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Distorting the Past: Gender and the Division of Labor in the European Upper Paleolithic

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

Distorting the Past: Gender and the Division of Labor in the European Upper Paleolithic

By Linda R. Owen. Pp. 235, figs. 36, tables 7. Kerns Verlag, Tübingen 2005. €39.95. ISBN 3-935751-02-8 (cloth).

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Relics of the so-called Man the Hunter paradigm still survive in our perception of prehistoric societies at a popular as well as scientific level, even if the dismantling of this assumption started more than 40 years ago (R. Lee and I. DeVore, eds., Man the Hunter [Chicago 1968]). Recently, the aim of more gender-specific and gender-concerned approaches has been to widen the debate to the roles of men and women in food procurement within groups of fishers-hunters-gatherers. Today, the question is twofold: to what extent did humans rely on hunting, gathering, and fishing for their subsistence, and what were the specific contributions of men and women to these activities?

In response to the generally accepted assumption that we have two tools to answer these questions (i.e., the archaeological record and ethnoarchaeological evidence), Owen observes that our cultural perspectives and their heritage affect the interpretation of these data with a strong bias concerning how they were—and still are—collected, studied, and explained. Many present-day hypotheses derive from unreliable postcontact ethnological reports—which were interpreted in studies later used in the formulation of new hypotheses—through a manifold and partly self-referential process of distortion.

The aim of Distorting the Past is actually not to change this insight (or else the title would have probably been Undistorting the Past) but rather to put into evidence the misinterpretations and suggest new perspectives for interpreting archaeological data. Its approach is mostly ethnoarchaeological, and the first part of the book uses the frontal method of checking—and confuting, point by point—several widely accepted statements and assumptions about the role of women in prehistoric societies in the face of select, reliable ethnographic evidence from northern peoples who live in environments similar to those of the European Late Pleistocene. Considering the inherent complexity of the task, it is not surprising that this part occupies more than half of the book, spanning a wide range of general topics necessary for answering several basic questions that at first glance may not appear to be strictly connected to women’s roles. Specific issues like the participation of women in hunting are treated here, together with theoretical aspects such as the fuzzy boundary between hunting (large and small game), fishing, and gathering.

The discussions about inferring gender roles and the division of labor are not particularly new, as demonstrated by the cited literature. Nevertheless, this section compiles the arguments of wide-ranging authors who are rather sparsely represented in the literature and constructs a comprehensive new view of the Upper Paleolithic societies in Europe. The text sometimes seems to divert from the central subject of the book; this results from the rather rigid but effective analytic technique of the author, who puts into evidence all the aspects of a topic and discusses them systematically. Wisely, at the end of each chapter, she shepherds the reader back to the main focus with short concluding paragraphs.

At the end of the first section, the ethnographic reasons suggesting a reevaluation of the role of women in the subsistence of Upper Paleolithic groups are rather convincing, not just because of the accurate documentation and thorough discussion of all aspects of the question but also because Owen never makes absolute assessments, preferring rather to present her opinions in a more subtle way using the effective dialectic weapon of doubt.

An additional value of this section of the book must be pointed out: it is a rich source of data and literature about the subsistence of Arctic peoples, which could be adopted as textbook for environmental archaeology courses. It includes information, for example, about human social behavior, animal and vegetal food availability and processing, and clothing production materials and techniques.

In the second part of the book, the author looks for archaeological evidence of the behaviors she has inferred for, and from, the peoples of the North, aiming to decipher the social and economic role of European Upper Paleolithic women. This task is accomplished through a comprehensive examination of the archaeological evidence for animal (bone) and plant remains found within the sequences of the German Magdalenian and a reconstruction of the availability of those resources.

At this point, the only—quite minor—negative point of the book should be mentioned: the reader, having had her or his appetite whet by “European Upper Paleolithic” appearing in the title, may be slightly disappointed to discover that the study is limited to the Magdalenian of southwestern Germany (i.e., to a relatively narrow time span and an even narrower region). It may be argued that the Magdalenian is amply representative of most European cold-environment Upper Paleolithic cultures, and that southwestern Germany well represents continental Europe (although there is some disagreement among scholars on this point). But if we consider that Owen’s hypotheses are focused mostly on animal and vegetal remains as indicators of subsistence behavior, what should we say about groups living in the warmer peninsular parts of Europe where food types and availability were different? Is it likely that these regional aspects did not affect deeply the position of women within their Upper Paleolithic groups?

Even if the conclusions from this part of the study cannot be much more than a “could-be” list, Owen suggests that strategies like those of Arctic peoples may also have been adopted during the Upper Paleolithic period. This suggests that archaeologists may need to reevaluate the contribution of small game, fishing, and the gathering of vegetal food, the importance of which has been underestimated in Magdalenian economy, mostly because of our poor concern for plant remains, which derives from our distorted opinion that these peoples were mostly big-game hunters. Indeed, collecting vegetal evidence is still more common practice at Neolithic than at Upper Paleolithic excavations.

This conclusion alone strongly challenges many commonly accepted insights about Upper Paleolithic life, but it remains difficult to evaluate the role of women in this new model. It is perhaps reasonable to agree with the author that, “[w]hereas there is no reason to doubt that the able-bodied men hunted, the rest of the population did not simply spend their time sitting at camp and waiting for them to return” (148).

Following Owen, the preconceived ideas cited above also affect the interpretation of tools in typological and functional studies. This gives Owen the chance to carry out, and comment on, an interesting application of experimental archaeology on tool use and division of labor—the use of the bone split-base points. These are normally interpreted as spear points, but after a discussion of their shape, size, and the possible uses, she suggests that split-base points may have been needles for making mats. Whatever arguments we may develop around this hypothesis, this is another hint that we must revise most of our insights about Upper Paleolithic societies in terms of gender roles, subsistence, and economy. This is the ultimate message of the book, and even if it does not “undistort” the past (which would not be possible, considering our current data and approaches), it points out a way to follow.

Giovanni Boschian
Department of Archaeological Sciences
University of Pisa
53 Via Santa Maria
56100 Pisa

Book Review of Distorting the Past: Gender and the Division of Labor in the European Upper Paleolithic, by Linda R. Owen

Reviewed by Giovanni Boschian

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Boschian

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