Wang ’05 Examines Role of Ancient Women

Although today’s depiction of human life 40,000 years ago is centered around the dependence of human survival on the hunting carried out by men, Catrina Wang ’05 disagrees. In her presentation “The Invisible Breadwinners: The Provisioning Role of Women in Stone Age Europe,” Brace Center Student Fellow Wang refuted the common portrayal of the Paleolithic era as a time in which men held the primary responsibility. “Women are rarely mentioned in popular works of human evolution. Instead, they’re assumed to exist in traditional roles of mothering and home-making, while men are implicitly or explicitly depicted as leading the group, feeding his family, and producing the artifacts excavated millennia later by archaeologists,” said Wang. Instructor in History and Social Science and Brace Center Co-Director Kathleen Dalton said, “Historians assumed that women couldn’t do much because they weren’t able to look at women’s evidence objectively, but it’s now different.” Wang explained that today, it is generally believed that Paleolithic men supported their societies by hunting, creating art, and making stone tools. Wang, however, refutes this view. “Females never depended on their husbands for subsistence, nor did their reproductive role hamper their dual role as family provisioner,” said Wang. Wang contended that the importance and intensity of hunting, especially of big game like mammoths, is rather exaggerated as the recovered carcasses of such animals indicate that they were usually scavenged and not hunted. Wang, refuting the common perception that men hunted large animals with spears, proposed that, during the Paleolithic era, people more frequently hunted without weapons. Men, women, and children assembled and then surrounded and stampeded subjects of prey. Proof of this technique has been found at a site where there are 21 even sized square pits each complete with a reindeer skeleton. Despite the existence of hunting methods involving the participation of women, Wang downplayed the current emphasis of the importance of hunting in Paleolithic life and stated that the gathering of edible plants played a bigger role in survival. Wang theorized the surrounding vegetation gathered by women served as the primary food source in Paleolithic communities. According to Wang, the necessary role that women played in providing for their families during the Paleolithic era was largely ignored for two main reasons: the remains of animals from that time are much more common than plants and, although gathering plants was more important, it was not as glorious as hunting. “From primate studies, ethnographic analogies, and a survey of Upper Paleolithic technological and environmental contexts, we can say that prehistoric society was basically egalitarian and, to a limited extent, patriarchal,” said Wang.