Friday, December 9, 2011

Sexist Interpretations in Human Evolution Part 1

An artist's depiction of two Australopithecines leaving footprints in the volcanic ash at Laetoli

As I prepare for my class next quarter on the human past, I'm exploring a series of themes that I plan to return to throughout the quarter - themes that extend far beyond the world of archaeology and I hope will help my students think critically about many aspects of their lives and the world around them. One of them is sexism in interpretations of our human past. One blatant example I plan to use is the trend I have noticed in documentaries on early human ancestors in which females are portrayed squatting, kneeling, or sitting while males are shown walking or running.

This difference may at first seem trivial, but when deconstructed, illustrates a broader cultural phenomenon that continually downplays the role of women in human societies, both past and present. This specific genre of examples pegs men as the drivers of the most important aspects of our evolution (bipedality and large brains) and women as passive recipients and users of these great advances. I'll use  the 2009 Nova Becoming Human series as an example. In part 1, called "First Steps," a scene repeatedly plays in which a female Australopithecine kneels with a digging stick, presumably to collect roots or tubers, another female squats down reaching for a small child in the background while two males appear to aimlessly walk through the scene. This is a common theme in documentaries that depict our early bipedal ancestors' lives.

As the title of the film implies, the topic is what set us on the path to becoming human and quite literally, when and why we began to walk on two legs. While a scene with female Australopithecines (early human ancestors and relatives which lived ~2-4 million years ago in Africa) digging roots and caring for children does seem benign, afterall, they undoubtedly did care for children and dig roots, consider the context in which the depiction occurs: in an educational film on the origins of humanity, our figurative and literal first steps. And it depicts men as the upright walkers. This is a reconstruction full of undertones of dated and sexist explanations for the evolution of bipedality, namely the idea that we evolved to walk on two legs because our male ancestors had to come out of the trees (due to climate change) and scavenge for meat on the open savanna in order to provide their mates and offspring with food. This is called the "Male Provisioning Hypothesis" and was a popular explanation for the evolution of bipedality, and even though most anthropologists now recognize that it is not the most likely scenario, it is still presented in college textbooks with little in the way of caveats. To be blunt, it's a load of crap. First, it does not explain why we ALL began to walk on two legs. Second, there is no reason to believe that there was a sexual division of labor, or even anything akin to monogamous pair bonds, several million years ago. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Third, meat, even scavenged, did not make up a large portion of our ancestors' diets - nor does it for recent and living hunter-gatherers. And fourth, in modern and ethnographically-recorded hunter-gatherer groups, it was women who provided the majority of the food to meet their children's needs, not men. In fact, hunting, generally a men's activity, is a famously low-return subsistence pursuit. Collecting plant resources or hunting small game, usually women's work, is a much more reliable and fruitful activity. But like I said, it is doubtful that our ancestors 4 million years ago had a social structure and division of labor anything like our own. But back to the film - I am disappointing to see a film produced so recently which still presents viewers with a picture of our male ancestors as the bipedal walkers while women crouch in obscurity. These type of depictions are not only common in documentaries, but also in artistic representations of our human ancestors, in textbooks, and even in museums. Part 1 of this series is not the worst of it, in fact, it does have some great reconstructions of females that I will discuss in another post. Part 2 of the series (also a topic for another post) has even worse gender representations though.

I could write for pages about the multitude of examples I've seen that masque sexism with realistic-seeming interpretations of past human life. I noticed this trend in films and artistic renderings when I was in college, but recently I've begun to read scholarly literature on the topic. I find it both fascinating and disturbing. Mostly I've come to realize that the majority of non-anthropologists don't know enough about currently-accepted scientific interpretations of human evolution and archaeology to view these representations of past human life with anything other than interest and curiosity. And why should they?

This is why: our view of the past is shaped by the present - by examining how we see ourselves in the past, we get a window into our present. I know that sounds backwards, but I think it's accurate. The (I assume) unintentional representations of males as the important actors in our evolution and females as simply bystanders mimics modern gender discrimination - women are rarely overtly discriminated against today but there is a vast body of evidence demonstrating that women are continually disadvantaged in our society by social norms. And the representations of our ancestors millions of years ago reflect those norms. This blog post, and those that will follow, are my attempt to spread what I know, as an archaeologist, about gender roles in our human past and to encourage other people to think critically about gender, both today and in the past.


  1. Wow, Molly. Love the post, information and discussion. Something I"ve never thought about before and I can see the significance in the topic. Can't wait to talk to Patrick about this more as well...
    Looking forward to future blog posts on this!


  2. I tracked down the article I mentioned the other day, on the influence of artistic depictions of neanderthals on the course of archaeological argument and interpretation: It doesn't specifically discuss the reification of gender roles in our reconstruction of the Paleolithic (or at least I don't remember it doing so), but it does touch on the unintended consequences of popular representations in coloring how we view our ancestors.

  3. Love this post, of course!

    One thing that I often think when I see our female ancestors depicted only squatting is that this representation wouldn't even be so awful if it came along with Richard Attenborough (because doesn't he do the voice overs for all of these ?) saying "Lest we assume that the women of the group sat idly by, they're busy scavenging roots, which easily make up the bulk of the day's meal." Or something like that, you know?

  4. Yes, exactly Kim! It's not that these depictions are inacurate or that the scenes could never have happened, it's that they are sending unintended messages, as Will said.

  5. Thank you for this post; very interesting.

    I am a sociologist who does read and teach about these critiques of the archeological record: The book "Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective" has some excellent chapters on this issue: highly recommended.

  6. Thank you for the suggestion, Susan. I'll check out the book for a little Christmas break reading.