Saturday, July 21, 2012

Neandertals, hide-scraping, and domestic goddesses

"Neanderthal man not only hunted, they did chores 
around the house as well, according to new research. 
  The Courier-Mail" (From the Herald Sun)
In 1995 Archaeology Magazine had a small article by Diane Gifford-Gonsalez called “The Drudge on the Hide” (Gifford-Gonsalez 1995:84). She talked about popular reconstructions of prehistoric life in representations like museum dioramas and illustrations, and pointed out the ubiquity of crouching women doing something boring, usually scraping hides. Hence “the Drudge on the Hide.” Men, on the other hand, are doing things like returning from the hunt with game slung over their shoulders, painting, or talking animatedly. And at least one child will be chasing, or being chased by, a dog.

For me it was a lesson in the obliviousness of privilege. I had never noticed that before—my eye just automatically wondered to the most prominent and animated parts of the reconstruction, and that usually wasn’t the women (unless, I’ll be honest, they were sexualized). This representation was so crude, so obvious, and everwhere--but I didn’t notice until someone pointed it out. Since Gifford-Gonsalez’ article, reconstructions seem to have improved. I have, for example, seen many more pictures of prehistoric women standing up and moving around. But the “Drudge on the Hide” seems to be firmly entrenched in popular consciousness.

I bring this up because of the coverage of an article that just came out in PLoSOne—”Neandertal Humeri May Reflect Adaptation to Scraping Tasks, but Not Spear Thrusting” (Shaw et al. 2012). To sum, Neandertals had much more developed right arms compared to their left. Modern humans have this assymetry as well, just not at the same scale. As far as handedness goes, Neandertals are like a population of tennis or cricket players (um, sort of). An influential explanation is that this assymmetry is due to Neandertal hunting techniques—close range hunting with thrusting spears. Shaw et al. make the argument that the overdeveloped musculature was actually produced by hide-scraping, rather than spear-thrusting, and they experimentally test this.

The article has been getting some well-deserved publicity. It is after all an interesting article with a significant finding, and a lot of interesting questions come out of it. Some of the coverage reflects this. It also appears to be a good article if you want masturbation jokes in your comments section. But a lot of the coverage is fascinated with the idea that Neandertal men were doing what is obviously “domestic” (i.e., women’s) work. There is nothing about gendered division of labour in the article, but that is the first place many reporters went. So we have headlines and articles replete with “domestic gods”, “domestic divas”, “domestic chores”, “new men” (“new Neandertals”) and even metrosexuality (?!). To be honest, I am really not sure the notion of “domestic” had that much meaning to Neandertals.

This is from Field and Stream (ok, no surprise there).
Now, as it turns out, scientists also believe Neanderthals were pretty good domestic divas, and they've got the huge right arms to prove it. 
So there you have it: Neanderthal men got so buff and manly not by running wild and free across the plains hunting with their Neanderthal buddies, but by staying home and helping out the wife with domestic duties. Some things never change. 

This is the headline from The Telegraph (no surprise there either).
Neanderthals' macho image may be wrong: Neanderthals have traditionally been seen as a race of macho hunters but in reality they spent much of their time carrying out domestic chores, a study has found.   
 From The Independent we have the following: 
Neanderthal man's 'life of domesticity 
Neanderthal man may have preferred domestic chores to a rugged hunter-gatherer lifestyle, researchers have said.
From (oh god) The Daily Mail (no surprise again, but you already knew that) we have the headline:
Neanderthal man 'was a domestic god': Powerful arms came from making clothes, not hunting mammoths
And from the U.K. Metro we get
Neanderthals weren't just hairy brutes - they were domestic gods at home: He has long been portrayed as a grunting, hairy brute who slaughtered mammoths with his bare hands. But the image of the Neanderthal took a battering yesterday when it was shown he was a multi-tasking domestic god.
And last, but certainly not least (mainly because of the illustration of the neandertal and vacuum cleaner...and the metro reference), from The Herald Sun in Melbourne we get:
Neanderthal man was a bit... metro 
AFTER a hard day’s woolly mammoth hunting, Neanderthal man could have been forgiven for putting his feet up by the fire in his cave. But not for long. For, contrary to his brutish image, it appears the hairy hunter was a bit of a whizz on the domestic front.
A Neanderthal new man, in fact. Scientists now believe the Neanderthals spent most of their time carrying out domestic chores. 

Thanks guys.  Good job all around.

I don't have a whole lot to add to this. Hide-scraping is a pretty obscure activity. Nobody scrapes hides today, not really. But somehow the mere mention of the words kicks off a remarkably repetitive set of associations. 

Gifford-Gonsalez, Diane
1995  "The Drudge-on-the-Hide", Archaeology Magazine 48(2):84

Shaw, Colin N., Cory L. Hofmann, Michael D. Petraglia, Jay T. Stock, and Jinger S. Gottschall
2012  "Neandertal Humeri May Reflect Adaptation to Scraping Tasks, but Not Spear Thrusting." PLoS ONE 7(7). July 18

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