Books | Prehistory

The hands of women

Were gender relations hierarchical among prehistoric humans? Marylene Patou-Mathis has evidence to disprove this theory

On a gray, white, red cave wall are many different hands.

A collage of hand paintings in the “Cave of Hands” in Patagonia, dating back to between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago. Today historians can tell the gender of the people who made them

Marylène Pathou-Mathis, an ancient and prehistoric historian from France, has set out on a mission: she intends to disprove a recurring theory underpinning traditional gender relations – namely, that the hierarchy between men and women has always existed, even in prehistoric times. In a 200-page book (not including her extensive annotations), Pathou-Mathis takes apart the “proof” that men “have always been” the fighting, superior and innovative sex.

Naturally, she is not alone in her thesis; female anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have been chipping away at this belief for nearly a century, and recently, male researchers have joined their ranks. In her first chapters, Pathou-Mathis lays out the arguments supported by advocates of an “original patriarchy”. This makes the beginning of the book quite a tough read.

You find yourself thinking that these discussions were already chewed over twenty or thirty years ago. Surely we don’t have to go over it all again? However, her compilation of these discussions provides insight into the resistance to and capacity for change in the anthropological sciences. The second chapter logically sketches a history of the discipline, highlighting just how much this field reflects the social realities of the times, which in this case is linked to the rise of female scientists. The same pattern is echoed in nearly every other discipline.

The third and fourth chapters of the book are the most rewarding, in which Pathou-Mathis reports on recent research findings in her own field. Here, methods of archaeological research come into play. They range from bone analysis, in which traces (for example, from straining certain muscles by throwing spears) are examined in male and female skeletons, to findings regarding the “hand negatives” (a stencil technique) found next to cave paintings that allow the gender of the people who painted them to be determined today, to DNA and mitochondrial analyses that provide information on male and female hereditary lines. A picture emerges that, contrary to ideas common among the first prehistoric researchers, shows that there was a largely equal distribution of tasks and abilities among men and women.

“Women’s knowledge of plants meant that they were predestined to devise arable farming”

Women were not even excluded from hunting big game. The fact that women were in charge of gathering food made them the primary breadwinners in their communities. Meat was a rare highlight, similar to a Sunday roast. Women’s thorough knowledge of plants meant that they were predestined to devise arable farming. Men, on the other hand, who were predominantly the hunters in the group, became pioneers of animal farming.

Patou-Mathis explains that a change in social order in around 6,000 B.C. was a result of the growing importance of livestock breeding: at this point, women were gradually assigned the domestic realm. This economic explanation for a male-dominated social order is very widespread, especially since Engels.

Simone de Beauvoir countered it by saying that men had developed a “readiness for transcendence” through the “killing instruments” they needed and invented, which placed them on the “side of culture”. Some arguments appear to support both theses, but just as many seem questionable.

The economic explanation can be challenged by the assertion that men’s roles were equal to women’s in pre-agrarian societies: Patou-Mathis debunks the myth of a matriarchal order preceding a patriarchal one as a justification of male domination in retrospect – and she is not the first to do so. Why reason would men have to usurp power?

“The male contribution to procreation was seen as an intellectual act and therefore generally equated with culture”

What speaks in favour of de Beauvoir’s “transcendence” theory is that masculinity was indeed associated with culture and therefore took on a leading role. But this concept had less to do with “killing instruments” and more to do with the fact that paternity could not be proven. It was understood how men contributed to the process of procreation, but the father of a child could not be determined. This was only possible in the 20th century with the advent of DNA tests.

Because of this uncertainty, the male contribution to procreation was seen as an intellectual act and therefore generally equated with culture. Unfortunately, precisely this conclusion is missing in Patou-Mathis’ compendium which, however, through its abundance of materials – even if only sketched out – gives a good overview of the rapidly changing ideas on the gender history of early humanity over the past hundred years.

The fourth chapter is a fast forward through the history of gender relations from antiquity to the 20th century. And this, unfortunately, is superfluous. In the past few decades, it has been related many times and in a more nuanced form; for example, in micro studies that make up the pieces of a puzzle and show the close interplay of theology, medicine, economics, the legal system and social conditions that resulted in patriarchal gender relations.

It would have been preferable to give more room to the facts as well as theories of early humanity. And the author falls into the same trap as many of her compatriots: there is a deeply French bias to her material. Especially in the field of anthropology and archaeology, and above all in the area of gender studies, the international context cannot be ignored. Patou-Mathis’ narrow field of vision reduces discoveries that took place in several countries at the same time – ovulation, to name one – to the French context only.

And when she mentions that women were only granted the vote in 1944, it needs to be added that this was the case in France, which lagged behind other European countries. There is also a discrepancy between how Patou-Mathis credits research findings: for French researchers, she is meticulous, whereas discoveries made in other countries are made to look as if they are general achievements of humanity. Since these discoveries or theories are not named, they occasionally even appear to be the result of previous French findings.

On the whole, this book offers a comprehensive compendium of gender issues in the area of prehistoric history, but Patou-Mathis would have done well to restrict her findings to her field of expertise.

Translated by Jess Smee

“L’homme préhistorique est aussi une femme” (“Prehistoric Men Were Women Too. A Story of the Invisibility of Women”), Allary Editions, October 2020 by Marylène Patou-Mathis