Queens of the Stone Age

Have scholars given the cavewoman a more passive image than she deserves?

Published March 21, 2007 11:43AM (EDT)

The lifestyles of the female and prehistoric are a surprisingly frequent topic of conversation, especially when you consider that Paleolithic women didn't have corporate careers to abandon in favor of becoming stay-at-home moms or the disposable income to buy Jimmy Choo sandals. As with their educated upper-middle-class sisters of today, people think they understand exactly how prehistoric women lived, even though these notions often turn out to be more cartoon than reality. And I mean that literally, since single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker featuring shaggy cavemen in one-shoulder bearskin outfits dragging their consorts by the hair probably represent the sum of what most of us know about the lives of our (very) distant ancestors.

We've been talking about "cavewomen" a lot because in recent years the way people lived back then has become a justification for how people behave now. Dare to challenge any aspect of traditional sex roles, and someone will inevitably pipe up to explain that these matters were all settled back in the Pleistocene era and trying to change them goes against nature, evolution and the sum total of all human knowledge, little lady. It's astonishing, really, how well-informed the average person writing letters to the editor or posting comments to Web forums is about Paleolithic societies.

Actually, what's astonishing is how much the members of the peanut gallery think they know about such things, considering how few sureties real paleoanthropologists will swear to. "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, and the truth is that it's pretty thin gruel. The authors can point out some embarrassing mistakes made by past experts and suggest some intriguing alternative interpretations of various facts and artifacts, but even so there's a lot of padding and extraneous material in this book's 300 pages.

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. We have bones, some tools and the remains of dwellings and other structures, but these can't tell us for sure who brought home the bacon or wore the pants, to use two inappropriately modern figures of speech. Sometimes these finds can't even tell us for sure who was who; 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 1974 by archaeologists in a remote valley of the Awash River 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.

The biased guessing in a lot of old-school anthropology comes in for some pointed ridicule in "The Invisible Sex." The scientists of generations past -- and the magazine and book illustrators and museum diorama designers who translated their theories into images -- 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. A painting from the National Geographic archives (reproduced in this book) pictures a fivesome of well-developed and scantily clad Paleoindian studs battling the fearsome great short-faced bear, a predator the authors describe as "capable of bringing down any prey except perhaps an adult mammoth." This sort of fairy tale, along with scenarios in which bands of doughty hunters chased herds of mammoths off cliffs and returned laden with meat to camps of grateful women and children, "appear now to be mythmaking on the part of the paleoanthropological community," they explain.

Of the fictional short-faced bear hunt (an example of the now-discredited Clovis First theory concerning the reputedly rapacious initial settlers of North America), the authors write: "That any group of humans armed with only spears would ever attack such a creature is of course ludicrous. They would instead have exercised all their wiles to stay out of the way of such a profoundly dangerous killer. Yet, the very reverse image leaped into the imaginations of people who had convinced themselves that these supposed first Americans were preternaturally gifted hunters, capable of feats now known only from the special-effects department of Hollywood."

Their point is that, like Hollywood action films, many early conceptions of prehistoric life were fantasies, the work of anthropologists caught up in a thrillingly macho vision of our forebears that owes more to Conan the Barbarian than to the archaeological record. That vision rarely featured women, and when they did appear it was only to sit around awaiting the next delivery of mammoth steaks, for which, it was implied, they would trade their sexual favors or perhaps the handful of nuts and berries they'd rustled up on the side. So seductive is this "theme of man the hunter" that it prevailed when the remains of a diminutive new species of the genus Homo were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004 (and promptly labeled "hobbits" by the press). An artist's drawing of the creature depicted it as bearded fellow holding a spear and carrying a freshly slain giant rat slung over his shoulder -- despite the fact that the chief find was a female.

Adovasio, Soffer and Page are not proponents of any New Age feminist theories about the distant past. They take pains to point out that there is not a shred of evidence to support the theory, advanced by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, that many Neolithic societies were matriarchies devoted to Goddess worship. But they argue persuasively (if somewhat disjointedly) that the anthropologists and archaeologists of the past were invested in the conventional sex roles of their time. This often rendered them blind to the implications of some of their finds and uninterested in the crucial roles (apart from the merely reproductive one) that women probably played in prehistoric communities.

The evidence scientists use to construct theories about those communities falls into roughly three types. They look at fossils and artifacts; they observe contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures (or in some cases, other primates) and, more recently, they analyze the DNA of living humans to trace the distant origins of certain genetic mutations. Each method has its strengths and drawbacks, and sometimes the truth hides in plain sight.

Take, for example, the mute testimony of the modern human pelvis, which is narrower than the pelvis of both the chimpanzee and the australopithecine. Great apes like the chimpanzees enjoy a short, relatively easy childbirth (we're talking 20 minutes) because their wide pelvises can easily accommodate their infants' small skulls. On the other hand, their wider pelvises prevent them from walking upright for very long or very quickly. 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. A human infant's head is exactly the size of the birth canal, making labor a tight squeeze. As a result, human infants are born prematurely, with unfinished, semi-collapsible skulls, and they have to rotate as they move down the birth canal, sometimes as much as 180 degrees, so they can be born facing backwards.

"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." Other primates, whose infants face forward at birth, can assist their own labor without the risk of pulling against the natural curve of the infant's spinal cord. 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.

The sophisticated social organization of human communities has enabled us to conquer the planet, and language is the killer app of human sociality, the ability that distinguishes us from all other animals. The problem is that it's more or less impossible to determine when or how language began, and the language chapter in "The Invisible Sex" is largely taken up with a debate between Adovasio and Soffer over whether it came about quickly or slowly, judging from the emergence of artifacts associated with symbolic thinking. But it doesn't, and can't, tell us whether women and their "special sociability" played a leading role in the development of language. As in several other parts of "The Invisible Sex," the authors stuff in a bunch of general anthropological information to fill out the places where nothing specific to women can be deduced.

Much more interesting are the chapters that teasingly take on those "lithocentric male scholars" who convinced themselves that Paleolithic societies put a special premium on stone tools. Fiber artifacts are perishable, a perfectly reasonable explanation for previous generations of archaeologists to focus on stone spearheads and knives. But the authors of "The Invisible Sex" feel that focus puts undo emphasis on weapons and the "man the hunter" theme. Adovasio is an expert in what he calls the "extremely unsexy field of perishable artifacts -- basketry, cordage, weaving and so forth," items that in existing hunter-gatherer societies are usually, but by no means always, made by women.

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 that was probably begun from a knotted center in the manner of certain coiled baskets made today by Hopi, Apache and other American Indian tribes." Most photographs of the figure don't bother to depict it from that angle, but the one included in "The Invisible Sex" reveals that this head covering looks exactly like a basket.

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. "The carver," they write, "had to have spent more time on just the hat than on the rest of the entire figurine." Yet, surprisingly enough, they were one of the few scholars to pay any attention at all to the hat or to observe that many of the other Stone Age "Venus" figurines dating from around the same period had some minimal carved garments, as well. They write, "One British scholar who studied the Venuses in his youth never noticed any clothing because, he recalled, he 'never got past the breasts.'"

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." Lightweight baskets enabled nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes to carry a collection of possessions with them instead of just what they could hold in their hands. And further down the line in the "Fiber Revolution" came woven and sewn clothes, which made it possible for people to survive in colder climates. The skilled work involved in making these technologies, which most people associate with women, were absolutely essential.

Even the mighty prehistoric hunter of myth, legend and natural history museum dioramas has to cede place to the weaver. 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 (and insects) rather than large game. People might have occasionally finished off a disabled mammoth or bison when the opportunity arose, but the creatures they hunted were rabbits, foxes and other small mammals. Solo hunters of small game need not have been male; in fact, primatologists in Senegal recently discovered a population of chimpanzees who sometimes make spearlike tools to hunt with, and so far the only chimps spotted doing it have been adolescent females. 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 as it is still practiced in tribal cultures is not the province of crack teams of spear-wielding he-men. 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, another debilitating strain.

Before she got too clever for her own good, the cavewoman probably had a lot more clout than we give her credit for. Today's women, three-quarters of whom work outside the home, aren't fighting nature, human or otherwise. They're just getting back to where they once belonged.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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