Women mattered in prehistoric times!

New York Review of Book, Oct. 22:  Steven Mithen, a professor of prehistory at Reading,  reviews two new books on human evolution:

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Humanby Richard WranghamBasic Books, 309 pp., $26.95

 Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Languageby Dean FalkBasic Books, 240 pp., $26.95

 And the  news that we mattered comes as a  relief!  Well, I had been worried; hadn’t you?  I mean, as Steven Mithen says,

There was once a time—not too long ago—when men could wallow with pride in the Stone Age accomplishments of our sex. It was slaying beasts, making tools, and fighting each other that transformed a Stone Age primate, physically and mentally little different from a chimpanzee, into the big-brained language-using primate that strode out of Africa to dominate the world. How lucky for women that their Stone Age menfolk were so brave and clever.

BUT now we realize that a huge factor in human evolution was cooked food.  Cooked food is nutritionally much more dense, requires much less in the way of teeth and colon size, and generally was a big factor in the evolution of our brains. 

AND GUESS WHO DID THE COOKING?!?!  YES, WOMEN.  Believe it or not.

So we can now relax and know that we count too.  Of course, there’s  the nice question of why we were doing the cooking.  One book suggests that we did it in order to get  protection.  Mithen offers another hypothesis:

If cooked food has all of the nutritional benefits that Wrangham describes, then surely a motivation—perhaps the prime one—for cooking by women would have been to feed the kids. Getting them strong and healthy as quickly as possible after weaning would have been reward enough for cooking food; feeding the man in your life would have been an afterthought. But maybe I am too influenced here by my own experience of married life.

Don’t you love it when men interpret things in terms of their own experience with women?

Of course, most feminists are well aware that the official versions of our past that write out women’s contributions are pretty bizarre.  I mean, there is the giving birth/nursing stuff, even if the guys think hunting wild boar was so much harder.  Further, given all the recent work on women in evolution by people like Hrdy, one is puzzled by the excitement over recognizing a role for women.

The review is puzzling.  At times it looks very like scholarship, but at other times it looks like a feminist parody of men’s writing.   Of course, the two are compatible, especially if we understand scholarship in terms of men’s scholarship.   I’m wondering if we’re seeing another one of those cases where men try to joke about  something in which in too many men have been complicit.

11 thoughts on “Women mattered in prehistoric times!

  1. Um, I’m almost afraid to ask, but is there any evidence at all given as to who did the cooking?

  2. Jender, I wondered and didn’t see any, but I have to confess that my attention wandered during the discussion about how there isn’t much direct evidence of cooking by fire at all.

    I just looked at the book on Amazon.com, and I did see the inference “since men were hunting, women took on cooking.” One might worry about the assumptions behind that if one were pressing for an argument. There’s a lot of data from current hunter-gatherer groups in the book.

    And then there’s the brute fact of men’s lives that the review opens with; women do the cooking.

  3. Me, the man of the house, does all the cooking, 90% of the food shopping, 80% of the dish-washing. When you talk about men, why generalize? Why not say “some men” or “sexist men” or “males who, believe it or not, are even more sexist than Amos is”?

  4. This research reminds me of discussions I’ve read about the origins of art. Most accounts take the origins back to cave paintings and assume men did these because they were somehow involved in preparation for hunting expeditions. (You drew a deer with an arrow and that somehow would get the spirits on your side for the hunt the next day.) Ellen Dissanayake has challenged such accounts with her own studies about the origins of art, placing more emphasis on singing and music, and pointing out that in all cultures, mothers sing to their infants. Singing may have been the earliest form of artistic production engaged in by women as a form of child-tending and then developed into more complex forms of cultural bonding and communication. This is an inept summary of a pretty complex set of arguments in her books.

  5. Huh – I’d had the impression that in many ecosystems, women’s “gathering” was the main food supply, with men’s “hunting” as a supplement. (As if we had anything to base gender roles on beyond extrapolating from today’s hunter-gatherer societies…)

  6. There is some wonderful feminist work on archaeology and the various kinds of bias that get projected onto the data. Feminist philosopher (with archaeological training) Alison Wylie has of course written on this. Archaeologist Rosemary Joyce at Berkeley is also someone who comes to mind, if people are interested.

  7. Richard Wrangham had an interesting discussion of his book at Bloggingheads (http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/19925). I watched it several months ago, so what I remembered was a lot of interesting hypothesizing about how cooking allowed the development of lots of modern human capacities, as well as empirical work showing the great nutritional gains achievable by cooking food (i.e., debunking a lot of raw-foodist claims). I didn’t recall anything about the gender roles. However, on googling the dialog again, I see that the book under discussion is called Demonic Males, so perhaps there was some gender stuff going on that I ignored because it didn’t seem as new and interesting as the idea that cooking was one of the early evolutionary changes, rather than the other proposals that have been made.

  8. For what it’s worth, Steven Mithen is the author of the “cathedral model of conciousness” theory. Quite apar from being largely discredited, it’s interesting in that it relies very heavily on extrapolations from minimal/irrlevant information, “the data doesn’t fit, but if it DID, then…” argumentation, and Just So wishful thinking. It’s not exactly suprising to see the same level of rigour applied to something that, as a member of the beneficiary class in a patriarchy, he would have a vested interest in reinforcing…

  9. I was just at the dentist and while in the waiting room read an article in Time Magazine on Ardi (the new-found fossil remains of a proto-human ancestor).
    Interestingly, the article speculates that walking upright evolved because there was a time, long ago, when women had some power. I quote:
    “That suggests that females mated preferentially with smaller-fanged males. In order for females to have had so much power, Lovejoy argues, Ar. ramidus must have developed a social system in which males were cooperative. Males probably helped females, and their own offspring, by foraging for and sharing food, for example — a change in behavior that could help explain why bipedality arose.”
    The bipedality arose because the males had to go off and get food and bring it back, so needing hands to hold it rather than to walk on. There’s no hypothesis in the article about how or why the females had power. Interesting, anyway.

  10. Thanks, Sally H. I just took a very quick look at the Science issue on Ardi – the web version. One interesting factor is our (and Ardi’s) reproductive crypsis, i.e., lack of obvious signalling of fertile periods/estrus. Simplifying the discussion some, with crypsis, males have a reason to have a constant partner whom they keep by providing her with food.

    One needs of course to be careful here, but it looks to me as though this puts some pressure on the idea that males evolved to spread their seed. If each female is fertile only about 5% of the time, and it’s pretty impossible to tell when estrus occurs, scattering seed is much riskier, one would have thought, than concentrating on the one partner.

  11. I haven’t thought about it from the point of view of reproductive crypsis and how it might influence the development of gender roles (if at all – it’s one of those things that are unique in humans, so people assume it ought to have an impact, but what impact it’s actually had is unclear), but, jj, I’ve recently written about the whole business of men and promiscuity.

    To summarise, people assume that men are promiscuous because, roughly speaking, that’s what they see in their societies. Women are the ones who get stoned fo adultery, get their genitals sown up to prevent them having unauthorised sex, that sort of thing. So then you start reverse engineering this to fit with some idea you have of evolution and how it works.

    But the reality is that human males – as opposed to modern men – are hella less promiscuous than their primate cousins, and human females are a whole heck of a lot more promiscuous than some people are comfortable thinking about (or else why would there have to be such strong taboos to prevent it, right?).

    In short, I think the whole business of men and women’s adversarial reproductive strategies has been overstated to the point of absurdity, and if new evidence comes to light that doesn’t agree with that set of assumptions, so much the better.

Comments are closed.