Saturday, January 15, 2005

Men of Science

Just got my latest copy of Scientific American.

Why is it that whenever they do a story on "early man" the covershot is always, always, always a man holding a spear?

Because showing a woman's breasts on the cover (however artistically rendered) is scary? Or just because the idea of a female form standing in for "all humankind" is really scary?

I would love to see a woman with a spear representing "all of mankind."

It would be no more or less totally representative than this stupid "artistic" rendering.

4 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Breasts aren't the issue. I've seen them done.

There are a couple of reasons. One is the fossil source, the sex of the specimen that is being described. The best known fossils for Homo erectus and Neandertal happen to have been male, so they're often depicted as that spear-carrying male. The best known fossil australopithecine is Lucy, so I've noticed a marked tendency for Australopithecus to be represented by illustrations of females, breasts and all.

This doesn't explain the illustrations of Homo floresiensis, though, of which the most complete specimen is, I think, a female.

The other force driving the trend is that in addition to the bones, the next most interesting discoveries are the kinds of tools found with them, and there's a natural desire to include those with the illustration. The tools most like to be preserved are big choppers and spear points, and if you look at contemporary cultures that use similar tools, it's the men doing it. The safe, conservative choice when doing the drawing is to put the tools in the hands of a male. Drawing a spear-chucking paleolithic female would be a little bit radical, and would be implying something not found in the evidence or in current cultures.

Homo floresiensis's other claim to fame (besides being small) is their lifestyle, which involved a lot of elephant hunting. Ergo, artists draw hunters, who are presumed to have been mostly male. 

Posted by PZ Myers

Anonymous said...

Hey PZ.

Yea, that's the rational, logical argument that everybody uses, but I don't buy it. The reason they could figure out Lucy was female was because she was one of the most complete early skeletons they'd gotten - meaning they had hip bones. If you don't have a skeleton's hip bones, it's almost impossible to judge a skeleton's sex. You can try going for bone density, but without knowing about the individual's diet and without having a lot of specimans to compare and contrast to find some sort of "norm," I'd hazard a guess that the default sex for skeletons ends up being male. Hence, though floresiensis may have some intact hip fragments they can base ideas around its sex on, we're still seeing a default-to-maleness. And I do think that default has a lot to do with the word "mankind" - mankind means men. Default is "man".

The vast majority of anatomy books still do this - I actually found the first one ever that used male and female skeletons/torsos in a near-equal amount (that is, images of women's bodies weren't just reserved for the section on "reproduction"), and I almost picked it up merely for that reason. I was startled to see images of my body used as a default template for something like bone structure in the legs. It was really cool.

I think that a lot of our views of early humanity are still based on the 50s idea of the Big Male Hunter who goes out and drags home food to the sedentary mother and her brood - museum exhibits of "early man" often give us diaromas that look suspiciously like a 50s ideal nuclear family.

There are a lot more tools you could show early humans using, ones they probably used more often than spears, like everyday cutting tools, but those tasks, I suppose, are considered too "domestic," even if they were used more often than things like spears. And honestly, most "weapons" early humans used were probably more for defensive use than offensive - hunting could be a dangerous task, and keeping close to home would be biologically advantageous to most - male and female.

No, when I see these images of default "man" on the cover of SA, what I'm seeing isn't an image based on rational, logical finds, it's based on our belief system right now, and our assumptions about what a human being is.


Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Maybe they could put up a Paleolithic woman carrying some kind of knife-thing and some local fruit, which raises the question: Is she going to cut the fruit? Did she use the knife to help get the fruit? Or will she be snacking on the fruit as she waits to throw her knife at the rabbit? In short, something which gives women a role in providing food but doesn't clearly say what that role is. 

Posted by Maureen

Anonymous said...

Anything that involves 52% of the population would be good... 

Posted by Kameron Hurley