A few weeks ago this column examined the implications for marketing of the studies of primitive people made by Dr Chris Knight of University of East London (MW April 12). One could not have expected that the theories then advanced would be so quickly overturned. But that’s evolution for you.
You may recall that Dr Knight’s thesis was that the female ancestors of modern man took to wearing cosmetics and organising sex strikes as tactics to persuade their slovenly menfolk to get off their backsides and go hunting. A by-product of those ploys was the creation of language and therefore civilisation. A satisfactory feminist tract, one would have thought, since it credits womankind with the rise of humans above the animals.
But Professor Anna Roosevelt, an archaeologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, is having none of it. To her, the notion of man as the hunter and woman the homemaker is both offensive and wrong. She has led an expedition deep into the Brazilian Amazon to prove her point. There she uncovered evidence of an ancient human society which, she argues, destroys the idea of the all-providing male and the domesticated female and satisfactorily debunks any lingering nonsense about inherent “gender roles”.
Upon what does she base this emasculating interpretation of the ascent of personkind? Well, deep in a cave on the north bank of the Amazon, in Monte Alegre (Happy Mountain), Professor Roosevelt unearthed remains of food that included small and young animals. In these tiny fragments of long-departed squirrel suppers she saw positive proof of the deliverance of woman from the shackles of prehistoric macho bunkum.
For the slower witted among us, whose craniums the shaft of enlightenment is slow to penetrate, and from whose mouths the shout of “Eureka!” is never heard, the prof spells it out: “This culture didn’t emphasise big-game hunting,” she says. “The charred food remains we found point instead to broad-spectrum foraging.”
Still don’t get it? The revelation hinges on the fact that small and young animals can just as easily be caught by women and children as by men. So bang goes the stereotype of the intrepid, hairy apeman, clad in the pelt of vanquished prey, setting forth on a mammoth hunt armed with nothing more than a crudely fashioned piece of flint tied to the end of a twig. Instead, we must picture the supportive apeman setting out with his partner on a broad-spectrum foraging expedition. “I’ll pick up the nuts, honey, if you’ll strangle a stoat.”
Given that her evidence lay undiscovered in an Amazonian cave for the best part of 11,000 years, you might have thought Professor
Roosevelt would have extended the hand of magnanimity to her mistaken predecessors. Not likely. Just because the anthropologists of yore somehow missed her cave, that does not absolve them from the charge of manipulating the facts to foster the chauvinistic notion of the submissive woman.
Earlier evidence that Stone Age people were big-game hunters was used by sociobiologists, says Professor Roosevelt, to support a genetic basis for human behaviour. “Their claims do fit Victorian England quite well. That is where the origin of their theories lies.”
So there you have it. Women, downtrodden and abused, are the victims not just of men in general – which we all knew – but of Victorian men in particular, and of Victorian sociobiologists precisely. They have only the mutability of the flesh to thank that they are no longer here to reap the terrible wrath of woman the hunter.
While fearlessly admitting its ignorance of all matters sociobiological, this column nevertheless inclines to the view that Professor Roosevelt’s findings may be just a little simplistic.
The morally repugnant and socially unacceptable idea of man the provider and woman the homemaker was by no means a Victorian creation. It flourished shamelessly across centuries and continents, until Germaine Greer blew the whistle in 1970. Of course, it was known all along that the female was more deadly than the male but, in the interests of procreation, it was necessary to foster the ideal of romantic love. And nothing can douse the flames of masculine ardour more snappily and with greater effect than a woman whose ambition is to play flanker for Bath and who vacates her seat for you on the train. This is borne out by a recent survey indicating that the rise of career women coincides with an embarrassing failure on the part of men to rise when required .
As with all generalisations, Professor Roosevelt’s theory is vitiated by the rich diversity of human behaviour. The common thread of humanity that ties us across the millennia to those primitive cave-dwelling ancestors tells us that for every female of the tribe who rolled up her armadillo-hide leotard and garotted a brontosaurus heedless of its cries for mercy, there must have been dozens who fretted about the onset of cellulite and the need to spend quality time with the kids – and dozens who would jump on to the nearest boulder rather than meet an angry mouse face to face.
That is not to say that the troglodyte male was any more adept at broad-spectrum foraging than his mate, or that he was necessarily any good around the cave. When the
Professor finds the remains of a prehistoric shelf that has fallen off due to inadequate fixing, we’ll know she’s on to something.