Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: Meet the cavewomen who invented humanity

Review of: The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory
Authors: J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer & Jake Page
Publisher: Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins
Source: Library
Grade: B+

Imagine a world in which all the inventors, the artists, the leaders you had been taught were men were actually – women?  What if one of humanity’s greatest inventions was as simple as – a piece of string? That’s the world scientists J. M.Adovasio and Olga Soffer (with help from science writer Jake Page) ask readers in The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory.

Adovasio, Soffer and Page don’t claim women did all the heavy lifting of prehistory. But, if we have little direct evidence of women’s contributions to our early development, we also have little evidence that those contributions were made by men. What we do know is that scientists in male-dominated fields tend to think like, well, men. The trio behind The Invisible Sex ask us to think, for a brief time at least, like women.

The results are fascinating, beginning with an early discussion of the need for female cooperation in birthing the babies of the species. The opening chapters trace humanity’s rise from apelike ancestors to the earliest members of the genus Homo (a name whose very meaning, “man”, has set the tone for so much of the thinking about our origins). Obviously, the major irrefutable fact known about the contributions of females, even before these females became anything we would call women, is that they birthed the babies of the species.

Certainly, I was aware that childbirth is a strenuous and tricky process for both mother and baby, But I hadn’t thought about how much female cooperation the process must have involved. Or about the implications of such cooperation on the social structure of early human – even prehuman societies.

“Women are the only primates in whom the baby emerges facing the rear. . . the tendency for human babies to be born facing the mother’s back has made human mothers the only primates – indeed, the only animals – that seek and get assistance in the birth process. It is possible, of course, for a woman to have her baby by herself, and it is even considered a cultural ideal in certain cultures. . . (but) an ideal that is apparently quite rarely achieved. . . ”

Lest readers be left more squeamish than fascinated, the narrative picks up considerably once it arrives at the material on which Adovasio and Soffer are among the world’s experts – basket making, weaving and, yes, string. These materials seldom appear in excavations because of their perishable nature. But continuing archaeological investigations have exposed ancient evidence or such materials – sometimes preserved in favorable situations, but often indirect. Enter a second direct evidence of woman’s work recorded on the famous “Venuses,” the supposedly nude images found carved in stone and ivory across the length and breadth of prehistoric Europe.

Venus of Willendorf: wikipedia
“What escaped many observers, both male and female, for many years was that some of these figurines were party clad,” note the authors of The Invisible Sex. “. . . (one) did have hair, it seemed, braided and wrapped around her head. Others had little bits of decorations – body bands, bracelets, minor bits and pieces of material of some sort. . . ”

When Adovasio and Soffer looked more closely, they found that the braids supposed to represent hair were actually a well-known basketry pattern. The Venus of Willendorf wore a hat! Closer inspection of the supposedly merely decorative lines on other carvings also revealed them to be twisted and knotted – belts, straps, even string skirts. And if women were wearing hats and clothes, it’s likely that they were also manufacturing the garments. And twining the threads and weaving the fabric, long before the commonly accepted dates for plant domestication.

I could happily have read an entire book on the basketry and fiber issues (and maybe I’ll have to explore some of Advasio’s and Soffer’s other books), and skipped some of the earlier chapters of this one. And although Page’s contribution has undoubtedly smoothed some of the academic-speak of the scientific authors, the results are not always as felicitous as a lay reader might wish. And although there is a bibliography, chapter notes would have been nice. In all, however, a fascinating look at a too-little explored aspect of becoming human. 

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