Saturday, May 16, 2009

I'd Rather Be A Hammer Than A Nail": Fallacy in the Construct

Venus of Hohle Fels statue (Venus of Hohle Fels; photo by H. Jensen, University of Tübingen)

"I'd Rather Be A Hammer Than A Nail": Fallacy in the Construct

The finds at Hohle Fels Cave in Germany keep arriving. The latest, announced this week, is the small figure of a woman deliberately shaped without her head. Exquisitely carved from mammoth ivory, the figure has exaggerated breasts, buttocks, and genitals typical of so-called prehistoric "Venus" statues. She is dated as being approximately 35,000 years old, and many are now saying this is the oldest verified figurative art ever found. She's at least 10,000 years older than the comparable "Venus of Willendorf" and perhaps 20,000 years older than the cave paintings at Lascaux. It is presumed that she was created by Homo sapiens sapiens, although there were Neanderthals still alive and in the area at that time.

Venus of Willendorf statue (Venus of Willendorf figure, in limestone, carved 20,000 to 25,000 years ago)

The Venus of Willendorf and other similar figures may have heads but do not show clear faces. This newly discovered statue has a ring where the head would be, indicating it was possibly worn as a pendant. One article stated she should be interpreted as a fertility symbol. From my reading of anthropology, it seems fairly clear this carving is an object of reverence, of worship, with fertility being only one aspect of what was revered about her. She is quintessentially woman: Fleshy, powerful, and gorgeous.

An art history professor I had in college told us that most of the cave paintings in Europe are believed to have been created by women. He said even if you assume humans were much smaller than they are now, the "signatures" of handprints found in association with the scenes of animals are likely female. Recent interpretation of the Lascaux scenes, for example, indicate the point of the paintings was not to depict "a successful hunt". The spirituality goes much deeper than that, probably something like a metaphysical examination of the natural world and our place in it.

Likewise, hunting was not the main source of nutrition or necessarily even of protein for prehistoric peoples. Gathering, as opposed to hunting, was far more crucial to a band's survival, with nuts and roots offering richer, more reliable, and far less dangerous means of obtaining essential amino acids. Hunting has been emphasized and glorified because the anthropologists studying and interpreting artifacts have tended to be male, and hunting is seen as a male activity (an inaccurate Western view, but that's the stereotype).

My second year of college, I took an introduction to anthro course from a prof named Roy Miller because someone had said he really knew his stuff. He was not impressive, at first glance, with an unfortunate mustache, bad posture, and a squeaky voice. When we arrived the first day of class, he had covered the chalkboards on two sides of the room with details of a field study of baboons. He began going through these observations in a pedantic manner, and I found myself quickly bored. I started doodling in my notebook. My attention returned when he faced us and said the obvious conclusion to be reached about this primate's social structure, as proposed by the eminent scholar Robin Fox (not a cartoon name, but a real scholar whose work I had already found offensive), was that females were expendable and subservient to the power structure of the group. Dr. Miller went on to say should we not then draw a conclusion about the role women should be playing in human society, that biologically we are not meant to assume real leadership?

I remember clearly the reactions of two other students in the class. One was a jock, a blond fratboy who sat up straight and snickered loudly. He clearly thought he was bound to get an easy A in this course. The other student was a woman in her 30s (I thought of her as "old" then, g*d help me), with unfashionable clothes and hair, who immediately argued that extrapolating human trends from baboons was bad science.

Dr. Miller challenged her to back up her statement with examples. She looked around at the rest of us, despaired of our slack-jawed state, and took him on. It was 1974, and feminism did not yet have any kind of foothold on that campus -- nor would Polly (that was her name) likely have called herself a feminist. But she smelled a rat and she wasn't going to take crap off any man. Later, Polly and I became friends. She was divorced, after having put her husband through college, and now was raising two small children alone while trying to get her own degree. She was a toughie.

I was still terribly shy at that point, but within a few minutes, I raised my hand and began arguing as well. A few other women joined me and Polly. No men on our side, and the jock backing up Dr. Miller didn't have anything intelligent to say, just jeers. I made a silent decision to go drop this class soon as I could, find another professor who wasn't such a swine. In the meantime, slowly over the next hour, we women were able to punch holes in the conclusions offered by Dr. Miller by going back to the data on the board and coming up with another possible interpretation of each step. Dr. Miller began grinning. Finally he held up his hands, cutting off Polly about to stand up and yell at him, and said "You're absolutely right. The deductions drawn by Robin Fox were erroneous in every regard, based on his male-centered view of how he imagined things must be. His sexism completely distorted his reality. The fact is, the females in this band are in charge of every important decision, they are the life's blood of the troop. Kudos to you for not buying his bias."

The jock looked like he was going to pass out. (He did, in fact, drop the class before we met again.) Polly pounded on her desk in jubilation, and when the bell rang soon thereafter, and she and I stayed behind to talk to Dr. Miller. By the end of that semester, I had switched my major from journalism to anthropology.

Thus, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The fact is, there's a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the first humans to develop agriculture, to build dwellings, to use fire, to domesticate animals, were probably women -- at the very least, women and men working together. Interestingly, a high percentage of the earliest hominid remains are also female. And if human biology of that earlier time can be compared to ours of today (not at all guaranteed, but if...), then more many of the elders in a band would have been women. Elders carried the accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and culture of a nomadic tribe.

Something to think about. Thanks, Dr. Miller, for encouraging me to do just that.