“The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory” by J. M Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page (Smithsonian, 2007)

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While the cover of The Invisible Sex indicates an interesting history book with its parchment design and implied cave painting of a woman, many may be deterred by the title and subtitle, thinking this a book championing the role of women only, pointing out chapter by chapter where all the men got it wrong in history.  This would be an error on the reader’s part.  The Invisible Sex is an amazing book that specifically charts humanity’s ancestry from the day when apes were the most evolved animals around, to some four to six thousand years ago when humanity settled down and began farming.  What makes this anthropology book different is that the authors point out the known history on a certain period in time and then reveal the evidence and push forward the correct interpretation of women having a much larger role in civilization than was previously thought.  Coupled with the up to date information and discoveries on our ancestry, The Invisible Sex is a great, easy to read book for any anthropology addict, or for anyone who wants to know what really was going on with our species over the last two million years.

Even though it is unclear which author is writing which chapters or parts, Adovasio, Soffer and Page are all working from their specific careers, drawing together their knowledge and talents to present a comprehensive meld of human history.  The book begins at our beginning with the discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia and why this was such an important discovery – as to whether Lucy is actually female or just simply a male of small stature, remains unknown.  While presenting a complete history of the Homo genus, they also take the reader through a history of the archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians who made the discoveries in the last couple hundred years.  It is here that the essence of the book is revealed, as the authors point out the assumed role of men always conducting the hunting and gathering while the women stayed in the hut or cave, looking after the children, and occasionally collecting the odd nut and berry.  Coupled with this is the image of the brave and strong cavemen/hunters taking down woolly mammoths and giant sloths and providing the tribe with food for weeks.  Coincidentally this ties in with the period in history when all the men were out working, bringing in the money, while the women stayed home, cleaning house and looking after the children.

They reveal the known history and then take it apart and go to the evidence, revealing what it says and what was really the dynamic of this time: that the men in fact weren’t killing woolly mammoths easily, providing all with bountiful meat, because the mammoth was the most feared animal around with its immense size and gouging tusks.  In all likelihood the hunting was done in a large group involving women, children and other family members.  They were not going after woolly mammoths and sloths, but were more focused on smaller animals like foxes, rabbits and other animals of similar size.  Using large nets, they would scare these animals out from hiding, catch them in the nets, club them to death and then have a large supply of meat for some time.

The authors don’t hold back, revealing all the prevalent theories on what human species was the first to leave Africa, for example, and discuss their own theories.  In some cases there is disagreement between them, such as over the development of language as to whether it was a quick or slow development.  The reader can’t help but get lost in the details and ideas being thrown around, one of the most interesting being that the initial stages of language developed with the relationship between a mother and her baby, possibly communicating in “motherese.”

The Invisible Sex is a combination of books held together in one volume: there is the history of humanity covered from its early evolutionary stages as these ape-like creatures decided to start walking upright, to ideas on how language and then writing developed, to reasons for people ending their nomadic ways and beginning long-term farming; then there is the book where the role of women in prehistory is put straight, complete and clear for the first time, revealing that women had a far larger role than previously thought, and were in fact incremental in a lot of events in history that may never have happened had they not played such an important role.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 11th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

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