Scientists analyzing 2500-year-old baby teeth have revealed evidence of gender inequality during Bronze Age China.

Feminism encompasses ideologies to achieve the social, political, and economic equality of genders, and ideas about misogyny in the ancient world were, perhaps not without a sense of irony, highlighted by a male philosopher, Frenchman Charles Fourier, who in 1837 first coined the term ‘ féminisme.’

Anti-feminism, on the other hand, emerged in the 19th century in response to a perceived ‘anti-man’ ideology, and Dr. Paul Gottfried , Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Elizabethtown College , said the change of women’s roles have been “a social disaster that continues to take its toll on the family” causing disconnected individuals to be cast into “social chaos.”

Information-Loaded Ancient Baby Gnashers

A BBC article about their television series ‘ The Ascent of Woman ’ not unpredictably, suggests history, religion, and science have historically “condemned feminism for being against the natural order of things.” And this idea is now enhanced by a new University of Otago -led paper published in the  American Journal of Physical Anthropology that has cast light on how children in ancient China were raised – it suggests women were treated as second-rate citizens .

‘Night Revels of Han Xizai’ -a painting depicting ladies dancing and entertaining guests. (Public Domain)

Night Revels of Han Xizai ’ -a painting depicting ladies dancing and entertaining guests. ( Public Domain )

Studying breastfeeding and weaning patterns, and babies’ evolving diets, the researchers have looked at the difference between the diets of boys and girls in ancient China. According to a report on, the teeth samples were taken from children who lived in the Central Plains of China during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty , between 771 and 221 BC. Lead researcher, Dr. Melanie Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Otago’s Department of Anatomy, wrote that despite their extreme antiquity, the teeth’s dentin (calcified boney tissue) “was full of information.”

Evidence of Increasing Inequality by Looking at Baby Teeth?

The ‘information’ pertaining to individuals’ diets was derived from the types and amounts of chemical elements found within their dentin, including carbon and nitrogen, which were analyzed using stable isotope analysis. Dr. Miller says the team of scientists already knew that China’s Eastern Zhou Dynasty showed “increasing inequality between men and women” and now these differences have been highlighted in how long babies were weaned and what types of foods they ate.

The teeth from 23 individuals were assembled from two different archaeological sites and the data demonstrates children were breastfed until they were between 2.5 and 4 years old, then weaned onto wheat and soybean solids, “slightly earlier in females than in males.” In the new paper lead researcher Dr. Miller said that for both of the two ancient communities they studied “food was an integral aspect of identity, showing the differentiation between males and females, and these dietary differences between the sexes seems to have begun in early childhood and continued over their lifetimes.”

A painting by the Song Dynasty Chinese artist Su Hanchen (active 1130s–1160s) of two children waving a peacock feather banner like the one used in Song Dynasty dramatical theater. (Public Domain)

A painting by the Song Dynasty Chinese artist Su Hanchen (active 1130s–1160s) of two children waving a peacock feather banner like the one used in Song Dynasty dramatical theater. ( Public Domain )

Confucius Had it in For Women, For Sure

The Eastern Zhou was the second half of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China that followed the Shang dynasty and preceded the Qin dynasty. The period’s name derives from “the Spring and Autumn Annals,” a chronicle of the state of Lu written between 722 and 479 BC by Confucius. In a May 2019 Ancient Origins article we learn that in his quest to revive the Golden Age of Chinese history , Confucius wrote that women were meant to be “subservient, like they were in the past” and compared them to servants: “Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult … If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility. If you maintain a reserve towards them, they are discontented.”

Painting of Confucius. Circa 1770. (Public Domain)

Painting of Confucius. Circa 1770. ( Public Domain )

The new study, based on samples from between 771 and 221 BC, showed males ate more of the traditional crop, millet, while females consumed more “new foods” such as wheat and soy, and these were also important components of childhood diets that had been incorporated into local culinary practices as weaning foods, Dr. Miller says. The chemical techniques used in this type of bioarchaeological study are making it possible to understand ancient human dietary practices over ancient peoples’ lifetimes, and the new dietary data, according to the researcher, suggests early forms of “social inequality between men and women.”

Is this Possibly Bioarchaeological Feminism?

It would be unbalanced, however, to read this article and to conclude that woman were hard done by all over the ancient world, for this is certainly not the case . According to the BBC series ‘The Ascent of Woman,’ at the Catalhöyük settlement, a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, (modern Turkey) which existed from approximately 7100 BC to 5700 BC, not only was god worshiped as a woman , but the fairer sex had the “same diets as men” and no evidence of “wider hierarchies was found in the community.”

Returning to the new study based on Chinese diets , while concluding that sexism was institutionalized in ancient China, the researchers failed to bring into their work a comparative analysis of the differences in male and female babies’ demands for carbohydrates and calories.

18th century painting ‘Mother Presenting her Prayed-for Child to the Temple.’ (Public Domain)

18th century painting ‘Mother Presenting her Prayed-for Child to the Temple.’ ( Public Domain )

What is more, no mention is made of possible cultural traditions which may have meant societies depended on their male babies consuming more lactic acid to make strong boys for hunting, lifting firewood, warring, and farming. Therefore, if one does build these key factors into the equation would the study then show evidence of gender inequality, or evidence of a predetermined conclusion presenting all the ‘required’ facts to support it?

Top Image: Traditional Chinese style sculpture depicting a mother and baby. New research on baby teeth suggests gender inequality was present from infancy. Source: junrong /Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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