Weatherford – Prehistory

Anthropology and archeology are modern fields that included female professionals from the beginning – and yet they have been puzzlingly slow to think imaginatively about women.

Soon after the “new” history of the 1970s began to include women and minorities, I expected revisionist books on prehistory.  “Who,” I had asked myself for years, “was likely to have molded clay into containers for cooking and carrying?  Were men or women more apt to peruse the prairie for plants that might prove healthful?  Bottom line, was it the gatherer (female) or the hunter (male) who settled down in one place and began what we call civilization?”

A chance to dig deeper into these questions arose when my publisher wanted sections on prehistory in A History of Women in the United States: A State-by-State Reference.  This four-volume work features women in every state plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, attempting to cover them from prehistory to the millennium.   I scanned many hundreds of books to write about prehistoric women in each of these 52 places.

Most books were aimed at other academics and were highly specialized.  Titles convey their nature: alphabetically, for example, they ranged from Alabama’s Archeology of the Moundville Chiefdom to Wyoming’s Archeology at the Fort Laramie Quartermaster Dump Area. Direct references to women made me jump for joy, but I got little exercise.

In most, it was necessary to pass dozens of pages on bows, arrows, and stone points to find attention to “women’s” topics — such as food preservation, textile making, childbirth, and other fundamentals essential to a future.  Even then, it was rare that an author speculated that real women might have conceived of utilitarian needs and invented the actual artifact to implement her idea.  It was as though woven baskets and water-proof moccasins had simply fallen from the sky when the time was ripe.

I was reminded of researching my first book, Foreign and Female (1986), when I read endless pages of books on women for references to immigrants – and just as many pages of books on immigrants to glean anything about women. Of course the situation is much improved now, not only because many diverse books on women are being published, but also because of searchable databases that have made library detective skills largely unnecessary.  Still, I continued to be perplexed about the narrow vision on prehistoric women and kept waiting for someone to see the light.

It dawned with The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory (2007).  Like the cooperative style so common among women, the book is a mutual effort:  the three authors are Jim M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer (a Russian), and Jake Page; it was published jointly by HarperCollins and Smithsonian Books.  Not only is it an absolute breath of fresh academic air, it is an amazingly fun!  I read part of it while waiting (I hate to say) for a colonoscopy — and the nurse came running when I laughed aloud.

Chapters have wonderful titles such as “The Importance of Being Upright” and “Who Brought Home the Bacon?”  Chapter subtitles are even better, with the first one reading:

In which the authors present tales of male derringo and explicate their failures of the deep past, along a bit of the history of science and the reasons why women have not been found in those old tales.

In the portion of the text that made me laugh, the authors argue that the standard view of prehistory in the Western Hemisphere particularly needs reexamination.  Because of ancient burials found near Clovis, New Mexico, “Clovis” has become archeological jargon for this part of prehistory; and again, the authors make their point in an entertaining way:

By the chief account of his doings, Clovis Man burst into what are now the lower 48 states of America…13,500 years ago in a group numbering no more than 100.  (In this scenario…it is not clear whether the entire group numbered 100 or whether there were 100 hunters attended by their women and children.  Neither Clovis Woman nor Clovis Child comes in for much in the way of discussion.)

…Man proceeded…all the way down to Tierra del Feugo [Argentina], which he reached a mere 700 years after arriving in Minnesota.  Never had so rapid a colonization of new lands taken place, and never had so few eaten so much meat in so short a time or left so much blood soaking into the ground…

Clovis Man, the Mighty Mammoth Hunter…persisted…with vanishingly few mentions of Clovis Woman, of course.  The main discussion of Clovis Woman, in fact was to wonder whether she (while racing along in pursuit of ever-famished Clovis Man) could have produced enough offspring on the fly, as it were, to accomplish the colonization of the Western Hemisphere in a few hundred years… Mathematically-minded archeologists…[viewed] Clovis Woman as little more than a mobile reproductive device.

Behind the authors’ irreverent attitude towards the male-oriented canon is a clear understanding of that canon – and the courage to ridicule its basic thoughtlessness.  Every intellectual revolution begins with that sort of thinking and with people who have the temerity to challenge the catechism.

The Invisible Sex is a very important book.  It doubtless will be seen in the future as a major turning point in the way we view our past; it will diminish the stereotypical caveman and elevate women as fundamental founders of human civilization.

Article by Doris Weatherford, NWHM Vice President of Program, author –

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