Book highlights women’s role in prehistory

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

Olga Soffer, professor of anthropology, co-wrote a book she hopes will change how people think about prehistory.

In “The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in History,” Soffer, along with fellow archaeologist J. M. Adovasio, director and founder of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, and science writer Jake Page present anthropological research in an easy-to-read format that challenges the way most people think about gender and prehistory.

When you picture prehistoric times, “you see a cave man dragging a woman by the hair,” said Soffer, an expert on the Paleolithic Period and people of the Old World. But in reality, “women were equally active players.”

Women were a vital part of human development during the prehistoric era, according to the book. The authors say evidence shows that women were not only child bearers, but also developed social institutions, created tools and were the innovators in the creation of agriculture. The book also discusses how older and younger people of both genders have contributed to society.

Why this idea has not been brought to light earlier relates to the fact that archeology has been a male-dominated profession, said Soffer. Much of the research from the period has to do with what Soffer calls Hemingway-esque hunting activities, or other topics that would more readily fascinate men. She said this research only portrays part of the picture.

The fact that the book was co-authored by a man is an important attribute of the book, Soffer said. She said it would make it less likely that critics will write it off as feminist babble.

Adovasio said while he was researching this area, he was surprised at the amount of academic literature already available on the subject. But he said this knowledge is not widespread.

“Most archeologists won’t be surprised about what’s in it,” said Adovasio, who is an expert on perishable prehistoric artifacts. “But a person on the street who reads the book will be surprised because they haven’t heard it before.”

Adovasio also said another reason this scholarship has been so long neglected is that the artifacts associated with women are hard to come by.

Perishable or semi-perishable items like pieces of cloth are often more difficult to find, especially when an archeologist does not know to look for them.

“It’s not that people didn’t find evidence,” Soffer said. “It’s that they weren’t looking for it.”

Soffer and Adovasio have written a number of articles on gender in prehistory. But they felt it was important that the book be easily accessible to all readers.

Adovasio said that the average person’s reluctance to accept these findings has to do with our own histories.

“Part of it is there’s still a reluctance to accept what this is saying,” Adovasio said. “(Gender roles in prehistory have) been so well entrenched in our minds when we were younger.”

But Adovasio said that this book explains how those stereotypes are false.

“I hope that we have a better appreciation for what women and other groups have contributed,” Adovasio said.