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Gender roles in small-scale horticultural societies

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Jabrosky, Jan 2, 2013.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I'm in the process of redesigning one of my worlds...again. Right now I have two major types of societies populating the setting. The first are pretty much your old-fashioned agricultural, ancient/medieval autocracies, and they tend to cluster alongside rivers. On the other hand, societies of the second persuasion live in upland areas further away from the rivers, and they have the following characteristics in common:

    1. They live in small but permanent villages scattered around the uplands.

    2. They have horticulture (grow small gardens of crops) but no domesticated animals (the local wildlife is too dangerous to be tamed). Meat has to be hunted.

    3. They have quasi-democratic popular assemblies for governance.

    4. Their families are monogamous, matrilineal, and matrilocal (that is to say, descent is traced through the female line, and men move into their wives' households rather than the reverse)

    5. Men do not necessarily dominate women or vice versa.

    Given the aforementioned gender equality and matrilineal/matrilocal customs, I wonder if my upland societies would have any conventions about gender and labor division at all. Obviously it would make sense for men to dominate hunting while women bear the brunt of gardening work, as happens in real-world horticultural societies, but there is one issue I have with this division: namely, how would the women contribute to sustenance while waiting for their crops to grow? Would they gather wild plants, or would the younger, more able-bodied women join the men in hunting?
     
  2. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I don't see why both can't be the case. :)
     
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  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    That would make sense. Come to think of it, not every man would be able to hunt (e.g. older men), so they might participate in gathering too.

    One thing I really wonder about "men hunt, women gather" type societies is how the women are able to defend themselves if they get attacked by predators while out gathering. Do they run away or can they fight back just like men?
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think you could go forward with either of those things, or a combination of them, and justify it just fine in your world. Another consideration with respect to hunting is procreation, however. It's not just that males tend to be physically stronger, but they're also more expendable, reproductively, than females. You can afford to have a bunch of your men die in hunting accidents or warfare and still keep the critical population needed to keep your population alive. Woman are far more valuable in regards to procreation, and if your society is one where the populations are low and infant mortality is relatively high, the culture may have developed to keep women away from dangerous things like hunting and warfare even if they are physically strong enough to engage in those activities.

    But, in a fantasy culture like the one you are creating, I think you can go any direction. Just provide a little bit of support for why it is the way it is and that will be enough for most readers to go along with you.
     
  5. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Re: men being more reproductively expendable than women, I don't know if I agree with this conventional wisdom. It might make sense in a culture where men could get away with sleeping with multiple women but women can't, but as I said monogamy and social gender equality are the norm in my upland societies.

    Honestly, pregnancy and breastfeeding seem to be the main reasons to discourage women from hunting, and both are temporary states.
     
  6. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

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    This is such an interesting question! I like the idea of matrilinear and matrilocal, too. So many implications and possibilities for interesting customs. How are men chosen to join the village? Is it an individual woman's choice, or a family choice, or does the whole village get a say? What happens when a marriage/relationship fails? Is the man expected to leave, even though he might have lived there for years? Rhetorical questions, by the way, but these are all things you will be thinking about.

    First point is that horticulture should, in most climates, provide food and work year round. There will be a glut in the summer/authumn, obviously, but there are crops which produce useful amounts of food in winter and spring too, combined with stored food. Obviously the climate has a bearing. Unless the climate is very hot or very cold, there will be plenty for the horticulturalists to do all year round (clearing spent crops and digging over the ground, for instance, pruning, repairing growing frames, etc). So I wouldn't expect them to have a lot of free time on their hands at any time of the year.

    The other point is, you have to decide what to do with the babies. If a woman marries (or whatever the custom is) and has a child, is she constrained to raise the child herself, or is there a creche system in operation? Is there an arrangement for shared feeding which would free up a mother? Do the older men and women take responsibility for the children and the crops (the village work) while all the able-bodied go hunting or gathering? Don't forget about fishing, too, which is often an important staple if there's a river or lake nearby. There may be seasonal events (the annual salmon run, or the nut harvest, if there's forest close by), which would require some time away, or perhaps moving to a different village for a time.

    Lots of possibilities, and all of them more interesting than the generic patriarchal feudal affair.

    [Edit: while I was writing this, you already covered most of the points I was making! C'est la vie.]
     
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2013
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think it comes down to math and biology. A woman, once pregnant, is out of the arena of potential "new" pregnancies for around a year (to make things simple). The time frame alone means they are reproductively more valuable.

    Take this hypothetical - some disease or disaster devastates two populations. In the first, they are left with 5 men and 50 women, and in the second 5 women and 50 men. The first population would be able to re-establish itself easily enough, barring further disaster. You'd have a lot of children with the same father in the next generation, but the point is they could do it. The second group is going to have a harder time, and may well not be able to pull it off, particularly if there is high infant mortality. I think the biological fact of pregnancy and gestation as it pertains to reproductive value aren't just conventional wisdom, but hard practicalities.

    It may be that your society is large enough that these consideration no longer matter, but if you're dealing with a relatively small group I think it becomes a factor. It may be one reason why societies in the real world developed as they did. For small groups of hunter-gatherers, for example, it seems to me this has to be an important consideration. Once the population reaches a certain level it doesn't really matter anymore.
     
  8. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    This assumes that a) these populations are isolated from others and therefore can't merge with less affected groups and b) that they feel obligated to reproduce. As I recall from my anthropology courses, families in foraging societies don't have the same cultural imperative to have as many kids as possible as those in agricultural ones, which is one reason agriculture correlates with population expansion. In fact many consciously limit the number of kids they have at any given moment. Furthermore, why would these hypothetical populations have high infant mortality to begin with? If you have a lot of men providing for a few women, I would expect the kids to have plenty of protection from predators.

    And you have to take into account all those animal species in which females participate in hunting or mate with multiple males...
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    As I recall, hunting, meat-eating animals tend to have a shorter gestation period than herbivores, as a rule. That could be part of the explanation, in addition to the fact that males don't always end up providing for the young so there is a necessity. Mortality comes not just from predation but disease, complications in pregnancy, and so on.

    Foraging societies do limit reproduction. Sometimes there is infanticide. Some seem to employ dietary taboos that put nutritional stress on females during reproductive years. They also tend to be more egalitarian than agricultural ones, from what I understand. There are a variety of reasons why the division of labor may end up the way it is, including the reproductive ones mentioned above. I've also seen the idea put forth that women do more gathering because it is a way of ensuring their own and their offspring's nutritional viability. In some (many?) of the foraging societies, hunting is uncertain in terms of whether it will be successful and ultimately provides less nutritional sustenance than gathering. The idea, then, is the women concentrate on activities that maximize their own nutrition and survival (which aren't just limited to gathering, but to other areas of work). In one such group in south America, anthropologists noted that females were much more likely to choose sexual partners from among successful hunters, even though the meat from hunts provided only a small portion of the sustenance the group relied on. It was then theorized that hunting in that society served more a function of a mating ritual than anything else (not sure what I think of that one, to be honest).

    In any event, it seems to me that the sex-based distribution of labor from early, rather insular foraging societies can set the basis, in tradition, for gender roles that are in place after the society has moved to a more agrarian model. I don't see any reason you can't set up any society you want in a fantasy work. You don't have to give any explanations for your choices, but if they differ enough from the real-world I think the author does well to anticipate objections a reader might raise and provide a rationale.
     
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  10. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Honestly, I want to get away from my traditional method of transplanting real historical or extant societies into my fantasy worlds, so that's a good point you raise there. Besides, all this stressing over world-building has a tendency to distract me from plotting and writing as has been said before.
     
  11. Addison

    Addison Auror

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    Your world sounds like a larger, evolved version of Themyscira, only men are allowed. That said there wasn't really a division of labor there. Everyone was a warrior, a hunter, a sailor, and they all helped out to keep the island in order, from the farming to washing the floors.
     
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Heh. Yeah, if it is taking you away from actual writing, that's not good. The great thing about a fantasy world is you can depart from the real world in any way you like, and either play around with the implications or let them stand without exploration as they are the natural order of things in your world. There is no reason to be limited, and any number of reasons why fantasy societies can and should evolve differently than what occurred on earth.
     
  13. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    Part of the problem here is that you are projecting (and so is society, so don't take this the wrong way) modern gender stereotypes on ancient peoples. We have absolutely no records of how hunter-gatherer societies divided their tasks, or anything else, along gender lines. We don't even have any evidence indicating that hunting and gathering would have been regarded as different tasks (If you're going to go through the woods, are you really going to ignore that delicious boar because you're only supposed to be looking for apples? Really?).

    The issue is that a lot of our modern cultures have this idea of inequality between the sexes. This doesn't necessarily reflect anything their ancestors had, but is more a sign of the fact that this culture was advanced and stable enough to impose social stratification - and thus survived in some form or another to the modern day. A lot of non-surviving cultures (the Scythians, for instance, or the Germanic Teutones) didn't seem to differentiate between men and women when it came to important social functions, up to and including acting as warriors on the front line of battle.
     
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  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    We can extrapolate from current hunter-gatherer societies like the Aché in Paraguay, however. I realize Anthropologists are divided on just how much you can extrapolate. I believe they do divide hunting and gathering along sex-based lines. That might be the group where some theorized hunting to be like a mating ritual, though I can't recall now whether it was them or another group. In any event, I think women do the gathering (which also provides the bulk of the nutritional resource).
     
  15. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    Right, it's a surviving group (which tacks it to the social stratification caveat).

    Compare that group (where we don't have much of a record) to say, Greece. We have a curve of rights - women being fairly equal and then declining into almost no equality, and slowly climbing up out of that. That seems to me, at least, to be the case for 90% (guesstimate) of human societies.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Does the decline of women's equality tend to come when society shifts away from foraging, and instead of being out men hunting men have time to sit around doing other things (like coming up with different religious traditions or ideas, and so on)?
     
  17. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Another point might be tht there are women who are either infertile, or for other reasons, not fit for motherhood. Many women in our society choose never to be mothers, and it's for more reasons than the world's current population.

    There are genetic traits to consider, or maybe social class... medieval people were not simply married and making babies they couldn't support, marriage was something that was purchased, and after the plague wiped out a huge population, people instead of having many choldren, had the personal wealth to have fewer children and set them up with apprenticeships and good marriages, so that's something to consider. I don't think it's realistic for people to think, "Hey now, I'd love to get a job and be a hunter, but I need to stay home and make children, because my village needs a higher population."

    Children provide income and security. Some families think that's more important than others.
     
  18. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    Basically, it's the rise of agriculture that creates the divide (though not always - women had equality in ancient Egypt, up to the new kingdom). Once the labor becomes intensive and you need lots and lots of children for basic subsistence, you realize how important it is to keep your source of future workers (women) out of danger - and that usually meant locking them away, preventing them from going to markets, etc.

    As for religious and political ideas, I tend to believe that form follows function. It makes more sense for a society to justify exclusion well after the fact than for them to have a sudden revelation saying women should be locked away.
     
  19. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Something that I just remembered is that most, probably all, extant foraging groups have lived adjacent to socially stratified, agricultural societies which did and still continue to have clearly demarcated gender roles. Intercultural influences cannot be ruled out. Therefore these contemporary foragers do not necessarily reflect Paleolithic conditions.

    Good point about questioning whether or not one would ignore a boar while foraging for apples.
     
  20. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    The only concern I have is that you mentioned the creatures that live close by the communities are too dangerous to domesticate. ALL of them are dangerous? If you have a proper ecosystem in place, you should have herbivores toward the bottom of the food chain, without them, you don't generally have carnivores either. You can theoretically have smaller omnivores/carnivores taking the place of the herbivores if you don't have an excess of forage for them to have and still have a managable ecosystem. People eat ANYTHING really, including lizards, snakes, reptiles and the like and I find it difficult to believe there isn't even one creature they can domesticate.

    Any of the aforementioned herbivores or even small carnivores/omnivores can be domesticated; even birds can be domesticated; there would almost have to be SOMETHING they could domesticate, even if it doesn't completely cover their consumption needs. Another thing to take into account is trade, breeding pairs of goats or sheep (or other smaller mammals) could be garnered from tribes that have them available.
     
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