Donna Reed with brow ridges?

Posted on January 3, 2011


For those of us raised on the first generation of mass TV, The Donna Reed Show became the epitome of idealized (and thus unreal) suburban family life.

I couldn’t help thinking of Donna Reed in the face of the barrage of recent coverage of news about Neanderthals.

Neanderthal girls, we are now told, “wept bitterly” as they left their original family to join that of their new husbands, for whom they would help prepare healthy meals of “meat and veg”.

First came news that Neanderthals ate plants.  For the British newspaper the Guardian this led to a new view of Neanderthal woman:

“The plants we found are all foods associated with early modern human diets, but we now know Neanderthals were exploiting those plants and cooking them, too. When you cook grains it increases their digestibility and nutritional value”

quoting Smithsonian researcher Dolores Piperno, co-author of the new study. From this the Guardian drew the  conclusion that

the discoveries even raised the possibility that male and female Neanderthals had different roles in acquiring and preparing food.

How do we get from Neanderthals cooking to a division of labor by sex? the Guardian continues, again quoting Piperno:

“In early human groups, women typically collected plants and turned them into food while men hunted. To us, and it is just a suggestion, this brings up the possibility that there was some sexual division of labour in the Neanderthals and that is something most people did not think existed.”

I stand in awe of Piperno’s work, and that of others finding traces of such early plant use.

But this is a classic example of how we archaeologists project the better known recent past back onto the less known ancient past.

Most interesting to me is the persistence of the idea that hunter-gatherers historically divided food preparation between man the hunter and woman the gatherer– or gardener, or cook.

In fact, a great deal of ethnographic evidence shows that hunter-gatherers organize work along multiple lines; a sexual division of labor between those who bring home the bacon and those who make the salad is not, in fact, automatic.

Methodologically, when archaeologists are faced with constructing analogies, we are encouraged to ensure that the most relevant factors of the source of the analogy are comparable to those of the target society. That’s why we use hunter-gatherers as models for pre-agricultural hominids in the first place. But not all hunter-gatherers operate in the same conditions.

Ethnographic studies of societies in environments most similar to those in which Neanderthals lived have been particularly important in exploring women’s participation in hunting.

Leading the way were Hetty Jo Brumbach and Robert Jarvenpa, in a series of journal articles and book chapters in venues as prestigious as  American Antiquity. They used data from their studies of Chipewyan hunters of the Canadian sub-Arctic to show that women and men were involved in hunting trips, with variability by age and other factors determining who went on longer hunting trips. (Researching this post, I found a book they edited that I had missed, Circumpolar Lives and Livelihood, for those interested in more.)

To me it makes more sense to use these circumpolar hunters as our analogue for Neanderthal life– and here, I am following in the footsteps of people like Lewis Binford.

That means we probably should assume hunting parties were mixed sex until proven otherwise.

And that means I see no reason to assume the same would not have been true for plant gathering and processing.

(It is unfortunately the case that archaeology of gender still tends to take woman as the only gender to be studied, so I am hard-pressed to cite studies of men’s roles in plant processing. If you know of any, ethnoarchaeological or archaeological, let me know…)

But the media imagination still projects “cave man” onto Neanderthal, so it was inevitable that the new research on plant use would feed into a kind of Flintstones imagery.

To complement this vision of Neanderthal man the hunter bringing steaks to his stay-at-home wife, we can add sentimental imagery of Neanderthal girls crying on their wedding night.

The route to this image runs through a new report on analysis of mitochondrial DNA of a group of Neanderthal skeletons from El Sidrón cave in Spain. As the New York Times summarized it,

All three men had the same mitochondrial DNA, which could mean they were brothers, cousins, or uncles. The females, however, all came from different lineages. Dr. Lalueza-Fox suggests that Neanderthals lived in small bands of close relatives. When two bands met, they sometimes exchanged daughters.

Fair enough, if we agree that the group is a single band (the Times says that Linda Vigilant of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology thinks that conclusion is not as clear as the researchers assume).

But then comes the projection onto these Neanderthal brides of a thoroughly modern family sentiment:

“I cannot help but suppose that Neanderthal girls wept as bitterly as modern girls faced by the prospect of leaving closest family behind on their ‘wedding’ day.”

Mary Stiner, the anthropologist quoted here, is a great researcher and I mean no disrespect to her. I know from experience how a reporter will keep you talking until he or she gets a colorful quote. But I think this quote exemplifies another part of the pervasive hold that modern ideologies of gender have over us, ideologies that fuel and shape press coverage of archaeology.

The history of familial relationships actually shows us that the kinds of sentiments that would lead a daughter to “weep bitterly” when leaving her family of birth are not, in fact, transhistorical. In her 1989 book Best Friends and Marriage, Stacy Oliker provided a clear summary of the views of sociologists about the history of family sentiment, and noted that the baseline should be historian Lawrence Stone’s

concept of affective individualism. Stone holds that in sixteenth-century England, before the spread of individualism, “the family was an open-ended, low-keyed, unemotional, authoritarian institution,” essentially an economic unit, short-lived because parents died early and children were fostered out in apprenticeship. Relations within all social strata were plagued with distrust, intolerance, habitual violence, and mutual litigation. The affective chill of these times was a residue of harsh childrearing.

(Citing Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-2800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

Not encouraging for making assumptions that Neanderthal girls would have been sad about leaving their families of birth.

To really think through what Neanderthal band life was like, we would need to take historical research like this much more seriously, and ask what kind of emotional lives would have been fostered in these very alien circumstances in which Neanderthals lived– circumstances that the Spanish study suggests included substantial violence.

But media imagination about the past is based more in exposure to media images like The Donna Reed Show, inaccurate romanticized portrayals of American life even at the time they were made.

So what we get in popular coverage of new anthropological research is not an image of Neanderthal women’s life.

It is Donna Reed– with brow ridges.