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Modern gender roles and agricultural history: the Neolithic inheritance


This research proposes the hypothesis that societies with long histories of agriculture have less equality in gender roles as a consequence of more patriarchal values and beliefs regarding the proper role of women in society. We test this hypothesis in a world sample of countries, in a sample of European regions, as well as among immigrants and children of immigrants living in the US. This evidence reveals a significant negative relationship between years of agriculture and female labor force participation rates, as well as other measures of equality in contemporary gender roles. This finding is robust to the inclusion of an extensive set of possible confounders, including historical plough-use and the length of the growing season. We argue that two mechanisms can explain the result: (1) societies with longer agricultural histories had a higher level of technological advancement which in the Malthusian Epoch translated into higher fertility and a diminished role for women outside the home; (2) the transition to cereal agriculture led to a division of labor in which women spend more time on processing cereals rather than working in the field.

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  1. 1.

    For examples of other research papers in which gender plays a role see Galor and Weil (1996), Klasen (2002), Miller (2008), or Doepke and Tertilt (2009, 2011).

  2. 2.

    Patriarchy is defined by the dominance of males in social, economic, and political organization (Iversen and Rosenbluth 2010, p. 17).

  3. 3.

    While the analyses for the world sample and the European sample are carried out on data relatively close to the present, the US data cover the periods 1850–1880, 1900–1930 and 1950–1970. The US analysis, therefore, simultaneously allow us to exploit individual level data, and permit us to evaluate the validity of our findings across time.

  4. 4.

    In line with this view, Lerner (1986) associates the origin of partriarchy with the Neolithic Revolution and argues that: “sometime during the agricultural revolution relatively egalitarian societies with a sexual division of labor based on biological necessity gave way to more highly structured societies [...]. The more complex societies featured a division of labor no longer based only on biological necessity, but also on hierarchy and the power of some men over other men and all women.” Moreover, Dyble et al. (2015) provide evidence of gender equality in hunter-gathering societies and also associate the rise of gender inequality with agricutural societies in which heritable resources became important fo reproductive success.

  5. 5.

    We pay special focus to these two mechanisms, though one could also posit other mechanisms e.g. related to the general rise in inequality or religion. We discuss this more below.

  6. 6.

    The \(\ne \)Kade San of the Kalahari is an example of hunter-gatherers that survive without animal food, but not vegetable food (Tanaka 1976, p. 13).

  7. 7.

    This denotes the situation in which a married couple settles with the wife’s family.

  8. 8.

    Recent evidence from skeletons of Central European farmers in the early Neolithic suggests patrilocality, which denotes the situation in which a married couple settle with the husband’s family (Bentley et al. 2012).

  9. 9.

    This is also true for most of the Americas with the main exception of Venezuela and the Caribbean where early agriculture was based on the manioc root.

  10. 10.

    Tilling includes a range of activities from preparing the soil to the actual planting of seed. Timbering refers to land clearance activites. Peterson (2002, p. 110) stresses that tilling the soil with hoe, digging stick, or adze would require repetitive downward blows involving forearm flexion and extension.

  11. 11.

    For the European subsamples we can plausibly interpret the transition to agriculture as a transition to cereal-based plough agriculture. The reason is that the transition to agriculture and the transition to plough agriculture practically coincide in Europe, as “agriculture and the plough originated 10–13 millennia ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East [...] and were introduced into Greece and southeastern Europe 8000 years ago”, Lai (2007, p. 1). Further, Fussell (1966, p. 177) notes that the plough known as a crook ard “was commonly used by farmers all over Europe from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean during the late Neolithic Age and the Bronze Age.” The European evidence is in line with the hypothesis of Alesina et al. (2013) on years of plough agriculture.

  12. 12.

    This literature highlights the importance of early agricultural adoption on comparative economic development on a worldwide scale. The empirical analysis in Olsson and Hibbs (2005) supports this type of hypothesis formulated in the work of Diamond (1997). In addition, using a refined measure on the timing of the Neolithic Revolution from Putterman and Trainor (2006), Putterman (2008), Petersen and Skaaning (2010), and Bleaney and Dimico (2011) confirms the importance of early agricultural development. However, as suggested by Galor (2011) and indicated by Olsson and Paik (2012), these results seem to be explained by between-continent variation in economic development, which is also in the spirit of Diamond’s hypothesis. Our basic result is, on the other hand, strengthened when allowing for continental fixed effects in the regressions.

  13. 13.

    These observations are arguably not made on pre-historic hunter-gatherers, but on those societies that did not move to agriculture. Yet, as pointed out by Marlowe (2005, p. 54), “the ethnographic record of foragers provides the only direct observations of human behavior in the absence of agriculture.”

  14. 14.

    As illustrated by the case study below, gender roles are not that rigid in all hunter-gatherer societies.

  15. 15.

    As noted above, Tanaka (1976) finds that the \(\ne \)Kade obtain around 81.3 % of their diet from vegetable foods. Gould (1977, p. 2) finds for the case of aborigines of Australia that “about 90 % of the time women furnish at least 80 % of food available to the group as a whole.”

  16. 16.

    We obtain similar results when using probit or logit models.

  17. 17.

    Andersen (2007) notes that these systems date back to 3000 BC for bride price and 200 BC for dowry and the societies in which they arose were based on agriculture. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they are less prevalent in hunter-gatherer societies.

  18. 18.

    We do not report this result, but it is available upon request.

  19. 19.

    Korotayev (2003) presents evidence that non-matrilocality is very likely in societies where women contribute very little to subsistence. This suggests that postmarital residence and subsistence contributions are related.

  20. 20.

    Ember (1975, 1978) argued that among hunter-gatherers, patrilocality is the most common settlement pattern. This is not the line we take, as we compare marriage patterns between societies that rely on hunting or gathering to varying degrees. Yet, we want to point out that Alvarez (2004) has analyzed the sources of the data in Ember (1975), and finds that, after careful revision, bilocality is a much more common settlement pattern. This is also more in line with the direct observations of ethnologists and a relatively high level of gender equality.

  21. 21.

    We use an outcome based on variable 11 in the Ethnographic Atlas. This variable indicates the location of the couple after the first years of marriage. Briffault (1927, pp. 302–303) notes that in many of the cases he observed, marriage is not permanently matrilocal, but in some cases lasts only months and in others years. The alternative variable 13 which does not record a number of years in the Atlas reveals no tendency for either marriage pattern to be more likely in hunter- gatherer societies. This suggests that these societies practice some degree of matrilocality but that it is not permanent. This is consistent with limited gender inequality.

  22. 22.

    The !Kung are also referred to as Ju/’hoansi; see Kent (1995, p. 513).

  23. 23.

    They are also referred to as the people from the “Dobe area” of Ngamiland, Botswana.

  24. 24.

    A case study is by construction only one point, so many additional factors could have been in play. It is for example conceivable that the mentioned Bantu farmers had been influenced by e.g. Europeans and migrants with origins in the Fertile Crescent. We investigate these factors further in Sect. 6.4.

  25. 25.

    This would imply that in terms of contributions to subsistence men would add more due to increased participation in harvesting with cereal based agriculture.

  26. 26.

    Other plausible mechanisms exist. As pointed out by an anonymous reviewer, important consequences of sedentary agriculture were the notion of storing goods and the notion of private property. Since root crops are less portable and are more perishable, these are easier to implement with cereal crops. This is in line with the narrative in Lerner (1986), who note that men were able to have control over surplus food.

  27. 27.

    While this paper mainly highlights the common effect of cereal crops, recent research suggests that the type of cereal crop may matter for cultural attitudes (Talhelm et al. 2014). In this paper, we control in some regressions for different types of cereals according to whether they are plough positive or plough negative.

  28. 28.

    This is in line with the Neolithic Revolution bringing around an upper class of intellectuals and rulers which would play a role in enforcing social norms. In the Chinese case discussed below, the Neolithic Revolution arguably brought about Confucius and his followers who helped establish patriarchal values based on the pre-existing gender division of labor. Patriarchy was not invented by Confucius, as it also arose in other parts of the world.

  29. 29.

    Empirically, much evidence exists which favors the demic-diffusion model, but according to Gkiasta et al. (2003), there is also evidence of the cultural-diffusion model where adoption of agriculture is due to incoming ideas rather than people.

  30. 30.

    Schvaneveldt et al. (2005, p. 77) state that “Historically, gender roles and family relationships in Middle Eastern culture have been very traditional and steeped in beliefs and customs stemming from Islam.” This indicates that Middle Eastern patriarchy is not of recent date.

  31. 31.

    As noted previously, this is not the only difference between hunter-gatherer and farming societies.

  32. 32.

    Given the theoretical background, we note that the effect may not be so strong for the Americas given the presence of societies that moved to root-based agriculture.

  33. 33.

    In particular, Pinhasi et al. (2005) provide carbon dates from various Neolithic sites in Europe. From this, we obtain average transition dates of each NUTS 2 region in ArcGIS. See also Fig. 2 for a map depicting these data.

  34. 34.

    Regions follow Eurostat’s definition of regions at the NUTS 2 level, which categorizes regions based on population sizes ranging from 800,000 to 3 million.

  35. 35.

    Given that income is likely to be endogenous, it is important to run regressions which exclude this variable. This is done e.g. in columns (1) and (2) in Table 4. Yet, since many studies include this variable, we decided that it is, on balance, better to show specifications which include it.

  36. 36.

    The online appendix reports results from using the availability of prehistoric domesticable animals and plants as “bio geographical” instruments for the timing of the Neolithic Revolution (see Table 15A). Given that this only influences female labor force participation rates through adoption of agriculture, we can rule out that the results are driven by omitted variable or attenuation bias. It could, however, be argued that the availability of prehistoric domesticable animals is invalid as an instrument, because it is related to the adoption of animal husbandry which could lead women to spend more time closer to home taking care of animals. Nevertheless, we obtain similar results when conditioning on a measure of actual historical use of domesticated large animals from Alesina et al. (2013).

  37. 37.

    These include the following variables: the economic and political development of the country in ancient times, the use of large domesticated animals, the overall agricultural suitability, the fraction of tropical and subtropical land, log GDP per capita, log GDP per capita squared, and continental fixed effects.

  38. 38.

    Burton and White (1984) based this prediction on among other things a case study by Machlachlan (1983). He studied South Indian intensive farming and argued that a narrow seasonal window puts a premium on the labor of young men due to the soil preparation being physically demanding. He also argues that men gain critical farming experience while young, which then made them more efficient farm managers when older.

  39. 39.

    We have also investigated whether our results are driven by, for example, the interaction between years of agriculture and historical plough-use, or the one between years of agriculture and the number of growing days per years. Including these interactions does not affect the significance of years of agriculture, and they are not significant themselves.

  40. 40.

    Lerner (1986, p. 9) also links the creation of early states to gender roles and argues that they were organized in the form of patriarchy. Still, she also acknowledges that plough agriculture may have mattered as it demanded the strength of men and was not for pregnant women or lactating mothers (Lerner, p. 51).

  41. 41.

    The state antiquity variable is migration adjusted. Similar results are obtained for the unadjusted variable.

  42. 42.

    Ross (2009) argues that oil production rather than Islam reduces contemporary female labor market participation. In results available upon request, we demonstrate that our argument is robust to the inclusion of oil rent per capita (taken from Ross 2009).

  43. 43.

    An alternative way of evaluating the importance of social inequality as a cause of gender inequality is to consider complex hunter-gatherers as found in e.g. the Pacific Northwest. According to Klein (1995), these societies have social hierarchies, though gender inequality is absent. Burchell (2006) reports evidence consistent with this by examining the extent to which men and women are buried with grave goods . Yet, Ames and Maschner (1999) found that men were more likely to be buried with grave goods.

  44. 44.

    See online appendix for a list of these countries.

  45. 45.

    These countries are defined from the value zero in the variable traditional plough use from Alesina et al. (2013).

  46. 46.

    Boserup (1970, Chap. 1) shows that women’s participation in the agricultural workforce is substantially higher in Africa compared to Asia. Even so, there is variation within Asia, where some parts of, for example, China have quite high participation rates of women in agriculture, but still lower than what is observed in Africa. Boserup attributes this to the use of intensive agriculture with irrigation.

  47. 47.

    Combining variation in suitability for growing tea and orchard cultivation across China with two post-Mao reforms that increased the value of planting tea and orchards relative to staple crops, Qian (2008) demonstrates that there is a positive, causal effect of women’s income on the survival rates of girls. This is consistent with the mechanisms that we study.

  48. 48.

    It should be noted that the original dataset also includes Middle Eastern countries. However, regional data on female labor market participation are not available for these countries.

  49. 49.

    This is demonstrated by the fact that \(R^{2} \) increases from 0.65 to 0.87 by the inclusion of country dummies.

  50. 50.

    Similar results are obtained using non-linear probability models instead (not reported).

  51. 51.

    The cereals included in this measure are wheat, rice, maize, barley, sorghum, pearl and foxtail millet, and rye. FAO classify soil suitability into the following categories very low, low, medium low, medium, medium high, high and very high. The good soil suitability measure uses soil with medium high suitability or higher. The root crops included are cassava (also known as manioc root), white yam, greater yam, yellow yam, taro, and sweet potatoes. The measure also includes white potatoes which belong to the tuber category.

  52. 52.

    Table 11A in the online appendix documents evidence showing that relative root crops suitability is positive related to female labor force participation in 2000 in the cross-country sample as well.


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We would like to thank the Editor-in-Chief Oded Galor, five anonymous referees, Patricia Draper, Paola Giuliano, Jens Iversen, Lars Lønstrup, Paul Sharp, Battista Servergnini, Rupert Stasch, MEHR seminar participants (University of Copenhagen), and seminar participants at the Danish Public Choice workshop 2013 (Aarhus University) for useful comments and helpful suggestions. We would also like to thank Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn for kindly sharing their data.

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Correspondence to Casper Worm Hansen.

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Hansen, C.W., Jensen, P.S. & Skovsgaard, C.V. Modern gender roles and agricultural history: the Neolithic inheritance. J Econ Growth 20, 365–404 (2015).

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  • Economic development
  • Culture
  • Gender roles

JEL Classification

  • J70
  • N50
  • O11
  • O17