Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stone Age "feminism"

Today the Boston Globe has a piece called Stone Age Feminism? which purports to explain why Neandertals are no longer among us. This explanation(which I'll get to in a moment) is rather silly, as is the accompanying picture(I'll explain the silliness of that a bit later, too).

What it does do, and does rather well, is summarize the latest research on Neandertals: there is a bit about the discovery of the "modern" type of FOXP2 gene, which, combined with the existence of "modern" type hyoid bones, strongly suggests Neandertals had language, as we do. There is also some more about "flame haired Neandertals", this due to the presence of a type of MC1R gene, which in some forms, suppresses certain types of melanin in skin and hair, and gives the possessor of such a gene, red hair. Some Neandertals apparently had such a variant, although it is apparently not quite the same as that of modern northern Europeans with red hair, though John Hawks has other opinions about this. He thinks that, at best, Neandertals may well have been light skinned, but "only" reddish blond.

But the real "kickers" in this article are the explanation, by a husband-and-wife team of archaeologists, as to why Neandertals became extinct, and the picture that accompanies the article.

First, the MaryStiner/Steven Kuhn explanation: basically, they claim that Neandertals became extinct because the women hunted, alongside the men. According to this theory, they were vulnerable to being gored or stomped or trampled or otherwise injured as they hunted alongside their men. Okay. I don't know. There are some modern hunter-gatherer groups where women have been known to hunt alongside men, at least under some circumstances, for one thing. It's also well-known among anthropologists, that other perfectly "modern" humans had women who assumed "hunting" roles if necessary; hunter-gatherers(or more properly, "foragers") often don't have the kind of rigidly-defined sex roles many people "expect" everyone to have. In any case, if this is true, there is no reason to assume Neandertals were any more or less rigid about these things(this, despite the efforts of some popular authors like Jean Auel)than any given "modern" group. In other words, looking at what archaeological evidence exists, Neandertals probably had the same behavioral ranges as "modern" humans do.

Which leads to the question of Stiner/Kuhn's conclusions. What they claim is, that the Neandertal practice of such equality(if that's what it was), made the women more "vulnerable", since it is women who have children; if they got killed, there went another possible addition to the tribe, or whatever. It also supposedly made them more vulnerable, because if the women didn't hunt, they could go out and gather seeds and nuts, or whatever. Which is just another way of saying "shame on you, you don't follow 'traditional' sex roles or division of labor"!

In a way, I can see their point; according to some anthropologists who have studied Neandertals extensively, Neandertals may well have been among the smallest human populations ever to have inhabited Earth. I think the 10,000 figure is decidedly low, overall, but 10,000 of them, at any given time in the period of their existence may be "on target". And with populations of that size at any given time, the loss of one member of the tribe, band, family group, or however they organized themselves, would have been considerable, to say the least. But Stiner and Kuhn don't stop to consider that it's far more likely that Neandertals, just like other human groups, had some kind of sexual division of labor, just like "modern" groups do, even if it wasn't organized exactly the way such divisions among "modern" groups are. For example, if a woman was pregnant, it may not have been customary for her to do any "group hunting" for obvious reasons. Very young children might also not have hunted, for all we know. Absent a time machine, we'll never know, but it seems reasonable that Neandertals at least tried to assure that women could have children safely. As for gathering seeds and nuts, etc., I think the idea that the women "didn't" stems from the idea that they ate nothing but meat. Well, I suspect that they ate a lot of meat, all right. After all they lived in a climate that was probably frozen over for a good six months of the year. But I also think they probably gathered plant food when it was available; food on the hoof was just their most reliable source of sustenance in that kind of climate. And no doubt there were women and children who gathered these things. Again, absent a time machine, we'll never know.

Stiner and Kuhn are good archaeologists, and they've done valuable work. But their thesis of Neandertal extinction just doesn't make much sense. It only sounds plausible, because most "modern" societies have the kind of "recognizable" sexual division of labor where women, generally, do not hunt. Certainly, if you go to certain rural parts of the US, you don't see too many women hunters, though there is a strong "hunting culture" in many of these places. So, perhaps, Stiner and Kuhn are influenced by these kinds of cultural considerations. But this doesn't make their explanation of Neandertal extinction any more plausible, at least not to me. Still, I guess you could say it's an entertaining explanation.

The article has some other paleoanthropologists and archaeologists sounding off about this topic. There is Richard Klein, who is still going around claiming Neandertals lacked some "brain mutation" that "modern" humans(and only "modern" humans)supposedly possessed. Recent evidence, from Africa, moreover, seems to suggest he is wrong, but that didn't stop the Boston Globe from quoting him. Then there is Daniel Lieberman, who went so far as to claim that Neandertals would look "weird" to us if they were resurrected, but we would (somehow) have less trouble sending one to Harvard! Again, this doesn't make much sense to me; "weird" in what way? The most "modern" artistic reconstructions make them look a little "different" in some ways, but hardly "weird"! Unless you consider a large and prominent nose "weird". Considering that lots of people have rather big noses, that seems an odd statement to make. Or is it the prominent browridges? But then, some early "moderns"(notably at the Moravian site of Mladec) have large nasal openings and fairly prominent browridges too. It is only after the advent of agriculture that tthe "gracile" form most of us exist in today, really came into being. And that was long after the existence of Neandertals. As for going to Harvard. . . well, it would seem Neandertals had brains that worked pretty much like ours do, if the archaeological evidence is anything to go by.

Finally, there is the picture that accompanies the Boston Globe article. About all I can say about it is, the hunters are dressed in a way that suggests "primitive" by artistic conventions. But on the other hand, if Neandertals really dressed only in those fur outfits with one arm hole, it's really no wonder they are extinct! They would surely have frozen to death in Ice Age winters in such outfits!
Anne G

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