Invisible Women in Prehistory and Paleoanthropology

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…waiting for my Killer Ape to bring home the bacon.

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

May 2007 /  by Barbara J. King

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.


I’ll say it again: The lack of imagination in the

“me, me, me” male mind is astounding.


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.

I'm so glad I had sex with a Bipedal Ape: He's such a great provider!

I’m so glad I had sex with a Bipedal Ape: He’s such a great provider!

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.

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