Prehistoric women were as much hunters and artists as they were mothers, book reveals | Archeology

From scholarly works giving women a supporting role to hunter-gatherers of men, to Raquel Welch’s depiction of a bikini-clad cavewoman in the 1966 film One Million Years BC, the gender divide of the Stone Age is firmly anchored in the public consciousness.

As men advanced to spear woolly mammoths, women, as mothers or exploited objects of male desire, took shelter in caves of the violent world, according to an understanding that would be further and further removed from the latest research. .

The historians and filmmakers behind Lady Sapiens: the woman of prehistory, a French book and documentary to be released in the UK in September, say they now seek to demystify the simplistic division of roles by highlighting advances in the study of bones, graves, art and ethnography often overlooked in the public sphere.

“For a long time, prehistory was written from the male point of view, and when we spoke of women, they were portrayed as helpless and frightened creatures, protected by overly powerful male hunters”, Sophie de Beaune, professor of prehistory at the Jean-Moulin-Lyon III University, written in the preface of the book. “Since women began to enter the ranks of prehistorians, a different picture has gradually emerged.

“The reader may be surprised to find that the roles of men and women were not so clear and that it was the cooperation between all members of the group, regardless of gender or age, that ensured their survival,” she wrote.

Today’s clichés, the book suggests, were largely shaped by a lack of interest in the role of women among the pioneers of research in the 19th century. It is the imposition of cultural understandings of this period on scholarship, and a jumble of art ranging from Paul Jamin’s 1888 work Dangerous Encounter and A Rape in the Stone Age to Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC, who “pushes this eroticization to its climax – embodied by the sex symbol Raquel Welch”.

Thomas Cirotteau, one of the documentarians behind the book with Jennifer Kerner and Éric Pincas, said the aim was not to portray the prehistoric woman – with black skin and largely blue eyes – as a “superwoman but to “expand the possibilities”. about his role.

“She knew how to hunt. It had a very important economic role. She could make art and the bond between men and women could be very respectful and full of tenderness,” he said.

Focusing on the Upper Paleolithic period from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, the book highlights carvings found on a stone slab at the Paleolithic site of Gönnersdorf in Germany, of a woman with a baby on his back, allowing his hands to be free for hunting. and the search for food.

Archaeological excavations at the Wilamaya Patjxa site in Peru have revealed a woman buried with hunting tools. Photograph: Randall Haas/UC Davis/AFP/Getty Images

The documentarians note skeletal studies that reveal the strength of women’s upper arm muscles, and a recent discovery at the Peruvian site of Wilamaya Patjxa of evidence of humans hunting big game.

Five burial sites were excavated and six individuals were exhumed. Two of them were found with hunting tools: a man in his thirties and a young woman under 20. Twenty-four stone objects had been placed in the young woman’s grave, including a toolbox containing everything needed to hunt and take down big game: six projectile points, four scrapers, a knife and several chipped stone shards .

Ten sites in the United States from the Late Pleistocene or early Holocene (between 12,000 and 8,000 BCE) yielded 11 burial sites where women were buried next to weapons, suggesting that the find in Peru has a broader meaning.

De Beaune notes in the book that the importance of small game hunting has also been downplayed by scholars, as has fishing, shell-gathering, or hunting small marine animals, all activities that women were likely to enjoy. to have participated.

Being a mother was only one facet of women’s lives in this period. They were not continuously pregnant, suggests the latest knowledge of diet and lifestyle at the time. Studies of carbon, strontium and calcium in bone suggest that children remained breastfed until age four, a practice that reduces fertility.

Vincent Balter, director of the French National Research Center, writes in the book: “As Paleolithic women could have children until about 30 years old, if we say that breastfeeding lasted two or three years, and that they gave birth to their first child around fourteen, that gives us a maximum of five or six births per woman.

The book also posits that women achieved high status within their communities. The site of the Lady of Cavillon, the remains of a woman buried wearing a cap of shells in the Balzi Rossi cave complex in Italy, would be a valuable clue “which reveals the respect that the tribe had for this woman” .

The documentary accompanying the book in France brought together 1.5 million people during its broadcast on France-5, but it was not without controversy.

In an open letter published in Le Monde last October, nine prehistoric specialists wrote that the work “systematically eliminates all the elements that could suggest the probability (or even the mere possibility) of male domination, either by mentioning them more or less disguised way, or by resolutely ignoring them”.

Cirotteau said the documentary and the book were not “militant” about the life and experience of prehistoric women because so little could be certain.

“Our role is not to insist on the role of men and women, but simply to show the possibilities of their activities and their status in prehistory.”

Helen L. Cuellar