May 2007

Barbara J. King


Invisible Women in Prehistory and Paleoanthropology (and Invisible Standards in Publishing)

For many 20th-century decades, the Killer Ape and Man the Hunter theories were all the rage in explaining the trajectory of human prehistory. Anthropologists and popular science writers -- males, that is -- put forth scenarios about how humans became human because men grooved on aggression or went off big-game hunting in cooperative groups, and in the process kick-started serious intelligence for the whole species. Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey are remembered even today for celebrating, in various ways, the male and the bloodthirsty.

The Man the Hunter theory had staying power, even into the peace-loving, consciousness-raising 1960s. Women scholars, though, did respond. In the 1970s, anthropologists Adrienne Zihlman and Nancy Tanner rode the pendulum swing of Woman the Gatherer, Woman the Tool Inventor, reversing the superiority equation in favor of females. Supported by data from hunter-gatherer peoples and other primates, they suggested that women’s foraging for plant materials and tool-making skills were centrally important in human evolution. Ernestine Friedl noted that traditional modern foragers have no homogeneous pattern of either subsistence or gender relations, a point that might bear on reconstructing the past.

But on rolled the male-authored myth-making machine. In 1981, Owen Lovejoy wrote that prehistoric men were selected to be bipedal because they could better provision their females, who in turn could better immobilize themselves at home and hearth, and produce more babies.

Some version of the primary, providing, protecting male has apparently been hard to leave behind; in 1999, a team of researchers led by Richard Wrangham (and including one woman) offered a vegetarian version of food-makes-us-human, starring cooked tubers -- with women as the cooks, but guess which sex needed male protection at the hearth from thieving food-snatchers?

Exploring the history of ideas about our prehistory shows the stubborn nature of male bias in attempts to understand our past. The Invisible Sex, by anthropologists J.M. Adovasio and Olga Soffer, and writer Jake Page, attempts to address that bias, too, with some curious results.

In the section on early prehistory, Dart, Ardrey, and Lovejoy are named and their ideas discussed (the tubers are there too, but linked with another male anthropologist). Following a dozen lines on Lovejoy, the authors note: “Lovejoy’s view of those eternal gender roles was immediately challenged by women scholars representing the second wave of feminism, but they were not widely heard by the profession. A bit later, two male archaeologists objected and were heard: one a South African, Charles K. Brain; the other an American, Lewis Binford. Neither cared much about prehistoric gender roles.”

Later, when division-of-labor theories in early Homo (male hunters and women gatherers living in nuclear families) are explored, we read: “By the early 1970s, this logical representation of early Homo life was being severely questioned by anthropologists, many but not all of them women. For example...” The example is a single paper by Sally McBrearty and her graduate student Marc Monitz, cited not to the 1970s, or even the 1980s, but 1991.

Adrienne Zihlman is given a voice in discussing a museum diorama, and articles by women scholars make it to the bibliography. Still, given the book’s title, the comparative erasure of so many women evolutionary thinkers from the text makes for a compelling entry in the Contest of Ironic Writing.

A second problem cuts a broader swath through the book, and sends me unexpectedly back to territory I covered in this column a few months ago: egregious errors in writing for a broad public.

Migrating the famous fossil site of Olduvai Gorge to Kenya is not a pretty mistake for paleoanthropologists to make, but it’s far from a lonely one. The date for first appearance of anatomically modern humans is given at 100,000, then a page later at 160,000; the accepted date is 195,000. At times acknowledged as the tool-makers they almost certainly were, early hominids are also described as bipedal creatures who would “much much later” discover their hands were useful for making tools.

Even Lovejoy’s male-bipedalism theory comes out wrong (he didn’t focus on hunting)!

Primate studies offer a key comparative base for work in paleoanthropology, but here the facts are off: assistance at birth is not uniquely human, since male callithricids (small South American monkeys) aid their partners’ labor. Even if “higher primates” is restricted to apes, not all higher primates are sexually dimorphic; baboons certainly do not commonly share food, an error imported from another scientist. Nonhuman vocalizations are mischaracterized as, “practically all... expressions of an emotional state.” Never before have I heard the view that prehistoric (Miocene era) apes move with “halting bipedalism” or, “creep around on the forest floor.”

A riot of misspelled terms or names runs through the text (or diagrams), Homo floresiensis and Orrorin tugenensis for starters. The words “ochre” and “ocher” appear on the same page, “Acheulian” and “Achuelian” on another, “oxytocin” and “ocytocin” on yet another. “Exaptation” is rendered as “exaption.” The scientist Robert Seyfarth becomes Douglas Seyfarth, just as Wenda Trevathan becomes Trevathian, and Sileshi Semaw becomes Silehi.

In the midst of a section on genetics and inbreeding I came across: “As has been pointed out, modern humans will copulate with virtually anything, even barrel cacti, so one can assume that nothing with two legs would have been out of bounds.” Barrel cacti? I just don’t get out enough, I guess.

By the time I reached the section about the Ice Age, a time period that’s critical to the book and one with which I am less than fully familiar, I simply didn’t trust what I read.

If you’re a compartmentalizer, go for it: intriguing ideas from original research, particularly Soffer’s, stud this section. That baskets, nets, hats, and clothes were produced by women in a “Fiber Revolution” is reinforced by solid archaeological evidence like that from Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. Impressions there in clay, dated to 26,000 years ago, show imprints of basketry and textiles made from wild plants. The conclusion is stirring: “[The Fiber Revolution] 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.”

Material culture and its implications for women’s status are cogently (re)analyzed. In a fascinating passage, the authors suggest that the category “women” may have been invented about 45,000 years ago, perhaps before the counterpart invention of “men”: “Women would exist now as a mental construct, bound up in a system of different distribution of rights, duties, rules, and statuses, founded on the notion of shared resources and different talents. How men were perceived at this time -- that is, whether there was such a mental grouping -- is not clear from the archaeological record.”

Any correlation between gender and task (e.g., making of material culture) in prehistory is necessarily speculative, as the authors acknowledge. At times, as when writing about the Fiber Revolution, their conjectures convince. That boat-building’s development, “had to have been the signature of highly coordinated social action” is reasonable too, but to argue that boat-building therefore gives specific evidence for the invention of “men and women (as opposed to males and females)” is far too shaky an enterprise.

Me, I’m no compartmentalizer. If good anthropology, indeed good scholarship of any type, isn’t in the details, where is it?

Am I just blaming the authors for what should instead be laid at the feet of Smithsonian / Harper Collins proofreaders? Am I throwing out the baby of cool ideas with the bathwater of the details? Let me counter these (hypothetical) questions with more questions: isn’t there a probable relationship between small errors of fact and care in overall scholarship? Don’t books simply matter too much for them to reach print with so little care taken? Writers invite readers to enter a world of ideas, to thrash around with those ideas, to accept some and spit others out or maybe to accept none -- but the implicit contract involves care by all parties, authors and readers (and publishers) alike.

So how should scientists try to get across to a broad audience their ideas on complex and sometimes controversial subjects like gender, evolution or religion? This question is hot right now, thanks to Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney via one essay in Science and another in the Washington Post (plus lots of blogging, see Their ideas about “framing,” or how to convey hot-button science issues to a non-science-literate public, combine brilliance with the best knife-edge controversy I’ve read in a while. Their proposal, in part, is that scientists should cut back on the complexities they try to communicate. They’re right on as far as I’m concerned, and they’ve inspired a debate with an unusually welcome light: heat ratio.

I’ve read Soffer and Page before, in the arenas of archaeology and Southwest fiction, respectively. I admire their talents. In this project, though, the framing went awry. Framing surely means “framing with care.” It avoids dense technicalities, not basic accuracies. It should mean giving credit where credit is due, to women as well as men, in the history of ideas. It can even mean moving Olduvai Gorge back to Tanzania.

-- Barbara J. King wishes her dedicated, primate-watching William & Mary undergrads a sweet summer.