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Prehistoric women: What were they really like?

BY Thomas Cirotteau

31st Aug 2022 Life

Prehistoric women: What were they really like?

Author Thomas Cirotteau breaks the stereotypes about prehistoric women to tell us what our female ancestors were really like

How were prehistoric women viewed historically? 

In the late nineteenth century, voluptuous female figurines were objects of fascination for prehistorians and became the focus of their discourse on femininity during these ancient periods. The first archaeologists interpreted them as just figures representing the fertility goddess. Apart from this supposedly divine image, women were quite simply absent from the grand narrative of prehistory or relegated to a subordinate role. 

Indeed, during this time, everyone was assigned their particular place. Moreover, the Bible weighed heavily on the image of women and their position in society. Reduced to the role of “eternal minor” (as defined by the Napoleonic Code of 1804) the “sinful” woman was supervised from birth to death, passing successively from the care of her father to that of her husband and sons. 

Ancient prehistoric beech covered in moss

Prehistoric women were often absent from the narrative

The scientists who discovered the ancient human world quite naturally placed man at the heart of their working hypotheses. After all, wasn’t that how the world had worked since the dawn of time? This is what seems to be suggested by the earliest ancient written sources and the great Greco-Roman myths that had such an influence on Enlightenment society. But this took no account of the evolutionary millennia that preceded the emergence of these civilisations, and which perhaps corresponded to mental and societal constructs that were different from our own.  

"Women were quite simply absent from the grand narrative of prehistory or relegated to a subordinate role"

In this way, in the nineteenth century, an image of prehistoric society was established based on the dominant forms of representation of the time, as Sophie A. de Beaune, Professor at the Université Jean-Moulin-Lyon III, emphasises: 

"We have to imagine ourselves in the nineteenth century, when women were not highly regarded. They spent their time most often at home, while it was men who had an important economic and social role, and therefore, quite naturally, people imagined that it was the same in the Paleolithic, that man-the-hunter was the one who had finally brought progress to the human species, and that it is thanks to the highly prestigious hunting of large mammals that we have got to where we are today. And at that time women are completely forgotten…We don’t talk about women, or else, if we talk about them, we imagine them looking after the home and taking care of children."

How have prehistoric women been represented? 

Representations in museums and the entertainment industry encouraged contemporary prejudices and helped to publicise these reductive ideas. We might recall, for example, a diorama at Paris’s 1889 World’s Fair depicting a Cro-Magnon dwelling: thirty-two million visitors marvelled at the famous “Cro-Magnon man” accompanied by two beautiful women who looked like fashion models and were dressed in simple skirts, their breasts on show to all. 

"In scenes of everyday life, women were represented as particularly timid"

The Academic painters of the time seized with relish upon the clichés propounded by scientists. Indeed, from 1880, scenes of prehistoric life became a fashionable artistic genre. Large oil paintings of the period offer a pitiful view of ancient human communities, with ape-like figures decked out in rags, huddling together and fighting for their survival. In such scenes of everyday life, women were represented as particularly timid. Subject to male protection for their livelihood, they were often depicted gazing pleadingly or admiringly at their brave hunter. Often the woman was shown being set upon by a clutch of children who were impeding her movements and confining her to the domestic sphere.  

These images dominated the imaginations of filmmakers, creating screenplays full of stereotypes in twentieth-century films. Buster Keaton’s 1923 feature film, Three Ages, launched the slew of popular clichés concerning women in prehistory. Keaton shows us a woman who is fragile, wears too much make-up and dresses in simple animal skins, allowing herself to be dragged by her hair into her cave like cattle or a mere object. In the 1950s, prehistoric women became peroxide blondes, sensual objects of desire, scantily clad and systematically sexualised. Don Chaffey’s 1966 film One Million Years BC pushes this eroticisation to its limit—embodied by sex symbol Raquel Welch. The plot is obviously driven by a male hero, and the actresses are chosen according to the current criteria of beauty.  

Why hasn’t representation of prehistoric women evolved?

We might wonder whether popular culture has remained stuck with an image of prehistoric femininity that’s now rejected by scientists, especially since gender issues in prehistoric times have only become a topic for debate in the last few decades. In fact, twentieth-century research is still characterised to a large extent by the prejudices of the previous century.  

Inside of the Grand Roc cave ("Big Rock"), Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France

Inside of the Grand Roc cave ("Big Rock"), Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France © Sémhur

The international conference on hunter-gatherers entitled Man the Hunter, which was held in 1965 at the University of Chicago, set the tone for the next three decades of research. Its title betraying a very male point of view, this meeting condemned prehistoric women to silence, and hunting was considered a central factor in the discussion of human evolution from the outset. Thus neglected, the subject of women became invisible, even unthinkable.  

Today, many studies are being carried out by prehistorians anxious to restore women to their rightful place in the history of the human species. Since the 1970s, male and female scientists have therefore launched a useful debate on the position of women in prehistoric daily life.  

"It is time to paint an objective portrait of Paleolithic woman"

Far from the idealising image portraying her as a passive creature, Lady Sapiens can no longer remain hidden behind these distorting fairground mirrors. It is time to paint an objective portrait of Paleolithic woman. No one any more seems to want to take issue with the idea that women have made a significant contribution to the evolution of our species. Moreover, we should remember that the iconic Cro-Magnon, in the valley of the Vézere in the Dordogne—which gave rise to the expression “Cro-Magnon man” to designate our human ancestors—was home to a woman’s skeleton.  

In addition, the archaeological discoveries of recent years lead us back more and more to our own mental constructs. There is thus an urgent need to demand that 21st century research imagine a more realistic Lady Sapiens. 

Lady Sapiens by Thomas Cirotteau, Dr Jennifer Kerner and Eric Pincas 

Thomas Cirotteau, Dr Jennifer Kerner and Éric Pincas are the co-authors of Lady Sapiens: Breaking Stereotypes about Prehistoric Women, published by Hero Press on 12th September 2022, priced at £12.99. 

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