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Gender Bias Represented in Teeth
Indicators of which sex had preferential treatment in terms of health care and food resources at the time are represented in the teeth of the deceased
According to research, reported in PNAS1, the Middle Ages and earlier have profoundly influenced contemporary gender norms and biases in Europe… And explains why gender norms have persisted in many regions of the world despite major advancements made by the global campaign for women's rights during the previous 100 to 150 years.
The study looked at the teeth of 10,000 individuals from 139 different archaeological sites throughout Europe. The remains used in this study have a median age of being nearly 1,000 years old and date back to the Middle Ages.
Just how was this study undertaken?
Prior archaeological research has employed linear enamel hypoplasia, a phrase to characterize persistent lesions on the teeth caused by trauma, starvation, or disease as a surrogate analyze gender equality. Slave populations are one such studied group. Because the lesions form primarily in circumstances of continuous bodily stress, their presence or absence can tell researchers a great lot about the person’s health and living conditions.
Moreover, discrepancies between male and female teeth at the same site are a sign of which sex at the time had preferential treatment in terms of health care and nutritional supplies. The relationship between these measurements and current attitudes is established in this study for the first time.
Given the relative homogeneity of numerous institutional and environmental situations throughout the area, studying gender norms in Europe is useful. This allowed researchers to account for elements that could alter modern gender perspectives, such as religion and political institutions.
Not too surprisingly, the authors discovered that treatment of genders is transmitted from generation to generation. For example, those who currently live in egalatrian communities persisted in that mode while those that gave preferential treatment of males continue to be “pro-male” nowadays.
In the first site in Istria, a small urban Greek settlement on the Black Sea in the modern Dobruja area of Romania, researchers found evidence of a pro-male bias in historical dental records dating back to roughly 550 AD. Only 25% of male skeletons out of 49 for whose sex and dental data could be collected exhibit symptoms of starvation and damage in their teeth, compared to 58% of female bones.
According to the authors, the standing of men and women in society today has remained somewhat unequal in the southeastern region of Romania, based on modern markers of gender equality. For example, they remark, just 52.5% of women participate in the job market compared with 78% of men, and only 18% of the delegates in the modern city council are women.
They write that the public's views on gender norms are also biased. Nearly everyone (89%) agrees that a woman must have children in order to be fulfilled, and more than 50% of people think men have a greater right to employment than women.
Contrast this with Plinkaigalis, a rural village in modern-day western Lithuania made primarily of a population of Balts. Plinkaigalis supported women's health, in contrast to Istria. In contrast to the 46% of female bones that exhibit dental signs of trauma and malnutrition, 56% of the 157 skeletons at this site, which also date to 550 CE, are male. Separate researchers have also indicated evidence that gender norms here have been favorable to women.
This area, now known as Kdainiai, is still largely gender neutral in modern times. Employment levels in western Lithuanian do not vary greatly by gender: 76% men vs. 72.7% women. Also, women (48%) are almost evenly represented in local politics. Similarly, less than 25% of people in the modern setting think males have a greater right to employment than women, and 56% think women need children to be fulfilled.
These prejudices weathered enormous socioeconomic and political shifts such as industrialisation and world wars. Those who live in historically egalitarian places, for instance, are 20% more likely to hold pro-female attitudes than persons who live in historically patriarchal ones.
Because disparities in gender attitudes are very minimal across the continent, compared with the rest of the world, this setting also established a higher bar for identifying meaningful connections between historical and contemporary attitudes. But, time and time again, researchers uncovered evidence of this link.
Hence, it is amazing that current attitudes still reflect the gender biases that persisted in those eras and earlier. The findings highlight the influence of cultural transmission of gender norms in light of the significant social, economic, and political changes that have occurred in Europe over this time. It also explains why it has been challenging to advance gender equality in some regions due to the extraordinary stability of these standards across hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Though, the researchers identified one exception to the rule. In places that underwent abrupt, large-scale population replacement—such as a pandemic or natural disaster—transmission of these values was interrupted.
Further tests indicated that past gender bias failed to predict present gender attitudes for immigrant communities.
Researchers also found no evidence of past gender bias affecting present perceptions in places severely impacted by the bubonic plague of the 14th century. Ultimately, they turned their attention to the United States, where the 16th-century advent of European settlers resulted in the widespread eviction of Native People. Once again, they found no link between past and current gender norms.
In conclusion, the striking similarities between historical and contemporary gender standards at both of these locales support their contention that these norms endure. Today's unequal gender relations are still a result of the male preference at Istria, which dates back at least to the early medieval period. On the other hand, the region around pre-medieval Plinkaigalis still treats men and women about equally, as it did (according to bone remains) about 1,500 years ago.
Combined, these findings give more support for the hypothesis that historical biases persist because they are passed down from one generation to the next and exist only when the transmission across generations is not disrupted. It is unexpected that such a definite association emerged.
There has been a general view that gender norms are a result of structural and institutional elements like religion and agricultural practices. The results highlight the possibility that gender-equal standards can endure even in situations where institutions or structures encourage inequality, and vice versa.
The research's takeaway for those promoting gender equality is that laws and regulations alone won't be sufficient to eradicate deeply ingrained sexism and uphold equality. The societal causes that are influencing these views must also be addressed.
Damann, T. J., Siow, J., & Tavits, M. (2023). Persistence of gender biases in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(12), e2213266120. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2213266120