on December 27, 2002
Archaeology is ultimately an act of the imagination and Prof. Taylor does a brave job in trying to reconstruct sexual behaviors that have had only the most indirect effects on the archaeological record. Many of his hypotheses are stimulating; a few may even be correct. He is adept at pointing out prejudices and assumptions that are so ingrained that we do not even realize we are making them. He certainly changed my opinion on a number of issues. His reinterpretation of passages in classical history is also most helpful. The topic is extremely exciting and underresearched in an accessible form. However, perhaps because he didn't really identify his intended audience or because of the limited amount of material strictly relevant to his subject, he has padded the book with a rather routine run through human palaeontology and spends a lot of time demolishing straw men in the field like the acquatic ape hypothesis. I often wished he had spent more time dealing (even speculatively) with sex. In several places I was surprised that he avoided or abbreviated discussions when I knew there was more material to present. The result is scattershot and repetitious and the narrative structure falls apart at the end just when the amount of source material increases. I felt genuinely disappointed that he wouldn't follow his speculations through. More a draft or outline for a book than a finished work.
Prof. Taylor's nonjudgemental pleas for a tolerant approach to sexual behavior both in practice and in academic study and his mapping of the broad range of sexual behavior in primates are admirable. In this context the book should be required reading for all psychologists and psychiatrists (I ordered quite a few copies this year for all the therapists I know).
His list of sources is wide and furnished me with a great deal of interesting reading, though some evaluation of the reliability of the works he cites would be extremely valuable since some of the works are scholarly and some fringe. Additionally, a great deal of his source material consists of popular presentations rather than primary scholarly sources.
All in all a near miss, but still a worthy effort and well worth reading.
on December 23, 1999
It takes a while before you realize that the focus of this book is spreading out like a vast delta at the mouth of a Mississippi or Nile river.
It also takes a while before the author, tentatively at first, drops the G-string of serious scholarship and begins to reveal a very edgy political correctness. Kind of like when you realize, just after having started to play for money, that the guy with the other cue has just hustled you.
I got the message clearly at the beginning of Chapter 6, when the following sentence appeared:
"I argue that while hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturalist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction. Afraid of the wild, farmers set out to destroy it." That's a pretty challenging thesis that would take some strong argumentation to substantiate. I didn't find it.
On the contrary, by the time I had finished the book I was unable to clearly answer the question: What hypotheses have been put forward and to what extent have they been proven...or not?
On the positive side, however, the book is engagingly written and does string together many exceedingly interesting facts and theories from archeological scholarship. Not being an archeologist, but an interested general reader, I enjoyed these glimpses of art and science. (These are the "bright stars" mentioned in the title of this review.)
For me the book was worth reading because of the interesting nuggets of information and ideas, despite the overall "weave" of them being rather superficial and, ultimately, confused. The subject matter saves the day.
on April 8, 2000
This is a book with many interesting ideas that do not stand up to scrutiny.
Let us begin with the claim that early human beings had thick body hair, and that clothing was "probably" invented very early, even before the use of fire. In The Wisdom of the Bones, Walker and Shipman say that at 1.6 million years, the homo erectus was probably active at mid-day, and had no thick body hair.
Page 34 says, "humans could never have been simply naked." Tell this to Australian aborigines, Amazonian Indians, Irian Dani, Orchid Island Yami, or any of the other people who remain in tropical environments (such as our species originated in) without a stitch of clothing.
Concerning hides that might have been used for clothing, in Making Silent Stones Speak, Schick and Toth say (p161), "in the very remote Stone Age past, our primary evidence for hide working comes from Lower Paleolithic sites in Europe, the earliest about 300,000 years ago."
As to language, The Wisdom of the Bones says "A series of careful analyses convinced Laitman that the earliest hominids, like the australopithecines and habilines, were anatomically unable to talk" (page 281). "True language seems to me to have been a very recent acquisition" (page 292).
A very nice point appears (p49) about the development of language and song. Robin Dunbar discusses this in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (p140): "the fact that music is located in the right hemisphere is one good reason why the alternative suggestion that language evolved from song cannot be wholly right. It's hard to see how something localized in the right hemisphere can produce something localized in the left hemisphere." I appreciate that Taylor said the two cannot be divorced, not that language evolved from song. This needs work, from both sides.
Page 76: "You cannot easily value what you have no words for." My foot. This statement goes against the whole Taoist philosophy, as well as other traditions. The highest of the ancient Jewish priests uttered the name of Jehovah (known only to them) once a year, drowned out by the clash of cymbals, allowing no words for god because they held him so priceless.
Taylor's refutation of Morgan's Aquatic Hypothesis hardly convinced me (The Scars of Evolution is noticeably missing from the bibliography). On page 35 he says the Aquatic Hypothesis would have ended in extinction from crocodiles. We're better off with tigers?
The identification of the, um, batons, erh, arrow straighteners, ahhh ritual objects (p128-9) is one of those things where the reader says, "It's so obvious, why hadn't I ever seen that before?" Also extremely well done is The Secret Art of Initiation.
Chapter 6 was disappointing. I found Taylor's outlook, looking back on the good old days of hunting and gathering, disdaining farming, too romantic for my tastes. On page 147-8 he claims farmers exploit, rather than trust the soil. I grew up hearing my mother's eye-witness accounts of how emotionally devastated Dust Bowl farmers were when the land failed in the 30s.
On page 152 Taylor say farmers lost detailed knowledge of plants, and then on page 222 says "knowledge of herbal birth control continued down to the very end of the medieval period." If Taylor hasn't noticed this contradiction, I will tactfully change the topic and ask, farmers deal with plants all the time; who said they know about only cultivated plants? One of the great herbal traditions is Chinese, certainly agricultural. Farmers here in Taiwan have detailed knowledge of the wild plants growing outside their fields. In our climate, that's a lot of varieties. Not just farmers: you often see city people out on weekends picking through the underbrush for edible plants and herbs.
Colin Tudge said "Britain retains less of its pristine forest than any other country in Europe...Britain's conservational record is possibly the worst in the world" (The Time Before History, p334-5). Friends who have been to England say there's no wilderness. Maybe Taylor says farmers don't know about wild plants because there aren't any left in England.
Sloppy logic on page 153: "It was for this purpose that fired pottery seems to have been invented." Fired pottery was invented. He probably meant, "It seems to have been for this purpose that fired pottery was invented."
I liked the observation (p154) that "men got involved in farming when animals became important," but now I'm wondering. China was clearly, beyond a doubt, patriarchal at the latest by say 2000 BC, but animals became important much later. They raised pigs and whatnot, but Chinese have always eaten primarily vegetable foods. Plowing was by manpower, done by the males (the Chinese character for 'power' is a pictograph of a plow; 'male' is a field and a plow). Wheelbarrows were used for bulk transport. The earliest plow animals and draft animals would probably have been about the Han dynasty (2nd century BC to 2nd century AD), pretty late.
We read about a female army of life-size terra cotta figures in China (page 205). I've followed Chinese archaeological finds for over 15 years; if such an army existed, I suspect I would have heard about it.
I'm still working on the sentence on page 228: "Different lengths and shapes are common to different people." Are they different or common? Slipshod writing.
The idea that warfare always has some racial component (page 246) is ridiculous. Were Roundheads and Cavaliers of different races? For this to hold water, Taylor had better come up with some fancy new definitions of either 'warfare' or 'race.' Also ridiculous is the idea of a slow differentiation of the hostile groups. Are Danes, Saxons, Angles, and Picts still differentiated in England? The evidence against this is overwhelming, including page 252, which cites Scythian and Thracian, or Celtic intermarriage.
All in all, this is an interesting, but lethally flawed book.
on January 11, 2006
In "The Prehistory of Sex" Timothy Taylor, a British archaeologist, offers readers a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight concerning human evolution and sexuality. He covers a large time period, ranging from the hominid australopithecines of 4 million BC to the farming societies of 10,000 BC and most everything in between.
Far from being "politically correct," as he was accused of by a previous reviewer, I found Taylor to be an objective scholar in search of the truth. For example, he did suggest that hunter-gatherer societies were generally less restrictive and patriarchal than farming societies, a view that most other anthropologists and archaeologists would agree with. But he also disputed feminists claims for a "Great Earth Mother" worshipping matriarachy in the Neolitic period. In other words, Taylor strikes me a serious scholar in search of the facts rather than someone seeking only to justify his own subjective political opinions. However, the major focus of this book is really about human sexuality and Taylor offers substantial archaeological proof that human culture has always exhibited a tremendous diversity of sexual expression, including transvestism, homosexuality, ritual sex, group sex and even beastiality (including an ancient Siberian on skis attempting to copulate with a moose).
For those interested in a serious study of the diversity of human sexuality and how it relates to human culture and human nature this book is an excellent reading selection.
on July 6, 2009
This book makes a number of good points, but they are overshadowed by the author's political agenda. The fact that a book about prehistoric sex feels obligated to go on an extended analysis of Nazi racism (pp. 237-243) pretty much sums up how far it veers from its stated topic.
The author does his best work when he focuses, oddly enough, on what we *don't* know. His discussion of the ancient "Venus" figures is interesting because he offers a range of possible interpretations and cautions against drawing any hasty conclusions about their original meaning(s). His discussion of the difficulty in "sexing" skeletons is interesting, as I had presumed that that was fairly easy to do and that DNA analysis was routinely used to clarify the identity of badly damaged remains. Futher, I liked his explanation of how sexually-charged artifacts get buried in museum basements and this distort our understanding of our ancestors.
Unfortunately, Taylor's bias builds steam as the book progresses. He is willing to accept almost any evidence that ancients were more liberal than modern West in their sexual attitudes, especially when it comes to homosexuality and transgendered individuals. He draws selectively from primate behaviors after cautioning that it's wrong to do precisely that. The book goes far past the physical evidence to paint a particular picture of *natural* human sexuality, a sexuality that the West has denied and buried. Even if his assertions are correct (which I doubt), his evidence simply doesn't support his assertions.