Women in human evolution reviewed

1 minute read

James Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page have a new book entitled, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory. The authors are well-known for their work in both New World and Old World archaeology. In particular, the joint work by Adovasio and Soffer has uncovered evidence for the earliest fabrics and fiber technology, and has led to new interpretations for the famous "Venus" figurines from the European Upper Paleolithic.

I ran across a nice long review of the book by Laura Miller at Salon.com. It's free if you watch their ads, and the review is full of clever observations. Here's a sample:

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.

The review notes that the book also covers the anatomical constraints of the birth process in humans and their implications for cultural assistance with birth -- that's drawn from work by Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan (quick summary here) -- and I happened to have lectured about it today. It's very important stuff in terms of human life history strategies, and it is likely tied in with the evolution of the human brain. So anatomically speaking, women are central!

I hope to write more about this book when I get a chance to read it -- Soffer and Adovasio have been really important in reframing our understanding of sex roles in the past, and this looks like an interesting contribution.