You know the cartoon where a caveman clubs a cavewoman over the head, then drags her to his lair by her hair? The blood-boiling message is that male dominance is natural and immutable, rooted deeply in our genes and behavior.
Screw that. Scientists are finding that in prehistoric societies, females may have been equal to males in many ways. The stuff we thought we knew about hominids’ patriarchal, sexist ways is based on male scientists’ assumptions that men were in charge. Pennsylvania State archaeologist Dean Snow put his finger on it in an interview with National Geographic: “There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time….People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions.”
1. Women Made Cave Art
Take the assumption that men painted and drew the images we can still see in their caves. Game animals were a frequent subject. Since modern men assumed that ancient men did the hunting, they also assumed that men made the paintings.
It turns out that women made their mark too — they may even have been responsible for the majority of those pictures. Hundreds of them are stencils of people’s hands, and Snow found that 75 percent of them were women’s. Experts can identify the gender of a hand’s owner relatively reliably based on its proportions. Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers, while in women, the two fingers tend to be the same length. In most of the Paleolithic-era stencils found in France and Spain, the ring and index fingers are the same length.
2. Women Hunted
The stencils women made of their hands appear next to paintings of animals their societies hunted and ate. New evidence shows that Pleistocene female hominids hunted, leaving no reason to think that men painted the animals. Snow says that women may have gone hunting with men and hauled dead animals back to their dwellings.
Some anthropologists argue that female Neanderthals participated in hunting, a dangerous activity, in part based on their skeletons’ displaying the same bone fractures as male skeletons do. Another reason for the conclusion is Neanderthals’ relative lack of tools, meaning they relied on numbers to overcome their prey.
Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute’s Director James Adovasio posits that the notions of Paleolithic men as the strong, fierce hunters and of women staying away from danger may derive more from our own modern culture than from the actual evidence, echoing Snow.
3. Women Traveled Further and Sought Out Sexual Partners
If everyone stayed in those little prehistoric cave clans and mated with the folks they knew, some scary inbreeding would result. Someone had to venture into the great unknown to find fresh dating stock, and it looks like it was the females.
Scientists collected teeth from two species of our ancestors who lived at different times in South Africa and, by using laser ablation to measure strontium isotope ratios, figured out what food those teeth had chewed. The results indicated that men stayed in place while women sallied forth. Gals, take note: there is nothing wrong with pursuing the object of your affection/lust. Go for it.
4. Men Cared for Children
Today’s younger generations are exploring the radical possibility that women are not uniquely gifted with superior diaper-changing skills. Our species figured that out thousands of years ago. We just forgot.
A study out of Northwestern published in American Anthropologist argued that way back when, fathers carried, bathed, fed, taught and played with children. The study’s author, Lee T. Gettler, argued that if fathers had shirked this kind of labor, humans could not have evolved into the big-brained world conquerors we are today.
Humans grew larger by ingesting more calories and expending less energy. NBC’s article about Gettler’s study reports that the biggest gobbler of primates’ energy is child-bearing and rearing. By splitting the rearing, women could direct more energy to the bearing, allowing them to give birth more often.
A researcher not affiliated with Gettler, evolutionary biologist and biological anthropologist John Tooby, hypothesizes that having two active, involved parents instead of one meant children could remain dependent longer and spend more time developing their brains. Maybe we would be even smarter now if dads hadn’t been such deadbeats for centuries.
As researchers work toward freeing themselves from culturally-grounded assumptions like male dominance, they are discovering that our ancestors practiced gender equality, and that without it, humans wouldn’t have become what we are. Looks like gender equality has benefited humans quite a bit.
Photo credit: jameskm03