Yet Another Discovery Upends The Myth of Prehistoric Gender Roles
‘The silent past has been made to speak,’ wrote Irish archaeologist Hodder Michael Westropp in 1872, at the height of the Victorian era, enthralled by the developments in a brand new science: archaeology.
Yup, our vision of human prehistory — the time before written records, hence referred to by Westropp as ‘the silent past’— is relatively recent. Only our past wasn’t exactly freely allowed to speak back then. Or for another century or so. Instead, it was archaeologists' and historians’ preconceived ideas about gender that shaped how we interpreted everything from ancient burials and clay sculptures to cave paintings.
This then resulted in androcentric (and largely kitschy) assumptions about prehistory. Here’s an example from a 1950s book, Looking at History: From Cavemen to Vikings, by British historian R.J. Unstead:
Early man made a home in a cave. He made scrapers and bones. His wife used the scraper to clean the underside of animal skins.
Today, most of us probably still imagine the prehistoric way of life as men thrusting spears into woolly mammoths, painting frescos, making tools and weapons and battling it out with other men. Meanwhile, we picture women as hunched over a fire, poking at a roasting mammoth thigh or doing some tedious handy work while wearing their finest animal pelt. (To minimise their chances of getting bonked over the head with a club.)
Men get to do exciting things. Women get to tag along. And be objectified.
Actually, until fairly recently, material culture left by our Paleolithic ancestors continued to be interpreted in this simplistic and heavily gendered way. But the more we zoom in on the past, the less black-and-white it gets.
And lately, there’s been yet another discovery that turns assumptions about prehistoric gender roles and norms on their heads.
Gender roles used to be more fluid than once thought
It’s long been assumed that stela— stone or wooden slab used in the ancient world primarily as a grave marker — depicting individuals with headdresses and jewellery represented a woman. And those that included features like weapons and tools represented a man.
But a recent excavation in a 3000-year-old funerary complex in southwest Spain uncovered a Bronze/Iron age stela depicting a human figure with both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements. It has a detailed face, hands and feet, a headdress, a necklace, two swords and male genitals.
The team behind the discovery, formed by Durham University and Sevilla University archaeologists, believes that ‘the social roles depicted by these carvings were more fluid than previously thought, and not restricted to a specific gender.’
And they could very well be right. In particular, considering the ever-growing body of research that challenges the long-standing interpretations of early human cultures and points in the same direction: gender roles and norms were not as rigid back then as we assumed.
Earlier this year, I wrote about another discovery in Spain that puts a dent in the simplistic view of our past — a 5,000-year-old tomb containing the most extensive collection of lavish items found in the entire region. And since it most likely belonged to a highly-positioned, important individual, they were first assumed to be a man, dubbed the ‘Ivory Man.’
But thanks to a new testing method that detects differences in the chemistry of tooth enamel, the ‘Ivory Man’ turned out to be the ‘Ivory Lady.’ Actually, the only people buried with comparable pomp and wealth at that time were all women, suggesting that female leadership was nothing out of the ordinary.
And yes, there are a lot more examples just like that.
This new technique was also used to establish that a burial of an individual excavated in 1878 initially thought to belong to a male Viking warrior — since it included weapons — belonged to a woman instead.
The same thing happened in the case of an 8,500-year-old body surrounded by more than 150 bones and artefacts found in 1934 in Germany and assumed to belong to an influential spiritual leader. And a man, of course. But modern analysis showed it belonged to a woman, now known as the Shaman of Bad Dürrenberg.
And, possibly the best-known of them all, the 9,000-years-old skeleton of a Peruvian big game hunter and revered chieftain once thought to be male also turned out to belong to a young woman. This discovery then led researchers to further question the ‘Man the Hunter’ narrative and sparked a slew of studies that show women hunted, too. And likely just as much as men.
There are also a few ancient graves that we once erroneously assumed contained women.
One prominent example is the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland. When it was discovered in 1823 by William Buckland, a British palaeontologist and clergyman, he assumed the skeleton inside belonged to a woman since it was accompanied by various ‘girly’ decorative items, like shell beads and carved ivory.
But a recent bone analysis revealed that the ‘Red Lady’ is, in fact, a man.
The androcentric bias in archaeology is hardly surprising
It’s not exactly surprising that rigid ideas about gender shaped how archaeological discoveries were interpreted for such a long time.
Gender bias can be found in every single science.
But what’s particularly unfortunate in the case of archaeology is that it emerged around the very same time when our understanding of gender and gender roles was at its peak rigidity — the Victorian era.
After all, this was the time of ‘separate spheres’ for men and women — one got the ‘real world’, and the other the ‘domestic bliss.’ And of the ‘angel in the house’ feminine ideal characterised by complete devotion, submission and docility. And of scientists using tape measures and weighing scales to imply that women’s smaller brain sizes both prove their inferiority and justify male dominance.
If you put yourself in the shoes of a Victorian male scholar who grows up in a world heavily dominated by men and in which even science at the time believed male dominance is set in biological stone, it’s not very likely that you’ll go around looking for anything that proves to the contrary.
Or that even when you do encounter any unknowns, you’ll consider the possibility that this wasn’t true for all cultures and periods.
Through that heavily male-centred lens, weaponry, tools, and lavish items found in ancient burials or engraved on monuments were naturally always interpreted as belonging to or representing male warriors, leaders and other highly positioned men. Because it was believed that it was men who always ruled, hunted, fought, built and created, while women got to follow their lead.
A similar gendered interpretation was also applied to other prehistoric artefacts, and not only those used in funerary customs.
For instance, when the first Upper Palaeolithic figurines depicting voluptuous women — often referred to as ‘Venus figurines’ — were discovered in the late 19th century, they were believed to demonstrate the objectification and subordination of women. They were also primarily attributed to male artists, as is the case with most prehistoric art.
And, just like it happened with ancient burials, alternative interpretations were mainly overlooked. Or not even considered to begin with.
It wasn’t really until the late twentieth century that this changed, and we started reevaluating our previous interpretations of ancient material culture, paralleling the growing interest in gender issues throughout most other disciplines.
Since then, several scholars, like Marija Gimbutas, Lithuanian archaeologist and anthropologist, argued that Venus figurines demonstrated the importance of women's status rather than their subordination. Some even suggested they represent an archetype of a female Supreme Creator.
Of course, we’ll never know for certain which interpretation is correct. But one thing is: we are guilty of projecting Victorian-era understanding of gender onto the past.
And to some extent, the modern day, too.
This is likely just the beginning of similar discoveries
Every time a story about a male celebrity wearing a dress, nail polish or any other ‘feminine’ element goes viral, there are quite a few people angrily expressing their longing for a time when ‘men were men.’ A similar thing happens in reverse with… female-led superhero movies.
The idea that once upon a time, ‘men were men’ and ‘women were women ’ became a popular cry among today’s reactionaries, often uttered in misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise hateful rants.
But when was that time, exactly?
The Victorian era? Antiquity? Prehistory? The Garden of Eden?
Sure, there was a time when some middle and upper-class men ‘were men’ and some middle and upper-class women ‘were women,’ as per our understanding of what ‘traditional’ gender roles entail. And that period started around the 19th century and lasted roughly until the end of the last one.
Now, considering that our species has existed for 300,000 years, that 200 years of rigid gender roles, give or take, among some people and in some places in the world accounts for a whooping… 0.07% of our history.
And sure, even before the Victorian rigid gender roles craze started, there was indeed a period marked by widespread male dominance, a.k.a. the patriarchy. Even though this wasn’t as consistent across cultures as some might believe, you could say that was the case for the last 12,000 years, if we’re being very generous. That’s just 4%.
The rest, the overwhelming majority of humanity’s existence, is all part of the ‘silent past.’ And unfortunately, our understanding of it until recently has been drenched in a myriad of male biases and androcentric assumptions.
Unsurprisingly, some people argue that even recent discoveries and studies challenging all that are mere ‘anomalies’ and ‘strange mysteries,’ even going as far as to claim that graves of female warriors must have originally included a second male body their weapons actually belonged to.
(In case this isn’t obvious: archaeologists do check for patterns of injuries on bones to confirm whether a person had been a warrior.)
But let’s keep in mind another important reason why we’re rethinking our understanding of the past just now: the technology that makes it possible to, for instance, determine chromosomes via tooth enamel. Victorian scholars were mostly only armed with their imagination. But we aren’t.
And that begs the question: how much more of humanity’s past and symbolism have we erroneously interpreted through a heavily androcentric and binary lens?
And how many more ancient burials of warriors, leaders, and priests we thought belonged to men belonged to women?
The problem with oversimplifying history isn’t just that it results in inaccuracies, biases, and myths but that it can impact our lives in the present.
Today, we still gender so much of the world precisely because of the belief that ‘this how things always were.’
And it’s not just objects, toys, clothing, makeup, colours, behaviours, professions or educational paths. It’s also seemingly non-gender related things like hygiene, comfort, human emotions and… eating vegetables.
We long to make everything fit into a binary to make sense of the world.
But while some things do fit, many others don’t.
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