Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: The Invisible Sex - Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory



I have always been fascinated by human evolution and the mysteries of the prehistoric era. I think this field of study that pieces together rare clues and proposes possible narratives appeals to my imagination. The vast bulk of the human story is unrecorded, and, as the authors of The Invisible Sex point out, the prehistory pieced together by paleoanthropologists has overlooked the important role that females played in the evolution of humanity and the technological and social development of our species.

The Invisible Sex is a collective work by J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page, and their premise is that the once male-dominated world of paleoanthropologists and archeologists largely left women's prehistory unconsidered and unexplored. Unearthing stone spearheads and knives naturally made scientists create the narrative of man the hunter, and women were mere afterthoughts necessary for reproduction.

As the researchers who authored the book go on to demonstrate, an unbiased or liberated view of the evidence shows that females contributed significantly to human evolution, language development, social development, and technological advances.

Family Communication

By studying fossil evidence, the authors proposed that the ever increasing brain sizes of human ancestors and then humans created a demanding birth process that was most successful when a female is assisted presumably by other females. This situation probably fostered the development of more advanced communication. Improved communication would have allowed for more successful births with the resulting reward of increased survival rates.

Furthermore, the prolonged childhood of humans and their ancestor species produced an exceptionally intimate and enduring relationship between mother and child. During this long relationship, it is logical to propose that language continued to develop. Humans and their ancestors would have also been increasingly aware of their family and interdependence within the group, which would have continually nurtured complex communication.

Because of the central role of women within the family unit, the authors conclude that they were crucial to the formation of language. Modern analysis of human brains shows that females in general have enhanced communication capacities.

Three Generations are a Charm

Among the myriad fascinating facts and ideas presented in The Invisible Sex was the Grandmother Hypothesis. Fossil evidence shows that tens of thousands of years ago a tipping point was reached in which a significant number of early humans were surviving to a relative old age. This provided the group with elders or grandparents. These elders were able to help raise children and act as sources of wisdom and knowledge. This demographic shift to more elders is associated with the creative/symbolic revolution in artwork with early humans. More elders meant more cultural innovations and a more successful society.


The Venus of Brassempouy, fragment of 25,000-year-old ivory figurine recovered in France.

Mistresses of the Plant World

When the authors turned their attention to technological breakthroughs among early humans, they made a very compelling case for the preeminence of women. Fiber arts such as spinning, weaving, and sewing have overwhelmingly been associated with women in recorded history, and it is supposed that women were behind most of these inventions. An advance known as the String Revolution was an exceedingly important technological breakthrough that increased people's capacity for survival. With string, bundles can be tied up, more things can be carried, and more technologies like snares, fish lines, nets, leashes, handles, and weaving arise. String leads to more complex tool making because objects can be bound together.

The archeological record of the fiber arts is exceedingly tiny because of their perishable nature. A few examples exist from impressions of strings and nets left in sediments and from artifacts recovered in the anaerobic environment of bog funeral sites. Evidence cannot decisively prove whether women or men actually invented string. The invention likely happened in many locations independently, but the logical conclusion that women in general invented the fiber arts has support. In hunter gatherer societies, women tend to gather more than hunt, and this full-time immersion in the plant world would give women the greater opportunity to experiment with plant fiber resources.

The next advance for humanity that arose from the plant world was agriculture. Evidence supports the theory that women invented agriculture. One telling example came from the analysis of bones from the ancient Cochise cultures in Arizona about 3,500 years ago. Roaming people develop pronounced ridges on their femurs. Studies showed that at the rise of agriculture among the Cochise, femurs of women did not have the ridges that showed in earlier specimens, indicating a more sedentary life. The femurs of men continued to show the ridges for a longer period. Concluding that the men were still hunting and roaming while the women were purposefully tending plants in a settlement is logical.

Impressions About the Book

The Invisible Sex is packed with hundreds of ideas, archeological finds, and paleoanthropological studies. The realm of prehistory is wide open to interpretation, but the facts and ideas presented in this book rightfully highlight the crucial contributions of women in the development of our species.

As a read, this book is very meandering and could have benefited from subheadings and charts. It does not start off with a bang either. After introducing its fascinating subject, it then plows through a lot of admittedly tedious and inconclusive discussions of hominid evolution and behaviors. The last half of the book, however, abounds with concrete evidence and ideas about the late stages of prehistory right before recorded history.

A person would have to be initially interested in this subject, like me, in order to appreciate this book. I have no doubt that this one is in the library of one of my favorite authors Jean Auel, who is famous for her fictional Earth's Children sagas set in prehistoric times. She is even mentioned in the preface as a funder of a 1991 conference where the authors began to share ideas.

Overall, The Invisible Sex is an important and thorough work on the subject of human prehistory. As with all social sciences, the genuine consideration of women's contributions will greatly expand the intellectual reach of the study of human prehistory.

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