Woman Rock at History; Men Steal Credit

Cueva de las Manos in Argentina
Cueva de las Manos in Argentina

One of the problems of patriarchy is that it’s so pervasive, we don’t even realize if or when it affects our thinking. Oftentimes, we believe our thinking is free from cultural baggage. (One of my favorite examples is how many people truly believe that advertising doesn’t affect them at all, despite the fact that almost all research into advertising would discredit that idea. Why do you think companies would spend so much money on advertising if it didn’t work?)

Academia often considers itself above personal biases, but lo and behold, new information is showing that academics are just as susceptible to cultural biases as everyone else. New analyses of art found in caves in Spain and France suggest that the people who created the art were probably women, not men. Dean Snow, the archaeologist who researched this, said, “There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time. People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.”

Snow’s quote reminds me of something I read a few years ago:

Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. “This,” she said, “is alleged to be man’s first attempt at a calendar.” We all looked at the bone in admiration. “Tell me,” she continued, “what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.”

Many people like to argue that women stayed behind and men did all the hunting, but in that case, wouldn’t it mean that women came up with most of the things that helped humans advance (like fire, cooking, etc.)? Yet even in articles about when humans started using spices in cooking, or the origin of clothing, women’s contributions are not mentioned.

Of course, plenty of very popular things have been invented by women, but we don’t learn about them the same way we learn about men’s inventions. This perpetuates the idea that men have always been innovators and inventors while women meekly sat by, which then creates stereotype threat and makes women believe they can’t achieve as much as men.

The only way to change this is to constantly question our cultural assumptions and not being afraid to disrupt the current methods of thinking. So keep being skeptical, and don’t assume men were the only ones who helped humanity to advance.


Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).

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      1. And a woman could just look down and determine if she is having her period. The whole point of a calendar is to be able to tell when these things will happen again.

        Also another valid answer might be “any man who lives with women.”

        But yeah, like Max Hospadaruk says below, the point isn’t that we can come up with reasons to think that it might have been made by a man. The point is we need to consider the possibility it was made by a woman at least as likely. (Really more likely, since a man might want to know when the next full moon is or when a partner will next have her period, but a woman might want to know either of those things and also know when her next period might be. There isn’t a single reason that men might want to know when 28 days have passed that doesn’t also apply to women, plus there is always one more that never applies to men.)

    1. I don’t think the intent was to supply proof positive that the person who made that one particular artifact was definitively a woman, but rather to point out the bias of assuming a man made an object that would be much more useful to a woman.

      tldr; occam’s razor’d

  1. Dean is an old friend, and was an adviser in college to the extent that I went to college.

    There is of course a Great Irony here. The research suggesting that this work was done by women is based on a postulated relationship between hormones and in utero development that produces male and female hands that are different (on average, as populations). That same research relates to other work, uses the same assumptions,methods, and overlapping data sets, that is central to a subset of Evolutionary Psychology. So you will be accused of using Evolutionary Psychology on one hand to advance your radical feminist views but at the same time rejecting Evolutionary Psychology as evinced by the very fact that you are blogging on Rebecca Watson’s network, and we all know that Rebecca eats Evolutionary Psychologists for breakfast.

    … in 3 … 2 .. 1 …

    I have been lecturing on human evolution and archaeology this semester. I always emphasize the role of females in technology and its development and evolution. Even though all the evidence we have should lead us to be very suspicious of the assumption that early technology was developed by males, it is often the assumption. I make sure my students know that technology (what Dawkins referred to as the “Extended Phenotype” of “early man,” was almost certainly started up and practice for a million years (or more) by only females.

    I have a former student who is currently embarking on an interesting research project apopos this discussion: In certain pre- and proto-historic societies in South America it is almost certainly true that women made most of the textiles. Sarah, you know all about making textiles! Anyway, textiles rarely preserve so this critically important central thing women were doing which may have formed the corner stone of regional economies is lost to archaeology. Except in the Andes where the textiles preserve well. She is currently about to apply Quantum Physics (a technique based on it, actually) to analyze the dyes used some of the textiles to determine their source, and thus address questions about the movement of cloth vs. ideas vs. women who make cloth across the landscape over centuries of time and help fill in a huge blank.

  2. When I talked about the archaeology of subsistence patterns and discussed foragers, I had my students read an article called New Women of the Ice Age by Heather Pringle as a way of exposing the gender bias behind assumptions about hunting and gathering. They seemed to enjoy it and it led to a good discussion.

  3. So point well taken and all, but hasn’t the whole finger-ratio thing been debunked? I could have sworn I’d seen that rigorous examination showed greater diversity within populations than between them.

    Which is not to say we should be assuming the artists are men. I was not aware that archaeologists believed that. I guess I always figured they used male pronouns as placeholders, not because they actually thought that they knew the sex of the artist. So even if the current research “proving” that women were the artists turns out to be bunk, the assumption that the artists are men is still an unwarranted bias.

    1. Even if there’s more variation within the groups than across the groups, the between-group variation can still be significant. So men vary more in height among themselves than compared with women, and yet it remains quite true that men are on average taller than women.

      1. It’s true that men are “on average” taller than women, but there is no such thing as an “average” man. Given, say 40 individuals you could not reliably tell which are men or which are women. If you have a good idea of the group’s ethnicity and nutrition, you might be willing to put money on whether or not the group is composed of mostly men or mostly women, but even then you could easily be wrong if it turns out that, say, the entire group was selected from one family that tends towards the short or tall. For example, my uncle is an unusually short man who married an unusually tall woman, and his son is a little shorter than me and his daughter a little taller. If you found their heights marked in a cave several thousand years from now, but with no names or any other information about them, and you tried to guess who were the men and who were the women, you would probably be wrong. (Unless some kind of genetic drift or selective pressure caused future women to be taller and future men to be shorter than today’s, in which case you would be right for the wrong reason.)

        In this case we have a guy who looked at 32 (THIRTY-TWO) hand prints, from humans thousands of years ago from three different sites (sites that were themselves in consistent use over a period of hundreds of generations) and, knowing very, very little, almost nothing really, about the people who made them, decided that he could tell that there was exactly a 75% chance that a given hand was female.

        That looks like junk science to me.

        Here’s what PZ had to say about the finger thing:

        Now, the researcher does say that “Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women,” and claims that the people who made the prints were more sexually dimorphic than modern humans, so his data is more reliable. That’s begging the question! You can’t know if the people were more sexually dimorphic if you can’t tell their sex from their digits, and you can’t reliably tell their sex from their digits unless you assume that they are more sexually dimorphic!

        And I will just repeat: 32 individuals! Out of the hundreds and hundreds of existing handprints (meaning most likely thousands of artists whose contributions were simply lost to time), whose prints had already been preselected based on location and preservation (Maybe men and women painted separately? Maybe only women made hand stencils? Maybe the men made their hand stencils elsewhere in the cave where they have been lost to degradation or elements?), it’s not that unlikely that a completely random group of 32 individuals would be comprised of 75% women. (Or 75% men with slightly less than average finger ratios for that matter.) Once you introducing the complexities of 20,000 years of evolution and human culture, there’s just no way this data can be considered useful.

        Again, it’s still wrong to assume that the painters are men. But this study is meaningless.

        1. Yeah I was actually wondering about that. A sample of 32 is pretty small, so I’m not sure why everyone is so eager to buy this theory over, say, the horny adolescent boys theory. Both seem pretty speculative. It’s certainly an interesting idea to entertain that it was women who painted them, but without knowing more about the culture we couldn’t really say why it would be women rather than men, or men rather than women, or boys rather than adults etc.

  4. I thought that men were believed to have been the painters since the images were of apparently male-centered activities, like hunting. It’s not like they just thought “Women are dumb and can’t paint, obviously it was men”. It sounds like they considered both hypotheses and rejected one on the basis of evidence. It sounds like they were wrong, but they weren’t being unreasonable. Or is there more to this than that?

    1. There’s more to it than that; namely, there was not really evidence. Androcentrism was a common problem in earlier anthropological and archaeological studies–it was a male-dominated discipline where they hardly considered the roles and lives of women. And until feminist critiques started to take hold in the discipline beginning in the 1970s, men within the discipline just made unchallenged assumptions about various cultural activities. This was true in early ethnography as well, where men ethnographers would rarely talk to women about anything having to do with their lives, much less devote much space in a text to them.

      So, even the idea that hunting is a “male-centered activity” is biased. See the article “New Women of the Ice Age” that I linked to in a previous comment for an in-depth explanation. But basically, hunting can be done in lots of ways that don’t require uber strength and all- or multi-day excursions around the forest. One of those ways is setting up nets, which were likely woven by women (though perhaps men helped), and the whole group (including children) fanning out into the forest to startle animals towards the nets. Then you just club them over the noggin and, tada! Dinner time. Foraging groups are typically egalitarian when it comes to gendered division of labor and tend to have less strict divisions about which gender can or should do what activity. So it’s interesting that we narrate their lives in such strictly gendered ways despite evidence that their activities are not so strictly gendered, generally speaking.

      1. Yeah I looked at that article and it was very interesting indeed. Thanks for posting it! But I did note that the division of labor was not exactly even, i.e. the kind of hunting women have been observed to practice in those societies was generally netting, or chasing small game, while chasing the dangerous big game was reserved for men. Aren’t the hunting activities depicted on these caves the sort of big game hunting that WOULD be more commonly male-only?

      2. You know, it’s funny you mention that about the nets. I was thinking of composing a reply involving a ?19th century drawing I saw recently of an Australian Aboriginal group hunting birds using nets and a returning boomerang. The boomerang works by mimicking the shadow of a bird of prey, thus forcing the hunted birds to fly low. The point was, all the members of the tribe were participating and doing their part. The returining boomerang itself is an amazing piece of technology involving some pretty advanced aerodynamics, and this post had me wondering if a woman may have ibeen responsibel for the invention!

        1. Damn, sorry about all the typos, the text in the box is SO tny and I just can’t see! But yeah, even the strategy of using a piece of wood in this way blows my mind. I think a great deal of R&D and a concerted cooperative effort over considerable time would have been involved.

        2. One of the interesting points in Pringle’s article was that there’s evidence Paleolithic hunters didn’t carry out much big-game hunting to begin with. Rather, most of their big prey was caught at water-holes during droughts, when the animals were considerably weakened. That seems pretty plausible to me.

          Also, I found that there aren’t hunting scenes in the cave paintings, at least not in the European ones. The very scarce human representations have been attributed to some cultural taboo against representing human forms, though I wonder, if there was such a taboo, why depict humans at all? Obviously there was some kind of fascination with big animals and with hands, and women with large bosoms, but that’s about all we know it seems. Actually, when you put it like that, the teenage boy theory sounds more and more likely, but then I’m a guy.

          I do think it can be irritating when people attribute incorrect earlier theories to prejudice without really thinking through what evidence was available to earlier researchers, or the kinds of prejudices we may be laboring under today. Our evidence that these were painted by women rests on a mathematically dubious study of finger length ratios; our evidence that these were painted by men rests on a similarly dubious speculation about European culture tens of thousands of years ago. So either way the evidence is weak. But isn’t our eagerness to give women the credit as much to do with our contemporary feminist obsessions as, perhaps, the older view was to do with unreflective androcentrism?

  5. People studying “rock art” have not assumed it was all about hunting. Most of it does not look like hunting, some does, but the latter has often been re-analyzed as something else. There are strong links between animals, shamanism, male-shamans, and some of the art, so assuming a male artist is reasonable. The only known rock artist of recent times in S. Africa, which links in style and other ways to much older art, was a male.

    But those who study early art (which is nothing like a monolithic thing) have often used the “he” pronoun, but I don’t believe that has been a convenience. That can be said for everything in the paleolithic. Bad excuse, at best.

    There have been several studies to examine gender in the art, including those that have suggested substantial parts of the ancient art corpus is female in production. It has been suggested that the early (late Paleolithic) female figurines were produced by females because the physical form of the objects can be explained as a woman viewing her own body based on proportions. There are art objects in the Levant that resemble the usual female body parts when held in one direction but become apparent phalluses when held in another direction. When that was discovered questions of who was making it (rather than the assumption that it is male) were raised.

    So it is correct to say that the assumption has usually been that males made the art, and that assumption comes from two sources: 1) A reasonable argument for SOME of the art that links a certain kind of shamanism to males and to art, and 2) The usual assumption that if something happened it was done by a male. However, palaeoanthopologists esp. those with bio-anthro connections have been questioning this for some time since the discovery that tool use is almost always invented by, passed on via, learned by, and practiced by females in primates in general including our nearest living relatives, chimps. This means that it is inappropriate to assume males made Oldowan technology. In fact, it is reasonable to postulate that females made it. If so, we have a 2.6 million year history of flakes stone production by humans and ancestors, of which one million is female, the rest unknown. Much of the early stone tool use is thought to be to modify wood. This could be for making either male or female wooden tools. It is likely that people made their own tools, and males and females used wooded tools almost certainly. There is no reason to believe that females after the Oldowan didn’t use stone tool technology.

    Once we re-insert females into technology they suddenly become available (in the minds of archaeologists) for re-insertion in other things. The male-shaman-art connection is real, but there are female shamans. In some societies (i.e. the Efe that I lived with) shamanistic things are done by both males and females, but you find it more among females (I think). Among the Efe, who are foragers, artistic things are practiced by both males and females but out and art symbolic productivity (designs put on things where the design is art for art’s sake and the object is meant to display the art, mainly, like bark cloths) is done almost entirely by women, same with body painting. To know only of the Efe and then find “cave art” for the first time one would have to make the guess that the art was probably made by females.

    But archaeology in the old days was strictly male and highly patriarchal, though it is much much less so in recent decades. This is in part because more and more female students have entered the study. There is the usual pyramid; the female to male ratio at the undergraduate level is high, gets a bit lower but is still high in grad school, and continues to drop through post doc, junior and senior faculty, etc. But concerted and widespread efforts to hire and promote qualified women over the last 20 years have helped change that ratio.

    Alison Brooks, as a grad student, was required to sit in the hallway outside the room in which seminars were carried out and listen through a door set ajar. She is now one of the leading archaeologists in the world, at Georgetown and the Smithsonian and could be considered the top active archaeologists in the MSA of Africa, and the top American based archaeologist working in Central and southern Africa. Meanwhile there are regions/time periods still very much dominated by men, and not just demographically, but also, philosophically (i.e. the patriarchy is alive and well in many areas).

    The finger length thing has not been debunked at all. There are population level differences for sure. What has been brought more into question is the interpretations and some of the correlations. For example, it has been proposed that a more “male” ratio in males is associated with athletics, and an even more male ratio is associated (in men) with super-athletes (pro and olympic level). Interestingly, it has been proposed that males who self ID as gay do not have female ratios, but rather, super-duper male ratios that go beyond the super athletes. Thus proving that all super athletes are gay. And so on. These secondary findings were flying out of the Evol. Psych literature at a high rate for years (that is when Dean started his study, which he told me about something like 15 years ago IIRC). I’ve not even tried to keep track of these studies because there are so many potential biasing effects (file drawer effect confirmation bias, etc.). Somewhere in that mess of studies there is probably something interesting but good luck sorting it all out!

    Dean may be right here because the population differences are statistically good. However, the original studies were mostly based on (and this became accepted methodology) careful measurements of x-rays. The problem with the hand painting research is that it is not nearly as accurate. That is what people will critique in this study, and we’ll see how it holds up.

    1. I would like to add the possibility of our temporal bias influencing how we see all prehistoric art. We see hunting because it is what we believe prehistoric people are like. We have some proof of what prehistory peoples were like but how could we document certain cultural artifacts? It’s not like a dance or a cant or a ritual leaves behind proof.

      So yeah, we think it’s hunting but that’s our temporal bias. Keep in mind that I am the very definition of a layperson on this subject so I might be just spouting gibberish.

  6. Great discussion everyone. I recall reading a couple articles that discussed Paleolithic hunting and many of the theories and speculations centered on chase down methods where humans would chase their prey to exhaustion leaving a more or less helpless prey as well as herding prey animals into pits or closed areas that could be fenced in. These activities don’t require strength; they involve some planning and persistence. Also I can only wonder about the speculation over the 28 day calendar and I recalled the times I’ve hiked in remote areas of Glacier and Yellowstone National Park and seeing signs discouraging women from backpacking in these areas if they were having their period because of Grizzly Bears. So I’d think you’d want to know if you were going to menstruate before heading out on a hunt that could take a few days or more because you didn’t want to attract carnivores.

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