25 March 2007
Queens of the Stone Age
People think they understand exactly how prehistoric women lived, even though these notions often turn out to be more cartoon than reality. "The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory," by J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page, promises to lay out everything the most current research has established about archaic women. The authors can point out some embarrassing mistakes made by past experts and suggest some intriguing alternative interpretations of various facts and artifacts.
The truth is that we can prove very, very little about how prehistoric people organized their social groups, especially when it comes to sex roles. One of the unsettling revelations in "The Invisible Sex" is that Lucy - the famous Australopithecus afarensis whose 3.3 million-year-old fossilized remains were discovered in Ethiopia, could possibly be a Luke instead. The leader of the expedition who found 'her' says that the identification of the remains as female is not much more than an educated - and possibly biased - guess, based on the relative smallness of the bones.
Great apes like the chimpanzees enjoy a short, relatively easy childbirth because their wide pelvises can easily accommodate their infants' small skulls. In humans, all the advantages of having a bigger skull and brain collide with the advantage of the small pelvis that makes our speedy bipedalism possible. "Women are the only primates in which the baby is born facing the rear," the authors explain, and this in turn makes them the only animals that "seek and get assistance in the birth process." The human need for midwives, and the improved survival rate in the offspring of women who enlisted them, would have selected for the 'special sociability' of human beings in general and human females in particular, the authors suggest. Perhaps the exchange of midwifery services can even be seen as the basis for the evolution of human society beyond a nuclear family.
In a particularly winning example of the value of a shift in perspective, Adovasio and Soffer made a study of such stone figurines as the famous Venus of Willendorf, generally considered to be a fertility totem of some kind created roughly 25,000 years ago. While the bulging breasts and belly of the statuette attract the most attention, Adovasio and Soffer instead examined the back of the head, which is covered with what most observers have identified as braids or a headdress. The authors maintain that it is in fact "a woven hat, a radially hand-woven item of apparel." The authors go on to point out that, while the figure is faceless and generally - if carefully - rendered, the hat is, by contrast, extremely detailed. It is intricate enough that it could possibly have been used as a pattern for making such hats. What the Venus of Willendorf's hat (and similar headgear on other statuettes) might mean remains undetermined, but surely the sum of anthropological knowledge has been increased by someone pointing out that it seems to have been very important to the carver. A professor named Elizabeth Wayland Barber has asked fellow scholars to consider the significance of string, a technological development that "had profound effects on human destiny - probably more profound effects than any advance in the technique of making spear points, knives, scrapers and other tools out of stone." Try to imagine getting along without it, and without "snares and fishlines, tethers and leashes, carrying nets, handles and packages, not to mention a way of binding objects together to form more complex tools." The skilled work involved in making these technologies, which most people associate with women, were absolutely essential.
The scientists of generations past had a fixation on the idea of prehistoric man as a mighty hunter, working in teams to bring down large, dangerous animals like mammoth and bison. This sort of fairy tale, "appear now to be mythmaking on the part of the paleoanthropological community," they explain. Although meat eating was indeed a significant aspect of prehistoric life, many anthropologists now believe most of the meat was scavenged or came from small animals rather than large game. Solo hunters of small game need not have been male, but bagging small prey one by one wouldn't have been very efficient. Catching many of them at once became possible with the use of large woven nets. Net hunting it's a group activity, with everyone, including children, participating in beating the bushes, holding the nets and clubbing the prey. Every member of the community plays a crucial role in this form of meat gathering, including the people, often women, who make and repair the nets. In the opinion of the authors of "The Invisible Sex," this hunter-gatherer lifestyle was most likely a more sexually egalitarian sort of community than the agricultural ones that followed.
Many paleoanthropologists believe that women began the domestication of wild plants while men were probably responsible for the domestication of animals. The invention of agriculture made the glories of human civilization possible, but it was not such a good deal for women or anyone else who wound up on the bottom rungs of increasingly hierarchical societies. Remains of women from Neolithic agricultural communities show that they worked harder and suffered more malnutrition than their hunter-gatherer ancestresses. Populations exploded when the availability of "soft carbohydrate weaning foods" meant that women stopped lactating sooner after a birth and therefore got pregnant more often.
Source: Salon.com (21 March 2007)