The Perfect Gift for Prehistoric Mom: A Spear

On Mother's Day, let's remember our foremothers were working mothers. They didn't sit around the campfire waiting for men to return with dinner. Throughout history and prehistory, women worked, hunted and often fought side by side with men.

Professor Caryl Rivers, commentator

(WOMENSENEWS)-Mother's Day this year is a good time to adjust the focus on the pictures of mothers-and all women through the ages.

The conventional-wisdom portrait of women in prehistory is drawn from a “Flintstones” scenario, the present as past. It's the image of patient, passive women waiting by the campfires with their children for the men to come home from the hunt. Man the hunter has been the basis for many ideas about inevitable male dominance. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once proclaimed he was worried about women in the military because “men are programmed to hunt giraffe.”

But, projecting the '50s family back into prehistory, it seems, is, and was, a mistake. Macho men and timid women are part of a false scenario in which warfare and male dominance are linked to the idea that human males were very aggressive very early on.

One fossil skull bearing the mark of what was assumed to be an injury caused by a weapon led researchers in the 1950s to proclaim that warfare started early, and that prehistoric man was a brave warrior. But under the analysis of an electron microscope, the injury turned out to match, exactly, the bite of a leopard. This early man wasn't Rambo, he was a predator's lunch.

Also, new evidence about our foremothers shows they were a more aggressive, active lot than we once supposed. They hunted, they provided, they selected their male partners, and they didn't sit by the campfire like demure ladies.

For example, the idea of “home bases” where prehistoric women and children waited for men to come back from the hunt has been challenged by one researcher who found bones of carnivores at camp sites that also contained remains of hominid (pre-human) bones.

If the predators were there, the humans were not-at least not at the same time-because pre-humans could not have shared their living space with dangerous carnivores.

Primatologist Linda Fedigan of the University of Alberta in Canada says that the fact that both sets of bones were at the same place indicates that pre-humans most likely stopped only briefly at the camp sites.

“If there is not evidence for home bases where the sick and dependent waited for the well and productive, then we can perhaps finally free our minds of the image of dawn-age women and children waiting at campsites for the return of the provisioners.”

Thus, the idea that is emerging is one of early humans as a group always being on the move, living by their wits instead of by their brawn, with the women as active as the men.

False Scenario of Macho Prehistoric Men and Timid Dawn-Age Women

For years, the notion that only men hunted has been used as the rationale for keeping women out of places like corporate boardrooms and politics. Harvard socio-biologist E.O. Wilson made the statement that because men hunted and women didn't, “Even with equal education for men and women and equal access to all professions, men are likely to remain disproportionately represented in political life, business and science.”

However, many scientists now believe that early humans lived in groups in which men and women were fairly equal, both were active in providing food for the tribe. Females only lost status much later, as nomads settled into an agricultural way of life and the concepts of property and paternity arose.

Our Foremothers Hunted With Nets and Weapons

In fact, there is new archeological evidence that women hunted with nets very early in human history. The spears used by males survived, thanks to their hardness, but the more fragile nets did not. Archeologists working in Eastern Europe, however, have found the imprints of nets used for hunting preserved in clay. Big game hunting by male bands, it seems, arose fairly late in human history. Early on, men, women and children took part in communal hunts, driving the game into cul-de-sacs or traps and securing them with nets.

Women also hunted with weapons regarded as male. Inuit women carried bows and arrows, especially those with blunt arrows designed for hunting birds. Among the Tiwi aborigines of Australia, hunting is thought to be women's work, and until the invention of steel weapons, it was done with stone axes made by the women themselves.

“These terribly stilted interpretations,” says archeologist James Adovasio of Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania, “with men hunting big animals all the time and females waiting at home for these guys to bring home that bacon-what crap.”

The idea that men are naturally aggressive, while women are naturally kind and gentle isn't borne out by research.

Research Shows Women Not Gentler-They're Aggressive Like Males

Recent meta-analyses show very small differences in aggression between the genders. Men may be more physical, while women often use taunts and barbs, but the level of aggression is similar.

Women even tell themselves they are gentler than they really are. In one study, women playing a computer game dropped fewer bombs on their opponents than men when they knew people were watching. But when they thought they weren't being observed, they dropped more bombs than the males did. Even so, they described themselves as being much less aggressive than they actually were.

So the collective portrait of women is a lot more complex than the simple, placid Madonna-and-Child picture to which we've grown accustomed. Throughout history-and prehistory-women worked, hunted and often fought side by side with men. They were responsible for procuring much of the food their children ate, and they were an integral part of an active, brainy species that outmaneuvered much larger predators, not by brute force but by cunning.

“Working” mothers, it seems, were more the norm in prehistory than an aberration. The idea that males and females had very different roles early in our history, and that the active male and the passive female constitute the “natural” human pattern, is not supported by the most recent research.

So, maybe you shouldn't actually give mom a spear instead of a dozen roses for Mother's Day, but a little respect is in order. If our foremothers hadn't been tough, active, inventive people, we wouldn't have turned out to be the dominant species on the planet. Maybe the dolphins would have been inventing the Internet and sending out the Mother's Day messages.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.