The mouth of truth

Publish date 02-07-2023

by Pierluigi Conzo

In archaeological sites, female skeletons from a given era show worse health and life conditions and greater stress than male skeletons of the same reference age.

Show me your teeth and I'll tell you who you are, or rather what stereotypes you have. Among these, perhaps the most persistent over time is precisely the stereotype, and discriminatory behavior, linked to the gender dimension. How historically rooted is the gender prejudice that manifests itself in the most disadvantaged social and economic conditions in which, on average, women find themselves compared to men?
And above all, what do teeth have to do with all this?

A scientific study has just been released in the prestigious journal PNAS which demonstrates how current gender-related prejudices are correlated with the unequal treatment of women compared to men dating back more than a thousand years ago, suggesting the presence of a transmission mechanism of gender stereotypes across several generations.

Having georeferenced and reliable data regarding the condition of women in distant historical periods is very difficult. This is where the role of teeth comes into play… and of bioarchaeology! The authors use a database containing about 10,000 observations relating to the condition of female and male teeth, which belonged to skeletons found in 139 archaeological sites in Europe. In terms of geographical coverage, the database covers over 25 European countries today, with an average of over 5 archaeological sites and 370 tooth observations per country. The great majority of sites also predate the onset of modern agricultural practices and the Black Death (1347 to 1351), with the average date of an archaeological site around 1200 AD.

The historic gender bias measure used in the article stems from the discovery that the presence (or absence) of a biological marker found in teeth – linear enamel hypoplasia – reliably describes the state of health of a person. These are permanent lesions on the teeth caused by trauma, malnutrition or disease during a person's life. They are neither hereditary nor genetic phenotypes, but are formed exclusively under prolonged bodily stress, thus providing a general indicator of stress that can result from a variety of health problems. In archaeological sites where female skeletons have greater enamel hypoplasia than male skeletons we therefore have worse health and living conditions and greater stress for the female gender than for the male gender, in the past reference era.
This bioarchaeological data has been aggregated at the regional level for Europe and merged with other data, also aggregated at the regional level, which captures people's current orientations on gender issues. With this unique database, the authors tested whether there is a correlation between the different treatment of women in the past and today's gender stereotypes. The answer is positive: in general, the results show that there is a significant level of persistence of gender bias over time. Respondents residing in places where in the past the treatment of women was less favorable than that of men, which most likely captures the preferential treatment of men, tend to show less “feminine” attitudes today.

The main mechanism of this historical persistence in gender stereotypes lies in the mechanism of intergenerational transmission of norms and values. To demonstrate this, the authors show how this historical persistence is interrupted in the presence of events that involve a renewal of the population, following, for example, famines and pandemics such as the Black Death or migratory flows. Indeed, the authors demonstrate that the measure of historical gender bias is not correlated with contemporary gender attitudes for the immigrant population, but it is correlated with the attitudes of the non-immigrant population. Also, the effect of past gender bias on contemporary gender attitudes to very high levels of exposure to the Black Death. Both of these results therefore seem to confirm the argument of the persistence of gender biases through the process of intergenerational transmission of norms and values.

Perluigi Conzo
NP April 2023

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