It’s Cavernpeople, Thankyouverymuch.

Neanderthals weren’t the brutes we make them out to be.

Having just read an article entitled “Sheanderthal” in Aeon, yet another set of scales have fallen from my eyes. (Apparently I have quite a few of those.) I’d like to think that I view the world through a feminist lens, but it never occurred to me that our society has given female Neanderthals rather short shrift. It’s so easy to bow down to the patriarchy without even realizing you’re doing so.

Consider this: in the bulk of artistic depictions of Neanderthals, both in painting and sculpture, the person being depicted is a male. If a female appears at all, she is much smaller and subordinate, and is usually off on the periphery somewhere, doing, you know, housewifey, “less important” things. That is, if she isn’t being dragged into a cave by her hair. It’s quite appalling to have that insight.

The article mentioned above goes into detail about what we have learned, and also what we can infer about Neanderthal women. It’s quite fascinating. Here are some of the salient points.

First of all, most of us have been told that the first Neanderthal skeletons were found in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. Hence their name. But in fact, with hindsight, we now know that the first Neanderthal skull ever found came from Gibraltar in 1848, and it turns out that it was a female skull, but without DNA they just assumed it was male. Since her features weren’t as extreme, it was believed for many years that the skull shape was difficult to discern from the stone from which it emerged, so its identification as a whole new (old) type of human was overlooked. Isn’t that always the way? Even in skulls, we require male validation for something to seem true.

But hey, at least the female skull got to meet Charles Darwin, in 1863, which is more than any of us alive today can say. He was apparently quite delighted with the experience. It was only 4 years after his book, On the Origin of Species, had been published.

And we’re learning from the increasing number of skeletons that Neanderthal females were pretty much the same size as the males. Their features were generally softer, their eye ridges didn’t protrude as much, but pound for pound, they could give the guys a run for their money. I suspect not as much cave dragging actually went on as we once assumed. That makes me happy.

But based on muscle attachments of the bones that have been found, it is clear that there was a division of labor along gender lines. Men and women’s upper leg muscles were equally bulky, but men had more developed lower legs, and their upper arms were more developed than their lower arms. Female lower arms were stronger than their upper arms, and they were more symmetrical, suggesting that they did a lot of carrying, pushing and pulling.

This, coupled with the fact that women’s teeth show more wear, indicates that they did more hide-working. This work was labor intensive and time-consuming, and it’s often done around the fire, so it’s probable that women formed friendships with each other.

These friends may have helped each other during their most vulnerable moments: childbirth. (Even bonobos have been seen attending to each other in this way, even to the point of supporting the baby’s head as it comes out.) Neanderthal women had a 9 month gestation period, just like us. They could feel the baby kicking inside them, just like us.

Their babies were just as vulnerable and in need of constant care as our babies are. Their little bones were bulkier, and they had to eat more. Obviously, the women breastfed their children, and a study of tooth development indicates they did so for more than a year, although they started giving babies solid food around 7 months of age.

Neanderthal children lost their baby teeth sooner, and they entered puberty a few years before our children do. As they became more ambulatory, these children would probably hang out with other children, thus freeing the woman up for other sorts of work, just as happens in modern day hunter-gatherer cultures.

By studying hunter-gatherer cultures today, we can infer that Neanderthal girls had shorter menstruation periods, perhaps lasting 3 days. They were also sexually active, but of course it was unclear if they linked that activity with becoming pregnant. They did seem to understand how each person was related to the other, because only in small, isolated populations do we see rampant inbreeding in DNA.

It seems that Neanderthal women did hunt, but they focused on smaller, less dangerous game, probably because they had to take their children along with them, or they only wanted to leave the children with elderly babysitters for short periods of time.

What about higher culture? Art and religion? According to this article, Neanderthals did, indeed, create art. Rudimentary cave paintings, usually using red pigment and consisting of lines, dots and hand stencils, are found across Europe fully 20,000 years before Homo Sapiens arrived. Much of this art is located in deep, dark caves, which implies planning and bringing a light source. They were capable of symbolic behavior.

And according to this article, the Neanderthals held funerals, built complex structures, created tools and decorated themselves with bird feathers. They buried their dead, surrounding their graves with horns and bones, and often leaving artifacts with the bodies. In anticipation of an afterlife? Who knows? They did plan and carefully execute these burials. They must have loved the people they were burying. They must have thought about the circle of life. Does that constitute religion as we know it? Hard to say.

But it’s obvious that the Neanderthals weren’t the brutes that we’ve assumed they were for so long. I even vaguely recall reading somewhere that they made music and flossed their teeth, sort of. Go figure.

Why is all this important? Because, dear reader, it has been found that many of us have Neanderthal DNA within us, so they are us, just as we are them.

So now I have a new pet peeve. We all say cavemen, as if the women were mere afterthoughts, and as if living in a cave is not worthy of respect and automatically implies a primitive life. Sheesh. It’s cavernpeople, thankyouverymuch.

Uh, guys? Where are the women?

Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


Sworn Virgins in Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo

In the isolated areas of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, the gender roles have traditionally been extremely restrictive for women. They could not inherit, own land, vote, work outside of the home, choose their own spouses, smoke, drink, wear pants or watches, sing or dance, interact with men, or own businesses. They weren’t even supposed to enter homes first. That was the man’s privilege. In an area dominated by blood feuds, killing a woman only gave you half the credit that you would get if you killed a man. And once a marriage was arranged for a woman, often when she was still a child, she went from her lifelong home to being a subordinate in the home of her husband’s family. If they decided to beat her, she had no recourse.

So what was a woman to do if she was promised to a man she despised, or if all the men in her family died in war or blood feuds? What if she didn’t want to ever marry, or simply wanted the freedom to take charge of her own life?

The answer for many women was to cut off her hair, don men’s clothing, and take an oath in front of the village elders to become a sworn virgin. She then, for all intents and purposes, became a man. She had all the rights of a man, all the respect of a man, and suddenly her world expanded. She could do anything that a man could do. But to gain these privileges, she had to promise to remain chaste for life. She could never have children or take a life partner.

I came across this tradition today, and it brings up very mixed emotions in me. In reading about this, I see Americans, over and over again, trying to view this through our own cultural lens. We often assume that these women must surely have been lesbians, and this was the only way they could live the life they were meant to live, so good for them! But this apparently was quite frequently not the case. These were women who sacrificed a great part of their lives in order to keep their homes and families together, and to be able to make a living and support themselves without becoming the equivalent of a barnyard animal with no rights and no choices. They were doing what they had to do to survive.

And here’s where the American cultural lens comes in again. Learning about this, we tend to feel sorry for them. And yes, it must be a very lonely and difficult choice to make, but it does not appear that these women feel sorry for themselves. They are respected in their communities, and they have chosen to do what they needed to do to survive.

And ironically enough, once they’ve taken on this role, many of them strictly enforce the gender inequality of their culture just as any man does. They are outraged when women enter a home first. They participate in blood feuds. They look at the young girls of today with disgust as they see them running around in their short skirts, talking to men and marrying for love.

And as the modern world gets closer and closer to their doorsteps, these sworn virgins are becoming a dying breed. In 2008, there were less than 40 left, and most of them were quite advanced in age.

I am glad women in that region no longer feel the need to alter their lives so irrevocably in order to have the rights that every human deserves. But on the other hand, I do not begrudge these sworn virgins their choices. I admire people who do what they feel they have to do and make no apologies for it. Perhaps in other cultures they would have become nuns or joined the military. It’s hard to say. But the fact that some women have been willing to practically twist themselves into knots in order to have basic human rights just shows you how valuable those rights truly are.


An Albanian Sworn Virgin