By Caryl Rivers
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Anthropologists who suggest early humans survived by dint of separate gender roles are grabbing headlines. Caryl Rivers says it shows the media's fondness for evidence--however dubious--of the species being hardwired for male dominance.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Did Homo sapiens survive because they were a prehistoric version of "Leave It to Beaver," while Neanderthals perished because they practiced an early brand of feminism?
Did unisex hunting doom the big bipeds, while male Homo sapiens played the part of Ice Age Ward Cleaver, marching off to hunt big game while June tidied up the cave in her pearls? Did this behavior ensure that humans would take over the world?
Is it true that, as a headline in the Toronto Star put it, "Equality Killed the Caveman?"
A study in this month's issue of Current Anthropology argues that division of economic labor by sex helped early humans win the survival race.
With Neanderthals, so this story goes, both men and women hunted big game to fuel their large bodies, got themselves whacked too often and went on their unisex way to extinction. Scientists Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner, both of the University of Arizona, authored the article, after examining skeletal remains of Neanderthals, male and female, that bore the marks of rough wear and tear.
What is it about this story, dear reader, that landed it in the New York Times science section, in other papers around the world and on many blogs? Did someone whisper to the news media, "Psst! You can find an anti-feminist spin in the cold fossil bones of Neanderthals, so go for it?"
Would anyone in the mainstream media have given any ink at all to a controversy involving a species that vanished eons ago if bashing feminists wasn't involved?
The science in this storyline is itself questionable.
Could enough Neanderthals--male or female--have suffered enough fatal encounters with wild prey to lead the entire species to extinction? This would have required so many encounters with the most dangerous prey as to call that premise into question.
Illinois University archeologist Olga Soffer suggests that instead of taking on a 6,000-pound creature with sharp tusks, early hunters more realistically set their sights on dead or dying juveniles and a few adult females. "If one of these Upper Paleolithic guys killed a mammoth, and occasionally they did," Soffer muses, "they probably didn't stop talking about it for years."
It's likely that Neanderthals, like early humans, scavenged kills by other predators and often set their sights on the most vulnerable prey. They ate shellfish and tortoises, and probably hunted game like ibex and wild horses. They needed to take in many calories for their large bodies, and communal hunts in which men, women and children took part may have been the most effective way to fend off starvation. They only had stone weapons, which were not optimal for the sort of male pack hunting that developed when iron weapons were invented.
It probably wasn't equality, but climate, that killed off the Neanderthals, some scientists say. Recent deep-sea core research shows that temperatures dropped sharply around 24,000 years ago. This could have created a severe drought that could have reduced the number of prey Neanderthals could catch. This would have been especially damaging to a species that needed a lot of food.
While the Arizona scientists speculate that very different gender roles helped early Homo sapiens explode out of Africa to dominate the planet, others have a different idea. Richard Klein of Stanford University believes that it was a cognitive advance, perhaps the rapid development of language, that gave early humanoids the edge over Neanderthals. Brains triumphed over brawn.
The idea that very different gender roles surfaced early is also very much in dispute. Too often, we simply accept the notion that, as the St. Louis Post Dispatch recently put it, "Early man went on hunting trips for big game and left early woman and early kids home."
Central to halting the forward movement of women's rights is the narrative that female leadership is against nature, that humans are hardwired for male dominance, and that very different roles for the sexes are anchored in prehistory, in nature and in God's law.
This kind of thinking helps exaggerate women's gains and minimize our hardships.
For instance, women have begun to outnumber men in U.S. college classes and that has been widely used as evidence of women trying to take over the world and spoil things for men.
In fact, however, women's rights are in retreat in much of the world and much less worry is getting expressed about strict Islamists insisting that women be veiled, about rape as a widespread weapon of war and about reproductive rights being under widespread attack.
Here in the United Sates the Bush administration has appointed a director of family planning who opposes contraception and an FDA advisory panel chair who also is against birth control and who has written that women with premenstrual symptoms should read the Bible for relief. Where is the hue and cry?
In "Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps," an international best seller, Barbara and Alan Pease declare that because women didn't hunt big game, they can't read maps, can't parallel park and can't play video games. Occupational titles that women should not attempt to acquire, since "their brain bias is not suited to these areas," include: engineer, air traffic controller, architect, flight deck officer, actuary, accountant.
With all this going on, it's oh-so easy to project our 1950s, TV-enhanced fantasies back into the depths of time and imagine women and children huddled by the campfire at their "home bases" waiting patiently for hunter males to return.
But anthropologist Richard Potts, director of The Human Origins Program of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, throws a wrench in all that.
Potts examined the assemblages of bones, tools and rocks on which the "home base" theories were built and argued that early humans did not dwell in one place for long periods of time, for the simple reason that the remains of large carnivores were found along with the human remains. Humans would not have hung around in the presence of these carnivores. Rather, Potts sees the sites as places where early humans stopped for a time, and stored caches of tools and weapons.
Primatologist Linda Fedigan of the University of Alberta thinks that Potts' work should overturn old "Flintstone" images of prehistory "We can perhaps finally free our minds of the image of dawn-age women and children waiting at campsites for the return of the provisioners."
Wouldn't it be nice if news editors, reporters and headline writers would consider doing the same?
Caryl Rivers is the co-author of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs"(Basic Books). She is a professor of journalism at Boston University.
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