Two Books on Women in Prehistory

11 Nov

Taylor, Timothy.  The Prehistory of Sex.  NY:  Bantam Books, 1996.

Ryan, Christopher and Jetha, Cacilda.  Sex at Dawn:  The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.  NY:  HarperCollins 2010

Both of these books concern, in large part, the place of women in prehistoric societies, but are viewed from different academic perspectives.  Taylor is an archaeologist; Ryan is a psychologist and married to Jetha, a psychiatrist.  The disciplinary difference is quite evident, as I will discuss later.

What both books agree on, and do so in no uncertain terms, is that hunter gatherer societies were more egalitarian in terms of sexual equality than the agricultural societies that replaced them in many parts of the world.   Both reject the theory that women exchanged sexual favors or chose sexual partners because of their ability to provide, thus making all women, to some degree, prostitutes.   Both disagree with the notion that hidden ovulation in human women developed so that human men would not know when they were fertile and thus would stay around longer.  Taylor points out the evidence that prehistoric and early agricultural and urban societies had knowledge of contraceptive plants.  Ryan and Jetha point out that prolonged breast feeding would inhibit ovulation and thus prevent frequent pregnancies.  In either view early human societies were more knowledgeable about reproduction than modern people traditionally acknowledge.  Both also mention the similarities and differences between human sexuality and that of other primates, though Ryan and Jetha do so in greater detail and more frequently.

Taylor focuses more on the history of the social construct of gender and Ryan and Jetha on the mechanics of human sexuality.  As an example, Taylor recounts the story of an item found in an archeological dig.  It was classified initially as a short sword, but when it was decided the body in the grave was a woman the object was reclassified as a weaving baton.  In this way modern views of gender affect our view of history.  Another example is the way phallic objects carved out of bone or wood are classified as batons or symbols of leadership or office, and not as sexual aids, even though some of them strongly resemble the artificial phalluses for sale in modern times.  A few other fascinating observations in his book are that the first tool was not likely to have been a spear or hunting item but a baby sling or carrying bag, and that fired pottery was initially used primarily to make weaning vessels.  He cites a study of Roman brothel coins that theorizes the numbers on one side of the coins indicate the cost of the acts represented on the other side of the coin.  The researcher cited asked prostitutes in a modern city to rank those same acts by degree of difficulty or how expensive they might be.  The modern women ranked them in the same order as the Romans did.

Ryan and Jetha write in a far less formal manner, often addressing the reader in colloquial terms.  They are more focused on the physical aspects of reproduction, such as the evolutionary reasons why women vocalize during sexual intercourse.  One of their theories is that this vocalization and other physiological systems imply that in prehistoric times women had sexual intercourse with several men sequentially.  Another theory is that men require young female lovers to stay sexually active.  There is no discussion of women, especially older women, needing young lovers.  An overarching theme is that monogamy is an awkward fit for the natural sexuality of humans.  The two writers, like Taylor, point out examples of how cultural beliefs can blind us.  One is that early European travelers to Australia thought the aborigines were starving, not because of their appearance, but because they were eating insects.  In fact the aboriginal diet was nutritious, but the Europeans could not comprehend anyone eating such things for food unless there were no other alternatives.  Ryan and Jetha also discuss sexual preference and posit that female sexual orientation is far more changeable than that of males.

Both of these books are interesting, though, personally, I found Taylor to be the more intriguing, perhaps due to a greater personal interest in anthropology than psychology.  Taylor’s reference to archeological artifacts such as Venus figurines and burial placements (for example, the Red Threesome, a burial of three people together in an unusual formation), as well as the general avoidance of discussing or acknowledging sexuality, such as evidence of rape, in archeological finds clearly demonstrates the way modern cultural mores color our view of the past.  Ryan and Jetha at times seem to reinforce cultural norms, as in the aforementioned discussion of young lovers for men but no reference to them for women.  The authors also discuss male interest in certain types of pornography without creating a visual image of the male viewers, but when they suggest the reverse they refer to “overweight middle-aged ladies with cheap tattoos, bad haircuts, and black socks …” (231).  It bothered me that the authors felt it necessary to visualize the female viewers but not the males, especially given the relatively negative imagery used.

Ryan and Jetha refer to Taylor’s work, and in a positive fashion.  Since Taylor wrote his book some years before theirs he could not return the academic salute.  Both books are interesting.  Readers may prefer one over the other depending on their academic background and personal interests.

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