Our Own Engendered Species

By Hurcombe, Linda | Antiquity, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Our Own Engendered Species


Hurcombe, Linda, Antiquity


The study of gender in ancient societies seems inseparable from the place of gender in our own society - and therefore inseparable from the particular attitudes and expectations those contemporary manners create. This 'BIG' problem is explored, and some approaches to its resolution are developed.

Walcott, following our primal biases of gender, found two specimens that appeared to lack the frontal nozzle. ... On one specimen, Walcott found a slender, two-pronged structure in the same location as the nozzle. Walcott therefore concluded that he had discovered sexual dimorphism in Opabinia: the strong and stout nozzle belonging to the male (naturally), and the slender structure to the more delicate female. He wrote that these supposed females 'differ from the male... in having a slender, bifid frontal appendage instead of the strong appendage of the male'. He even foisted the stereotypes of active and passive upon his fictitious distinctions, arguing that the nozzle 'was probably used by the male to seize the female'.

GOULD (1989: 128) writing about Walcott (1912: 169)

Viable human populations need at least two biological sexes, sufficient numbers of both, and their interaction. The archaeological literature shows a past peopled mainly by men (e.g. 'Early man', 'Neolithic man', 'craftsmen', 'big men') and with little consideration for the interaction between genders. As it is represented, the human species simply does not have a viable prehistoric population. The reasons are rooted in the notions of gender prevailing in the time and society in which the authors wrote, and write, the archaeological accounts. The more ancient the period under discussion, the more fragmentary the evidence and the more open the interpretation of the scant fossil and cultural remains. Walcott's view, quoted at the start of this article, refers to the fossil remains of Opabinia, a 530 million-year-old worm with five eyes and tail fins! If 1912 perceptions of contemporary human gender roles have been imposed on that early invertebrate, how much more have contemporary attitudes to gender coloured academic discussions on human evolution and the history of our own species!

The gender roles prevailing in the archaeologist's time have pervaded so much of the body of 'knowledge' of prehistoric people that it is difficult to see how such an unhealthy past could have gone unnoticed for so long. As the evidence for gender roles is woefully incomplete, contemporary social influences push 'comfortable' interpretations. In academic writing to discuss new evidence and theories, and in museum displays and reconstruction drawings, the present is re-created for the past. There are thus two key areas: the present attitudes to gender (a problem affecting all our society, and hence not an archaeological concern per se), and the reflection of our own society back on the past. This second aspect is clearly a concern for archaeologists who need to discern and combat the problem. As the past is used to explain the present, a tautology develops which leads to a legitimization of the present by the past. The issue can be termed the BIG (Biased Interpretation of Gender) problem in archaeology. This article does not claim the discovery of the problem, as many people have drawn attention to the invisibility of women and how we judge the past by the contemporary present (e.g. Burtt 1987; Conkey & Spector 1984; Engelstad 1991; Gilchrist 1991; Jones & Pay 1990; Moser 1992a; 1992b). Instead, this article aims to present the BIG problem clearly, to group responses to it and to suggest ways of counteracting gender bias. Medical metaphors show the complexity of the problem, its propagation and the effectiveness of potential responses.

The disease - the BIG problem

Academic reactions to gender theory vary widely. One is that no action is necessary because now that the problem has been recognized, there is no longer any gender bias. The examples are mostly drawn from the last five years in order to show that this complacency is completely wrong. …

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