From academic works giving women a supporting role to hunter-gather men, to Raquel Welch’s portrayal of a bikini-clad cavewoman in the 1966 film One Million Years BC, the gender division of the stone age is firmly entrenched in public consciousness.
While men strode out to spear woolly mammoths, women, as mothers or exploited objects of male desire, sheltered in caves from the violent world, according to an understanding said to be increasingly removed from the latest research.
The historians and film-makers behind Lady Sapiens: the Woman in Prehistory, a French book and documentary to be published in the UK in September, say they are now seeking to debunk the simplistic division of roles by highlighting advances in the study of bones, graves, art and ethnography often ignored in the public sphere.
“For a long time, prehistory was written from the male point of view, and when women were mentioned, they were portrayed as helpless, frightened creatures, protected by overly powerful male hunters,” Sophie de Beaune, a professor in pre-history at the Université Jean-Moulin-Lyon III, writes in the book’s preface. “Since women have begun to enter the ranks of prehistorians, a different picture has gradually emerged.
“The reader will perhaps be astonished to find that men’s and women’s roles were not so clearcut, and that it was cooperation between all members of the group, regardless of their gender or age, which ensured their survival,” she writes.
Today’s cliches, the book suggests, have largely been formed by a lack of interest in the role of women among the 19th-century pioneers of research. It is the imposition of the cultural understandings of that period on the scholarship, and a welter of art ranging from Paul Jamin’s 1888 artwork Dangerous Encounter and A Rape in the Stone Age to Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC, that “pushes this eroticization to its limit – embodied by sex symbol Raquel Welch”.
Thomas Cirotteau, one of documentary makers behind the book with Jennifer Kerner and Éric Pincas, said the purpose was not to portray the pre-historic woman – black-skinned and largely blue-eyed – as a “superwoman” but to “widen the possibilities as to her role”.
“She could hunt. She had a very important economic role. She could do art, and the link between men and women could be very respectful and full of tenderness,” he said.
Focusing on the Upper Paleolithic period of 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, the book highlights the etchings found on stone plaquette at the Paleolithic site of Gönnersdorf in Germany, of a woman with a baby carrier on her back, allowing her hands to be free for hunting and foraging.
The documentarians note studies of skeletons that reveal the strength of the upper arm muscles of women, and a recent finding at Peru’s Wilamaya Patjxa site of evidence of humans hunting big game.
Five burial sites were excavated and six individuals were exhumed. Two of them were found with hunting tools: a man in his 30s, and a young woman under the age of 20. Twenty-four stone artefacts had been placed in the young woman’s tomb, comprising a toolkit of everything needed to hunt and butcher big game: six projectile points, four scrapers, a knife and several chipped flakes of stone.
Ten sites in the US from the Late Pleistocene or Early Holocene (between 12,000 and 8,000 BCE) yielded 11 burial sites where women have been interred alongside weapons, suggesting that the discovery in Peru has wider significance.
De Beaune notes in the book that the importance of small-game hunting has also been underplayed by researchers, along with fishing, gathering shellfish or hunting small marine animals, all activities women were likely to have been involved in.
Being a mother was just one facet of the lives of women of that period. They were not continually pregnant, the latest understanding of the diet and lifestyle of the age suggests. Studies of the carbon, strontium and calcium in bones suggest that children remained breastfed until the age of four, a practice that reduces fertility.
Vincent Balter, director of France’s Centre for National Research, writes in the book: “As Paleolithic women were able to bear children until they were about 30, if we say breastfeeding went on for two or three years, and they gave birth to their first child at around fourteen, that gives us a maximum of five or six births per woman.”
The book also posits that women achieved high status within their communities. The site of the Lady of Cavillon, the remains of a woman buried wearing a skullcap of seashells in the Balzi Rossi caves complex in Italy, is said to be able a valuable clue “that reveals the respect that the tribe had for this woman”.
The documentary accompanying the book in France had an audience of 1.5 million people when it was broadcast on France-5, but it was not without controversy.
In an open letter published in Le Monde last October, nine pre-history specialists wrote that the works “systematically eliminate all the elements which could suggest the probability (or even, the mere possibility) of male domination, either by mentioning them in a more or less disguised way, or by resolutely ignoring them”.
Cirotteau said the documentary and book were not “militant” about the life and experience of pre-historic women as so little could be certain.
“Our role is not to be emphatic about the role of men and women, but just to show the possibilities in their activities and status in pre-history.”