Monday, November 19, 2007

The Invisible Sex | Summer Reading 5

Several months ago I finished The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Role of Women in Prehistory by J.M. Adovasio, Jake Page, and Olga Soffer, one of the books in my self-assigned, still-being-posted-about 2007 Summer Reading Program. I've been interested in archaeology and prehistory since I was a little girl. A few years ago I volunteered as part of an excavation in Mexico through UCLA and learned a lot about finding and studying artifacts of the past. While that hardly qualifies me to have too many opinions on the subject, when I heard about this book I was very intrigued.

The authors argue that prehistoric women were "pivotal in a wide range of culture-building endeavors, including the invention of language, the origins of agriculture and the conceptualization of boat building." Essentially, the book tries to deconstruct popular opinions regarding the evolutionary impact of different genders on the final product of the human race... ideas which have been assumed by archaeologists and laymen alike with little scientific verification. It is true that many who study the past have presented images of muscle-bound early man, singlehandedly warding off mammoths and sitting around chipping spear heads in his spare time. While the best known hominid "Lucy" is indeed female, museum dioramas, textbook pictures, and popular movies and literature often show examples of cavemen.

Stone is more durable than woven fabric, food, baskets, and other soft goods. Traditional tools and resources of prehistoric females decompose and are therefore harder for archaeologists to acquire, let alone analyze. While prehistoric artifacts in the way of textiles are few and far between, the authors do make a point of insisting that the preserved evidence that does exist can not necessarily be associated with prehistoric males. They also note that the large masses of mammoth bones found throughout eastern Europe and the United States indicate that they seem to have died naturally, rather than being brought to extinction by human hunters. They argue that if ancient humans killed mammoths, it was a rare occurrence that would have involved all abled members of a community - men, women, and children. Rather, excavations suggest that people mostly lived on smaller rabbit-sized mammals occasionally, and foraged vegetation most often.

Now, I know I am not an expert by any means, but the authors (2 males, 1 female) though highly credentialed seem to present some pretty sweeping conclusions and new assumptions based on their strong reaction against the biases of what has for so long been a male dominated field. Of the book, one reviewer wrote, "The trail of inference that leads from fossil fragments to conclusions about sex, gender and social structure has more in common with the Da Vinci code than with scientific method."

I think that the authors are right in their assertion that because males have dominated the study of prehistory for so long, that those scholars will come at it from a male-centric perspective. While biases need to be limited, however, I don't think that female historians, on the other hand, approach any given subject through a purely asexual lens. I'm not saying I think it's right, I'm just saying I think it's true.

I don't know if the "discovery" that women were instrumental in the creation of culture, society, and language, should be all that ground-breaking. One would think that both male and female had something to do with getting us to our modern state of civilization and development. Plus, keeping humankind alive through food and cloth production, encouraging the necessity of language/family dependence, and promoting the use of other technological innovations isn't exactly an insult to the female sex. Regardless of the snide feminist comments sprinkled throughout and a few sweeping inferences that hindered some of the book's credibility, it worth reading, if only for further exposure to the subject.

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