in Northern Ireland with its historically high proportion of those described as economically inactive – a socio-economic group aged 16 to 64 who were not working and not seeking or available to work. Things have not always been like this.
It is generally assumed that in our ancestral hunter-gatherer societies males did all the hunting while females did all the gathering. Modern anthropological observations tend to confirm that big-game hunting was indeed the preserve of the male of the species. These gendered behavioural patterns appear to stem from life history traits related to pregnancy and child-care. However, recent reassessments of prehistoric hunter-gatherer economies have concluded that every member of society would have been needed to actively contribute to communal hunting. Such strategies would have required alloparenting, where childcare demands are met using non-parental caregivers. Alloparenting is more common in humans than other primate species and is widely believed to have been critically important to our evolution.
While anthropologists can only draw inferences about life in the past based on modern behaviour, archaeologists can interpret hard physical evidence such as grave goods, which can be useful indicators of a long-dead individual’s occupation and status. The items that are chosen to accompany people in death are generally believed to be the same as those that accompanied them in life. A copper awl, a small, pointed tool used for piercing holes, was discovered at Tel Tsaf, an archaeological site in the Jordan Valley of Israel. It was dated to 5100-4600 BC, making it the oldest metal object to be unearthed in the Middle East. The cone-shaped awl was discovered in the grave of a woman aged about 40 at the time of her death. A belt around her waist made of 1668 ostrich-egg shell beads suggests an individual of high social standing.
Projectile points, spears and arrow heads, are regarded as hunting tools and have been associated with both male and female burials from Upper Paleolithic (c. 50000-10000 BC) sites throughout the Americas. It is significant that women of this period were not continually pregnant. Chemical analysis of their bones suggest that breastfeeding of infants continued until the age of about four, a natural form of birth control. Females of childbearing age would, therefore, have been available to participate in the hunt for much-needed animal protein.
Human osteoarchaeology, the study of human skeletons excavated from archaeological sites, can shed light not only on the physique and mortality of people in the past but also inform us about their diet, health, and lifestyle. Chemical analyses of bones and teeth might point to genetic relationships and the movement of people while visual examination of muscle attachment sites (entheses) and skeletal development and wear patterns can suggest the nature of lifetime activities. Applying these techniques to the human remains recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, we know that not all the crew was born in England. Furthermore, it has been possible to distinguish archers from sailors and gunners.
The advent of agricultural about 5000 years ago may have heralded the introduction of a sex-based division of labour in Central Europe. From the Early Neolithic through to the Late Iron Age (c. 5300 BC-AD 100) male tibias, or shinbones, were similar in cross-section to those of modern cross-country runners. The tibias of contemporary females, on the other hand, were comparable to those of modern women. However, the proportions of female upper limbs suggests that throughout the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age the upper-body strength of women was similar to that of living semi-elite rowers. Osteoarthritis is also prevalent at certain joints of the skeleton, indicative of repetitive physical work such as using saddle querns. This sexual dimorphism suggests that men continued to pursue an active hunting lifestyle while women were kept down on the farm, busy with the daily grind.
Received wisdom among archaeologists held that, prior to the appearance of the potter’s wheel, the production of ceramic pots was exclusively woman’s work, perhaps with some input from young adults and children. These vessels, mainly for domestic consumption, were constructed from coils of clay smoothed inside and out to give an even, uniform finish. In the case of Bronze Age urns, a variety of stylised decorative motifs was then applied using techniques and designs that inadvertently captured for posterity the fingerprints of the artist who produced them.
Many British urns retain finger impressions with widths varying between 9.3 mm and 15 mm, pointing to the work of children as young as five, older children, adolescents, and adult females. None were wide enough to suggest that adult males had decorated these urns. Furthermore, the pitch and depth of fingerprint ridges correlates with biological sex well enough to be used with 80-90 percent accuracy when identifying the sex of the person who left their imprints.
It is possible that women also produced the cinerary urns used to contain the remains of one or more deceased individuals when cremation came into vogue in the Early Bronze Age. The motifs that adorn these containers may have a symbolic significance with roots reaching back to the Near East. Woman, so closely associated with bringing new life into the world, may also have played a key part in end-of-life care. A joint role as doulas of life and doulas of death would be fitting for a society that believed in the cyclical nature of human existence.
The precise origin of the traditional potter’s wheel remains the subject of scholarly debate, but most agree that it first appeared in the Sumerian civilization around 4000 BC. The later rise of city-states in northern Mesopotamia c. 3200 BC saw a shift from a female to a male dominance in pottery production as the process became increasingly commercialised. As with the development of agriculture, the rise in urbanisation saw woman further consigned and confined to domesticity. While this condition is clearly not hardwired into our DNA it would become, and for many would remain, the social norm. When Arlene Foster, the first female leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took up the post in January 2016, fellow DUP Member of the Local Assembly (MLA) Edwin Poots, who would later supplant her, said that her “most important job” remained “that of a wife, mother and daughter”.
Some of the difficulties experienced by women who juggle family commitments and a career in politics have recently been highlighted by Belfast’s Deputy Mayor, Michelle Kelly, who is stepping down as an Alliance Party Councillor. Kate Nicholl, a recent Lord Mayor of Belfast and now an MLA and mother of two young children has campaigned for similar conditions to those enjoyed by Members of Parliament (MPs) – six months paid maternity leave. Cllr Kelly was also instrumental in the introduction of paid bereavement leave for Councillors following a miscarriage. In Westminster, Ministers have rejected a proposal to introduce menopause leave following a report from a committee which warned that failure to act would have a serious detrimental impact on the economy. Its chair condemned the government’s response as “a missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce…”.
Premature retirement is one of the factors swelling the ranks of the economically inactive. Matthew Percival, the Director for People and Skills at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), recently highlighted the need for both older and younger workers to return to employment noting the need “to overcome the barriers like the cost and availability of childcare or ill-health that are preventing them from working”.
A recent survey of 41 countries by The Economist magazine ranked the indicators of national child-care policies. The top ten positions were dominated by the Scandinavians and Germany while Britain and Ireland languished in 35th and 36th place respectively. Northern Ireland remains one of the few developed countries not to have a specific childcare policy in place, despite the Assembly having committed to the development of one and its requirement in the New Decade, New Approach Agreement. It is perhaps not unrelated that, as well as having the highest rate of unemployment in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has the greatest level of economic inactivity. Most tellingly, this breaks down as 31% of working age women compared to 24% of men. The overall figure rises to over 40% in parts of East Belfast compared to 19% in the South West of England.
As was clear to our Mesolithic ancestors, we cannot afford to exclude anyone from actively contributing to our economic survival.
David Bell is an Alliance Party Councillor on Belfast City Council and a Governor at two primary schools. He is also a member of Humanists UK and, until recently, following a career as a secondary school teacher, was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University He is writing in an entirely personal capacity.