[Erect Men, Undulating Women: The Visual Imagery of Gender, Race & Progress in Reconstructive Illustrations of Human Evolution]

By Wiber, Melanie G.; Willoughby, Pamela R. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

[Erect Men, Undulating Women: The Visual Imagery of Gender, Race & Progress in Reconstructive Illustrations of Human Evolution]


Wiber, Melanie G., Willoughby, Pamela R., Anthropologica


Palaeonthropologists, like most people, are fascinated with our remote history. They present ideas about our past, and back them up with fossils and reconstructions of early social life. Describing and explaining our origins began well before anthropology developed as a formal academic discipline. But by the middle of the 19th century, these once-speculative ideas had been incorporated into evolutionary and progressive models of our past. When I was young, one of my favourites was a coffee-table book called The Epic of Man, published by Life Magazine (1961). It is full of pictures of ancient people and sites, but what were really fascinating were the reconstructions of life in the past, presumably drawn from archaeological and historical sources. Very little was about human evolution, only the first 20 or so pages. But the ideas of progress and developmental change resonate through the book as it visually describes human history from the most remote period up to the beginning of civilization. One never thought to question what was portrayed or how it was presented. This was the generally accepted picture of the development of society, progressing from its most primitive to its most complex stages in a unilineal fashion.

In the study of human evolution, palaeoanthropology, visibility is often a means to success. New fossil discoveries are well reported in the press and popular publications, but their significance and interpretation is not often discussed. Fossils are facts, as is their anatomy, context and position in time and space. All else is interpretation, and is often subjective, not to mention culturally loaded by our own preconceptions. It is well understood within the discipline that fossil specimens are rare and are hotly contested. But in general publications, there seems to be a clear party line or consensus view of human evolution.

Misia Landau (Narratives of Human Evolution, Yale University Press, 1991) was one of the first to recognize that the stories palaeoanthropologists tell us about their discoveries are structured in the same way as origin myths found in all societies. They function in the same way, providing an explanation of our place in nature. While these narratives share much with mythology, labelling them as "science" says that the accounts presented by palaeoanthropologists represent the absolute truth, rather than just being folk tales. As the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson, recently said while opening a conference on human evolution, all societies have origin myths. But only geneticisis had access to the truth, as one's DNA does not lie.

It is within this context, and in the context of deconstruction of scientific thought, that one can place Erect Men/Undulating Women, the new book by Melanie Wiber of the University of New Brunswick. Ostensibly it discusses the issue of how early humans are portrayed in scientific illustrations, and how these illustrations reflect the dominant society's preconceptions about gender and race. …

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