They did the thing again: archaeology, prehistory, and gender.

I track the #archaeology hashtag on twitter, and… do you ever see a news article where the very headline makes you clench your jaw in anticipation of a nice session of angry teeth-grinding? This was one of those:

Were the First Artists Mostly Women? Three-quarters of handprints in ancient cave art were left by women, study finds.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you might be saying “cave art is cool, surely finding out more about who made it is a good thing!”

Oh, my well-meaning but under-informed friend, let me explain to you why 99% of all articles about archaeology and prehistoric gender turn me into one large, human-shape cringe.

Here is a true thing about archaeologists: an overwhelming number of them are stuffy old white dudes who are inexplicably resistant to talking to people from other kinds of science or fields of expertise, even if it’s clearly relevant and helpful  to what they’re trying to do. So of course they take their stuffy old dude assumptions about the world and gender and project them into prehistoric societies with wild abandon. Most of the time without even realising it. Yes, of course men went out to hunt and women butchered the meat (they would be more comfortable with blood because menstruation, you see). Of course it was men’s job to do religious things and to protect their wives and children. That’s just how the world works, right?

“But Mx Macaronic. This cave art research challenges those assumptions!” you cry plaintively. “It says right there in the article that they’re overturning dogma!”

Well yes, in a way. The authors of this story are chipping away bits of grit from the boulder that is Archaeology’s Gender Problem.

Only then they’re sticking it right back onto the other side of the boulder.

You see, here are some true things about gender:

  • Our system of male and female isn’t really representative of exact biological reality, but just two VERY DOGMATIC AND DEFINITE categories applied to mushy general trends in chromosome combinations, hormone levels, physical characteristics, and so on.
    • I mean, a laughably short time of google research and a few intersex foundation websites suggest at least 1 in 1000 people born are intersex, depending on your definition.
    • Also something like 1 in 500 people are transgender, although those stats are less precise, since lots of people don’t transition medically.
    • I couldn’t find ANY stats on people with non-binary genders, but hey: we exist too.
    • These are all data from modern day, using modern day definitions of gender, mostly in the USA. But do you see my point? Our concepts barely even cover our own experiences of gender right now. (And then there’s all of those concepts of gender wiped out by colonisers…)
  • It’s near-impossible to tell someone’s secondary sexual characteristics from their skeleton. Never mind their gender as we conceptualise it.
  • It’s entirely impossible to know what a dead society’s concept of gender was or whether it informed their division of labour, unless they helpfully wrote it down somewhere.

And another thing about archaeologists: they don’t appear to know or care about these things. And so they do things like generalise about who made cave art in the many many different groups of humans in the Neolithic based on the finger lengths of handprints, and are lauded for breaking boundaries while reinforcing the same binarist, essentialist views with a slightly different slant. “Men were men and women were women” indeed.

Oh, but these guys DID know about trans people, apparently, but only enough to throw in a little caveat:

“The new study doesn’t discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.”

But they don’t care enough to re-think the faulty assumptions they’ve based their research on.

Of course I am in favour of archaeology’s massive man-bias being highlighted and challenged, but gender essentialism like this is emphatically not the way to do it. Admitting that we don’t really know anything about prehistoric genders instead might be a good start.

NOTE: I haven’t been able to get my hands on the actual paper this article is based on, but I’m going to try and then amend this post or make a new one.

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