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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and readable with some avoidable sexism, December 11, 2007
This review is from: Invisible Sex, The (Hardcover)
J.M. Adovasio is an archaeologist. Olga Soffer is an anthropologist, and Jake Page is a science writer. They have put together in "The Invisible Sex" a book that attempts to

(1) Bring the general reader up to date on the latest developments in archaeology or paleo-anthropology;

(2) Uncover the True Roles of Women in Prehistory (as in the subtitle); and

(3) Provide a corrective to a male-dominated view of the prehistory.

The main image they want to correct is that of the great male hunter bravely slaying mastodons and in general bringing home the bacon to an adoring and appreciative family or band. What the authors want readers to see is that women weren't just tag-alongs on the way to our becoming fully modern humans, but at least equal partners. The authors refer to nets, threads, garments, basket weaving, cordage, digging sticks, the famous "Venus" statuettes, and other cultural artifacts to demonstrate the enormous role that women played culturally. They speculate that women invented farming, that they too engaged in the hunt, as well as producing works of art as important as the famous cave paintings.

The main method used by the authors is to infer the past from a study of recent hunter-gatherer societies while comparing ancient artifacts with more recent ones. This method certainly ought to provide insight into human life in prehistory, but of course there are some problems. The main one I think is that the "primitive" societies extant today or in the near past are not necessarily typical of those that existed in prehistory because today's tribes occupy marginal lands since the best lands have long been given over to modern societies.

Personally, I never had any doubt about the significant role females played in the history of the species. Indeed, my feeling has always been that women are the default human being, and men an appendage, a necessary evil if you will. (Ha!) I don't think we need to study archaeology to understand that the central role in human culture is and was occupied by women. There is a sense of pandering and begging the question in the way the authors insist on the obvious. I think it stems from the fact that women in some of the sciences have and still do feel like second class citizens.

But that is changing. As the authors point out, most anthropologists today are women. The old male-delusional interpretations of culture in paleo-societies or in modern gatherer-hunter societies are a thing of the past. Instead we are in danger of having female-delusional interpretations. Here are a couple of examples of "reverse" sexism in the text:

From page 209: The authors imagine that "Aboriginal men" may have sniffed "contemptuously at the shell hooks and...strings that their women were using, making invidious comparisons of those little toys...with their mighty, multipointed, barbed, aerodynamic spears and other large instruments." Actually the men may have looked admiringly at such tools since such tools increased their subsistence.

On pages 248-249 in pre-Columbian New Mexico: While the women were farming, "The men had continued to spend much of their time roaming the surround, hunting (or goofing off?)." I think time spent "goofing off" applies to both sexes.

Frankly I am a bit weary of books that focus on sexualism in one form or the other to the exclusion of the science itself. This book would have been a lot better had the stance been devoid of sexism and just concentrated on what the authors have learned and understand. Their various interpretations of the enigmatic Venus of Willendorf figurine, from goddess to porn star, is a case in point. Clearly the figure, which the authors quite naturally attribute to a female artist, is a symbol in some sense of fertility, not just the fertility of the female, but of the earth itself since no woman could have gotten so corpulent except during a period of plenty. And that is what probably enamored those who made and kept such figures--the idea of the season of plenty. Such a woman not only had plenty to eat, but was a heavy favorite to survive whatever winter may come. Her personal sexuality is secondary to the generalized idea of fertility.

As for bringing the general reader up to date on the latest developments in archaeology or paleo-anthropology, the authors provide some interesting material. What has happened is that because of new technologies and more professional care taken by the scientists themselves, we are now able to unearth and be aware of artifacts such as threads, baskets, nets, etc., in a way previously not possible. And, it is true, it helps to see these artifacts from a woman's point of view, that is, as a gender female looking at what happened and assessing the importance of the artifacts, and drawing conclusions that did not occur to the old guys who once dominated the social sciences. Of course even better would be a balanced perspective, a fully human perspective, but we still have a ways to go to achieve that.

Perhaps the most glaring omission in the book is the failure of the authors to mention war (or what I like to call "the war system") as a reason for the rise of patriarchy during the transition from mostly hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture ones. Before there were storehouses of grain and large settled communities, the profits of war were meager. Once war became a viable occupation, men increased their power over women. Indeed the current religions of the Middle East, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, are all warlike and patriarchal.

So indeed, the authors do help uncover the true roles of women in the prehistory for those of us who had any doubt. However, whether women went on the Big Hunt or not, or whether men ever acted as "midwives" (which the authors identify as the real "oldest profession") is of secondary importance to the fact of hunting and midwifery.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 11, 2007 7:22:35 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 11, 2007 7:24:02 PM PST
Groovy Vegan says:
Hi Dennis, it's Magellan posting under Groovy's account.

It sounds like an otherwise good book marred by some sexism, and for which there is very little justification since the evidence to support such views is lacking.

Such questionable science is why the social sciences still fail to command much respect compared to the natural and physical sciences, and is one reason why I left psychology for neurobiology.

That was thirty years ago, and apparently things have actually gotten worse.

Posted on Dec 14, 2007 4:47:09 PM PST
Good review. You provide a balanced perspective, noticing both positive points and some areas that might not be up to muster. Overall, a very nice job indeed.

Posted on Dec 15, 2007 10:58:07 PM PST
Another outstanding review of what sounds like a very interesting book.
I do however want to object on one point. Judaism is not a warlike religion. It is also not strictly speaking a Biblical religion. Judaism as it has been practiced for the past two- thousand years is a religion based on the Oral Law which is in turn based on interpretations of the Written Law.(The Laws given in the Bible) But Judaism even in Biblical times is not a militaristic religion or one which celebrates war. In fact there are countless indications of this but one central one is that King David who was a warrior was not permitted to build the Temple. Nor were iron- hewing instruments, instruments of war used to cut out the stones for the Temple. This may all seem a minor point in relation to the subject you are discussing but I thought you would be interested in knowing the way that Judaism actually sees, and has seen itself even in Biblical and Prophetic Times.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 16, 2007 8:50:14 AM PST
Hi, Shalom: I know you are an expert on Judaism, but I also know you are like the father of a beloved child. What I need to do is find some independent evidence that Judaism is an exception to the rule. I'll work on it. The idea that it is not a Biblical religion is intriguing. Thanks. Dennis

Posted on Mar 15, 2008 12:20:43 PM PDT
Duncan says:
"Reverse sexism" is a barbarism; sexism is sexism, whoever deploys it. Perhaps you're confusing it with "male dominance" or "male supremacy," which reversed would be "female supremacy" or "female dominance." The examples of "reverse sexism" you give are not terribly convincing. *Did* those big, throbbing, thrusting instruments increase their subsistence? You could probably only prove that by reference to contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, a method you don't seem to approve. (And if I look at my own contemporary society, I see that males are fascinated by large, shiny, phallic instruments of destruction even though they have no effect on subsistence whatever.) On "hunting (or goofing off)," from what I've read, hunters don't always hunt constantly. They're often sitting around waiting for the magic to be right. Gatherers and farmers are working more or less constantly. Surely they do goof off, but not to the same extent. Again, this parallels contemporary American society, for what that may be worth.

Having just finished reading "The Invisible Sex," I can say that you are wrong in a fair amount of what you say. The authors do *not,* for example, draw their social speculations solely from contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Unless you believe that it is never possible to be sure about the sex of human burials, the objects buried with women can be compared to those of men. As for your claim that the ancient female figures such as the Venus of Willendorf are "clearly" fertility figures, that's not "clear" at all; to others, of course, it's "clear" that they are goddesses (but that's reverse sexism, I suppose). I think that Adovasio, Soffer, and Page, while not perfect, do an excellent job of showing and stressing the uncertainty of the evidence and the claims they make. Certainly they do better than the archaeologists and other writers, down to the present, who invented and continue to use the myth of Man the Great Hunter.

As for "whether women went on the Big Hunt or not, or whether men ever acted as 'midwives' ... is of secondary importance to the fact of hunting and midwifery." If only it were so! But as long as sexism is with us, it won't be. Better to say, as these writers do, that there is a lot we don't know, and probably never will.

Posted on Dec 5, 2015 7:37:45 PM PST
Miranda Rose says:
I'm not sure if you are, but your review makes you sound sexist. Also, Soffer and Adovasio are both anthropologists and archaeologists. Archaeology is a subfield of anthropology, so when you study archaeology by default you study anthropology, which is what they both have their PhDs in. In light of my first statement, I find it interesting that you assumed that the woman is an anthropologist and the man is a tough, sweaty archaeologist working in the field, because that's what men do.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2015 9:07:45 PM PST
I'm anything but sexist as you would know by reading just a fraction of what I have written. But thanks for the info about archaeology and anthropology. I have only a layman's understanding of daily work in those fields. Your use of the phrase a "tough, sweaty archaeologist" is a bit of a puzzlement such I don't use such terminology. Is that really how professional anthropologists and archaeologists make distinctions?
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Dennis Littrell
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