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Enamel hypoplasia used to indicate gender equality

By Dental Tribune International
November 14, 2019

TÜBINGEN, Germany: Scandinavia is regarded as a role model with regard to gender equality. Now, historians at the University of Tübingen have investigated whether there is a historical reason for this. In a recent study, they traced the roots of gender quality in the Scandinavian periphery over the last two millennia by using the enamel hypoplasia values of tooth fossils as an indicator. Based on this data, they found that, in these remote outlying areas of Scandinavia, gender equality had a higher value than in other European regions.

The researchers compared the health of men and women from the past 1,000 years, using data gathered from ancient teeth and skeletons. The study was based on European data from the Global History of Health Project. It incorporates data from studies on human skeletons from more than 100 European sites from the past 2,000 years.

The researchers examined especially closely the information provided by teeth: “We looked at teeth in particular, because they can reveal more information than other human remains. The nutrition experience of males and females during childhood can be read from the hypoplasia phenomenon. These are horizontal lines on the teeth which appear if the female or the male child suffered from severe malnutrition and poor health during childhood,” explained Dr Jörg Baten, Professor of Economic History at the university.

“We hypothesised that if girls and women received less food and care than the male members of society, they would have more such damage,” said Dr Laura Maravall, postdoctoral researcher at the university. “The extent to which values differ between men and women is therefore also a measure of equality within the population,” she added. The close connection between the relative frequency of enamel damage and the general state of health was demonstrated by measurement of the corresponding thigh bones. The length of the femur provides information about height, which is relatively greater in individuals with good health and a good diet.

The study found that Scandinavian women in the remote rural areas already had relatively good health and nutritional values during the Viking era—in the late eighth to eleventh centuries—and the medieval period thereafter. The corresponding value is 0.8 equality advantage for Scandinavian women, whereas in the rest of Europe most values fall in a band around 1.2 ratio units. This suggests that the currently high gender equality had a precedence during the Middle Ages. According to the researchers, this greater gender equality appears to have led to a long-term positive development for the overall society.

“We focused on this topic of research, because we want to understand the long-run trends of gender equality and what it means for economic growth. There is a big debate in economics about whether gender equality causes economic growth or whether gender equality is only by-product of economic growth. Looking at poor regions during early times—like Scandinavia—we can contribute an important case study which supports the previous view, namely that gender equality really causes economic growth,” concluded Baten.

The study, titled “Valkyries: Was gender equality high in the Scandinavian periphery since Viking times? Evidence from enamel hypoplasia and height ratios”, was published in the August 2019 issue of Economics and Human Biology.


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