For reasons unbeknownst to me I have a Facebook account still. Just … let’s just accept it and move on. Anyways, I also have a doctorate in Palaeopathology which — for the uninitiated — means I am an Archaeologist who works with human remains and specializes in disease in the bone. This also means that — yes — I have studied prehistory and — yes — I know about “gendered division of labour,” and why it’s super hard to prove and probably not terribly relevant in most premodern and especially prehistorical cultures.
Were we really to get into the weeds you could argue that point, but … this is not an article about the weeds. This is an article on people completely forgetting that weeds exist. We may address the weeds at a later date. Ignore the weeds.
My point is there are a LOT of people who still see Archaeologists as aged Sean Connerys sitting about in tweed smoking a pipe while a team of locals hurriedly throw dirt up behind them. That’s not how archaeology works. We exploit grad students: not locals.
My point is actually that Archaeology relies on actual empirical evidence and while there is a pretty robust theoretical ladder on which we hang our conclusions simply because taphonomy is a thing, we don’t just come up with crazy ideas and put it out there. There’s research and chemical testing involved. Sometimes there are lasers. I’m not actually joking. Most of my research to date has utilized lasers.
And because I work with demographics in human populations and how that may be morphologically reflected in human remains I can absolutely tell you that these ideas about innate gendered roles or behaviours are … pretty cultural. We do have evidence that sometimes there was in a given population apparently gendered division of labour … like every now and then we get women with absolutely massive biceps and triceps or some insane dental issues from working fibres in their teeth but it’s not consistent across all societies for all time.
You can sort of see this reflected in the degree of sexual dimorphism. In primates — we’re primates btws — you’ll generally see more sexual dimorphism in species that have a sort of polygamous troop arrangement. So if a primate species is mostly monogamous then there’s not that much sexual dimorphism and if they’re mostly one male to five females or something then you do see more sexual dimorphism. Humans … don’t have that much. We’re a little sexually dimorphic, but in our case it probably has a lot more to do with the obstetric complications of bipedalism and the necessity of maintaining and growing big brains than it does with how many mates we tend to take. Additionally, while polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) is generally more common at present there do exist polyandrist (one wife, multiple husbands) cultural arrangements.
Humans aren’t really evolutionarily adapted to take on tasks based on our sex or gender. The only exception to this really is the Grandmother Hypothesis which posits that menopause exists as a reaction to the need or adaptive advantage to grandmothers taking over the hunting and foraging duties of their pregnant daughters. That is, if a grandmother to be undergoes menopause she has fewer caloric requirements, is unlikely to become pregnant, and therefore can do enough work to cover for and provide for not only herself but also her temporarily laid up daughter.
Basically, grandma’s bringing home the bacon.
So it really frustrates/amuses me when I go onto Facebook and find stuff like this:
Honestly, I had a kind of great time tearing this apart in part because while I have anonymized this dude his name is “Erik” and after reading Phantom of the Opera one of my favourite past-times is to tear into an argument and then sarcastically append the name “Erik,” to it like I’m talking specifically to Le Fantome.
But regardless of my own personal joy in mocking the intellectually incurious and unaccomplished, this is actually pretty insulting on multiple levels. Firstly, this isn’t based on fact and I really hate when people make an argument founded on ether. If you want to argue about ether become a poet.
Secondly, it’s just professionally insulting because … dude … that’s not what I said. That’s not what any of the archaeologists, anthropologists, or evolutionary biologists said. Did you not listen? Did you not read, Erik?
And thirdly, as a woman … I just can’t with this fool. And frankly I don’t think most men would approve of this either. He’s basically saying that all straight men are sex-crazed, manipulative, self-centred, jerks with no purpose in or place in modern society. It is annoying that he’s trying to erase all of women in the past, but this view is so reductive that his argument is basically that modern straight men do not have a reason to exist beyond procreation and should be ignored and shunned in any situation that does not involve heterosexual intercourse. I mean, I get mad at straight men rather frequently, but even on my worst day I wouldn’t go that far.
But what really got me about this and “arguments” like it is … okay so in our modern society if you’re a hunter and you make a kill you generally take your kill to a butcher and let them process it. And butcher’s have huge freezers for a reason. Processing an animal means hanging it up, draining and collecting the blood, skinning it and then processing the leather, rendering any subcutaneous fat (and you better hope there is some otherwise you may not actually be able to eat the meat), the actual butchery of defleshing and prepping the organ meat, cracking the bones for marrow or stewing them, prepping the bones for whatever use they may have including making clothing, needles, spear/arrow tips, building materials, musical instruments etc, and rendering any hooves the animal might have. It’s involved, bloody, and time consuming. And in a premodern society or especially a “hunter gatherer” society if you get it wrong, EVERYBODY DIES.
A kill is relatively easy. Obviously the larger the prey the harder it gets. You can trap a rabbit but good luck with a mammoth. But once you make the kill and transport it back to your lovely little prehistoric village it needs to be processed and processed quickly. Maybe you have enough people that you can eat all the meat in a few days but the bigger the kill the more likely you’ll want to smoke or salt some of that meat and the more likely you’ll need to treat or process other parts of the animal for uses like making clothes, tools bows, structures, and so forth. That work is super important, necessarily skilled, and you’re running against a clock. If that’s “women’s work,” and tbh I think that’s a huge assumption but just go with it for now, then “women’s work,” is more important than men’s.
Good job, dude, you killed the deer. But we can’t just sink our teeth into it like a pride of lions. We need a Charles Dance.
When I read assertions like this it’s not just insulting that these men think so little of everyone else in the world or devalue “women’s work,” or ignore all of the archaeological literature in the known world … it occurs to me that if these guys were dropped into a survivalist situation they would not even be able to get themselves dinner. Even if they managed to make a kill they wouldn’t know how to skin, descale, gut, or pluck the animal such that they could cook and eat it.
There is a reason “fast food” is called that. My mom patiently explained this to me as a child when I asked why it took people in the past so long to do anything or why they worked so hard. In premodern society you could not really just pop over to the supermarket and pick up some cheese or a beer. We do have examples of beer, cheese, and even “fast food” being made and sold all the way back to the earliest cities, but if you’re doing it yourself or if you expect to sell these things it’s a long process that you need to get started in some cases months and years before you have something you can actually eat or drink.
If you want cheese — and really, I think it’s fair to say we all want cheese — you have to catch an auroch alive, domesticate it, breed it, figure out that milking is a thing, get it to let you milk it, have a thing other than your mouth in which to collect the milk meaning advanced weaving skills or the development of pottery, know how to process and prepare cheese meaning having a cold place to keep it, possibly cloths, possibly cultivating the right kind of bacteria, and be able to wait however long it takes for that given cheese to be ready to eat. If we’re talking cottage cheese then you’re sorted in a few hours, but if you want something like brie you need years and a monastery. And … I mean if I’m honest I would seek out a monastery in pursuit of a good brie were that necessary, but Catholic monks were in astonishingly short supply in the year 10,000 BCE.
My point in all this besides “don’t assume you’ve understood Archaeology if you haven’t done your reading,” is basically that of a former teacher of mine, Meg Conkey. Prof. Conkey would never tell you this herself, but she revolutionized Archaeology by asking the very simple question, “where are all the women?” You can read all about it in her book, but basically the way this applies to my argument here is society is complex and even if labour is divided by sex that labour is not optional. Even if we make the pretty huge assumption that for all of history only men ever hunted and only women ever gathered there’s a lot of work to be done after the hunting and gathering and if that work is not done or done improperly, everybody dies. Seriously. Botulism is like, best case scenario here.
Erik, and men like him are not only making just a really stupid and uninformed argument that erases all women in the past and makes men out to be pretty absurd and useless themselves, he’s greatly simplifying the process of survival. Foodways is a thing in archaeology because in our present society not a lot of us have to actually go out and get the food. I get my food at a grocery store and it’s one stop shopping. Other people have it actually delivered to their door. I personally do make my own soup bases and sometimes my own bread but I’ve never fermented beer or wine and I think I’ve made a simple cheese only once. Even if you have a vegetable garden or do regularly hunt, chances are you did not go out and find your seedlings in the wild or personally construct your own bow or rifle.
Chicken nuggets do not just happen.