The Descent of Man

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007 · 21 Comments »

Caveat: I’m under-slept and under the weather and I probably ought to be under the covers, so this post will suck. My brain is all sludgy and shit. Read on at your peril.

(And yes, goddamnit, even Spirits get sick. It’s a metaphysical thing. Deal.)

Okay, notice anything about this picture?

When I was a kid I was utterly enthralled with paleontology. I started out grooving on dinosaurs, but when Lucy was discovered (ah yes, I remember it well) my fascination switched to human origins. I wanted to be Donald Johanson, or at least Tim White; I wanted to go to Olduvai Gorge and dig up hominid fossils and make startling discoveries. Then I grew up and realized that squatting for hours in the sun picking at the dirt with a tiny toothbrush was not really my thing.

What annoyed me even as a kid, though, was the androcentric Early Man presentation of all the material. It was always man this and man that, and endless pictures showing an endless series of males — always males — marching into the future:

A visitor from Mars would be forgiven for thinking that somehow all of our ancestors were male. I think one reason I liked Lucy so much was because she was (probably) a she. Other female fossils had been found before, but she was the first to be named and popularized unapologetically as female. As Lucy, not as the Ape-Man of Afar.

As a young feminist I was confident that all the androcentric bullshit would soon fade away; it would have to. “Humankind” would replace “mankind,” people would talk about early humans instead of early man, and evolution illustrations would sometimes show female figures progressing from simian stoop to upright stride.

Some of that has happened, yes. A little bit. But not nearly enough. The image at the top of this post was published in 2005. “Meet the Folks,” it says. Wouldn’t you know, they’re all still male.

Last week I received my copy of The Last Human, the new book of hominid reconstructions sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Since I’ve been feeling too sick to work for the past couple of days, I decided to cozy up in bed and read my new book. Jesus Fucking Christ, I should have made sure to have a puke bucket with me.

I’m too sludgy-brained today to go into all the problems with the book, but let me share a little of my joy with you. The nomenclature the authors have chosen for the lifeways scenarios is just horrendous. (The lifeways scenarios are the little fictional “day in the life” episodes designed to show how each of the creatures lived.) All the hominids are referred to as man-apes, apemen, or men, depending on the genus. This does absolutely nothing for clarity and simply sounds offensive. They go with the relentless man terminology even when the text is referring to females, so you have female men, or an ape-man and a female ape-man sitting next to each other (paging Samantha Bee), or a group of men, no modifiers, even though the rest of the story indicates that some of the “men” in the group are female.

But what’s even more bizarre is the chapter on Homo floresiensis. Back when H. floresiensis was discovered, all the big media outlets ran with the same illustration:

The only problem was, the type specimen was a female. “Flo,” the discoverers called her. The papers should have run with a reconstruction of a female H. floresiensis; that would have made sense. Flo, the little lady of Flores; Flo the hobbit. What’s wrong with that? Why was it necessary to transform her into a male? Do even prehistoric females have cooties?

In The Last Human, the H. floresiensis reconstruction is, thankfully, of a female, which is unsurprising given that these reconstructions are advertised to be as realistic as latex and human imagination will allow (picture at right). But dig it: the lifeways scenario they include in the text isn’t about her at all. Instead, the scenario is entirely about a male Homo floresiensis. In fact, the whole thing is unmistakably based on that bogus illustration that ran in all the papers, the one with the manly little dude carrying a giant rat. We are treated to the (imaginary) thoughts of this (imaginary) mature male as he goes about his day: catching the rat and slinging it over his shoulder, thinking about women (whom he regards as possessions that can be stolen), about his sons, about his mighty deeds as a mighty hunter — in other words, your basic 1960s-era male anthropologist’s Caveman Fantasy masquerading as science.

“Flo” — the real fossil, the little lady of Flores — is nowhere on the scene. I guess she’s one of those possessions waiting back in the cave for Mighty Man to bring home the rat.

2007 and they’re still doing this.

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21 Responses to “The Descent of Man”

  1. anna says:

    Do you have any recommendations for feminist anthropology books?

  2. Infidel says:

    Just for a hoot google “prehistoric women”, then “prehistoric men”. I am so sorry. Anyway there have never been any humans emerging from a man’s loins yet, and I think thats the way it was with those other species.

  3. The Ghost of Violet says:

    Anna, on this particular topic (deep history), I would strongly recommend a new book called The Invisible Sex, by J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page. It’s a popular science book aimed at a general audience, and the express goal is to get out there in the mainstream the stuff that anthropologists (or at least the good ones) have known for a long time about the real role of females in our species’ development. Overall it’s a terrific book, though of course I would quibble with a few things here and there. But it does a great job of showing how the popular view of the past has been totally shaped by sexist assumptions, and it offers up instead the new, good information.

    Infidel, I just want to note that it’s more than just a matter of pointing out that of course women were there in the past, too. Did you read my post about the asshat who claims that the reason women have never accomplished anything (!) is because we’re lizards? Speeches like that would not happen if there weren’t this huge cultural silence about women’s role in human development, if there weren’t this unspoken assumption that men invented everything. It ought to be common knowledge that females created and used stone tools, just like males; that females were responsible for the invention of the most important tools (the Fiber Revolution); that females almost certainly drove the creation of language; that women created rock art and probably invented pottery; that women invented agriculture. All of that should be common knowledge. Our daughters growing up should know that their foremothers were part of creating our species and our civilization, not just lumps waiting for their pelvises to evolve while men did all the work of becoming human.

  4. orlando says:

    “Wouldn’t you know, they’re all still male.”

    And yet oddly genital-free. Makes me wonder how we descended from them at all. A bit like Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam: he fathered the whole human race with that little todger?

  5. The Ghost of Violet says:

    I think I detect the glimmer of a nub on H. floresiensis, but H. erectus appears to have been airbrushed out (insert lame erectus joke). The others are clad in either clothing or fur. Speaking of fur, that’s the hairiest reconstruction of Homo habilis I’ve ever seen. He looks like a little yeti.

  6. Infidel says:

    I read that post. I read all your posts. I’ve been wanting to say something about breasts, about sucking on nipples, about how as an infant with a clean slate, when impressions are most intense all humans male and female might be offered a teat from another human and that human most likely will be female. Bite on it, no teeth, suck on it, suddenly no pain in the stomach, no hunger, soft, warm, secure, mmmmmm, tastes good. I stood and contemplated a swatch of cloth thousands of years old at the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Just a two inch square of woven fabric in its own glass case three foot by three foot about four foot off the ground and lit by those jewelery display case type lighting arrangements, thought about knitting, thought about crochet, about four nails on a wooden spool, about folded wrigleys gum wrappers, kite string looped through loop doubling strength, little kite string nooses, spinning buttons, cats cradle, looms, shuttles, shoes, laces, about one of the oldest examples of fabric known and I wanted to know all about that too.

  7. Infidel says:

    Field Museum_textiles

    Just wonderful.

  8. Infidel says:


  9. The Ghost of Violet says:

    I fixed the first link. I don’t know why it cuts off like that sometimes; I need to figure that out.

  10. Mary Tracy9 says:




    I have nothing to add, you’ve said it all. It’s wonderful to read that someone else thinks like you do. So, great job. I honestly thank you for saying this.

  11. The Ghost of Violet says:

    Infidel: if you’re interested in that sort of thing you should read Women’s Work, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. It’s wonderful.

  12. The Ghost of Violet says:

    Thank you, Mary Tracy. I appreciate that. Yes, we do need to say these things out loud and talk about them. It saddens me to think that if I had a daughter today, she would still be facing a lot of the same stuff I faced 30 years ago.

  13. orlando says:

    I’m still trying to come up with a pun that incorporates hairy habiliments and H. florescent’s glimmer, while avoiding erectus, but I know I’m just courting a disfunctional label.

  14. Theriomorph says:

    Love this post. I aslo wanted to be Donald Johansen, only, you know, a female man version.

  15. K.A. says:

    This is infuriating, but how did I never notice this?! I was born in the 80s; isn’t this shit tired yet? Yeah, this shit is tired.

    Did you also notice that homo sapien is depicted as a white dude? As if we are all descended from a 13-year-old white boy! Caucasian is not the default prototype for “human” by a long shot.

  16. Infidel says:

    Thanks Violet for the book suggestion, which by the way has, in, the first chapter exerpt, “…if only because of the exigencies of breast feeding…” so I should really enjoy it.

  17. Sam says:

    There’s a famous anecdote from linguistics about this.

    When kindergarten kids were asked to draw pictures of cavemen they drew pictures of cavemen. When they were asked to draw cavepeople they drew cavemen, cavewomen, and cavechildren.

  18. apostate says:

    I don’t get it about Infidel’s breast-feeding, so I will check out TGOV’s suggested book as well.

    TERRIFIC post. Spot on, very true. I’m glad someone is documenting the bullshit.

  19. rootlesscosmo says:

    “Homo sapien” is also illiterate; “sapiens” isn’t the plural of “sapien,” it’s a Latin adjective meaning “thinking.”

  20. Margaret L. Carter says:

    Nobody has mentioned Elaine Morgan’s THE DESCENT OF WOMAN and her follow-up books such as THE AQUATIC APE HYPOTHESIS and THE DESCENT OF THE CHILD. (The latter proposes, among its many thought-provoking points, that language was invented by human INFANTS — logically, because children are more apt to play around with vocal sounds than adults are, and because human babies, compared to most other mammals, are born practically quadriplegic; the only way they can affect their environment, at first, is through facial expressions and vocalization.)

  21. Eric C. Sanders says:

    As I read through the post – and the comments – I kept wondering “Am I the only one who has read Morgan? Then I hit the latest comment – Sister Maggie! As I write this in the summer of ’09, I still have yet to read any non-anthropocentric non-specialist discussions EXCEPT those by Morgan and her compeers. I’d like to apologize for men, but I doubt I’ll live long enough… what a bunch of self-centered assholes…