New book derides stereotypes of cave women

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"The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory," by J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page, promises to lay out everything the most current research has established about archaic women, and the truth is that it's pretty thin gruel. The authors can point out some embarrassing mistakes made by past experts and suggest some intriguing alternative interpretations of various facts and artifacts, but even so there's a lot of padding and extraneous material in this book's 300 pages.

The truth is that we can prove very, very little about how prehistoric people organized their social groups, especially when it comes to sex roles. We have bones, some tools and the remains of dwellings and other structures, but these can't tell us for sure who brought home the bacon or wore the pants, to use two inappropriately modern figures of speech. Sometimes these finds can't even tell us for sure who was who; one of the unsettling revelations in "The Invisible Sex" is that Lucy -- the famous Australopithecus afarensis whose 3.3 million-year-old fossilized remains were discovered in 1974 by archaeologists in a remote valley of the Awash River in Ethiopia, could possibly be a Luke instead. The leader of the expedition who found "her" says that the identification of the remains as female is not much more than an educated -- and possibly biased -- guess, based on the relative smallness of the bones.

The biased guessing in a lot of old-school anthropology comes in for some pointed ridicule in "The Invisible Sex." The scientists of generations past -- and the magazine and book illustrators and museum diorama designers who translated their theories into images -- had a fixation on the idea of prehistoric man as a mighty hunter, working in teams to bring down large, dangerous animals like mammoth and bison. A painting from the National Geographic archives (reproduced in this book) pictures a fivesome of well-developed and scantily clad Paleoindian studs battling the fearsome great short-faced bear, a predator the authors describe as "capable of bringing down any prey except perhaps an adult mammoth." This sort of fairy tale, along with scenarios in which bands of doughty hunters chased herds of mammoths off cliffs and returned laden with meat to camps of grateful women and children, "appear now to be mythmaking on the part of the paleoanthropological community," they explain.

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