Interpretations of Art & Archaeology

In Intro to Anthro 2022 following our first discussions of archaeology, we finish chapter 5 “Cultural Diversity from 3mya 20,000ya” in Through the Lens of Anthropology. We also read “Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Figurines” by April Nowell and Melanie Chang (2014). This article is referenced in box 5.4 of Muckle, González, and Camp, “Upper Paelolithic Figurines – Not Just Erotica” (126). Next up: Expansions


I have attempted to cover this material on figurines and archaeological interpretations several times:

Transcript: Interpretations

Today we’re going to talk about figurines and the interpretations of archaeological artifacts. We’re going to be dealing with an article by April Nowell and Melanie Chang called “Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Figurines,” which gets referenced in Muckle, González, and Camp in the text box titled “Upper Paleolithic Figurines – Not Just Erotica” (126).

It should really say *not* erotica. But the question is: why were they assumed to be erotica in the first place?

In this image, they have been dug up and removed from the places in which they were found, cleaned up. and put on museum displays. They’re sometimes shown in Art History as the first instances of “Art.”

Then, people get all excited about figurine proportions and start talking about them as erotica. One of the reasons why I think this happens is because they are assumed to come from a phase of life in human society before agriculture. In this time, from 40,000-9,000 years ago in Eurasia, from what is now France to what is now Siberia, in which we imagine that the world was dominated by “Man the Hunter.” If the world was dominated by Man the Hunter then the idea is that these were Man the Hunter’s primitive porn objects.

The first thing I want to do is go into some reassessments of “Man the Hunter,” or things that we’ve realized. First, we have realized the importance of Woman the Gatherer in almost all these early groups, and in many of the groups that we know of today that are hunters and gatherers. They get their primary calories from both hunting and gathering, and it is the women of the group who provide around 70% of the daily calorie intake for the group. Hunting is something that is done but is often something that brings home occasional rather than steady calories. People now talk about the importance of women for gathering. As Muckle, González, and Camp put it, “anthropologists know that there is no reason to believe men had any more important roles than women in the past” (129).

That’s one of the ways in which the idea of Man the Hunter has been reassessed. Also, we should note that while men are out hunting, men also might be gathering as they hunt, especially if the hunt is not successful, or if the men are older or younger or not in the hunting mood, they might be gathering for their calories.

Women hunt as well. Now perhaps because of the way contemporary hunting takes place, there has been this idea that women would not necessarily be involved in hunting, but there are lots of different ways in which hunting took place in the past. One way is using nets. Hunting often is not about the big mammals, but about small animals as well. Women might have been involved in net-hunting, and they were almost certainly involved in the production of nets.

A lot of what we call “hunting” is done with snares or traps, or having people surround animals and drive them off a ravine. Probably not a huge cliff because they don’t want to fall too far to the bottom, but there’s all kinds of different hunting techniques that people use and for many of these, women could be involved.

There’s been in the last 50-60 years a reassessment of the idea. That there was a definitive Man the Hunter phase. Some people have postulated that humans and Homo erectus went through a long phase of not hunting but scavenging. In the context of the great African predators, humans or people or creatures who would become humans, use stone tools to run in after most of the bones had been picked over by the main predator and by other scavengers. They would then use those stone tools to crack open bones, and especially get the bone marrow. Some people have speculated. That there was a long phase in which humans cooperated and had a period of scavenging.

Muckle, González, and Camp are way against this, or they do not think there is evidence to support this (118). At least the way I read them. My own feeling is that there was a scavenging phase, but since your textbook says “probably not,” I’ll just put a question mark by it and say I guess the evidence is leaning against it. There was a book that came out in 2009 called _Man the Hunted_ (changed the R to a D at the end): Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution_. The book basically argued that many of the characteristics that we see in humans were caused not because we had man hunting, but man being hunted, and having to cooperate in different groups. I don’t think this book was very successful, in part because if you just look at the title there’s a big “Man” there, and they’ve just changed one little letter. It doesn’t really change our larger ideas about things. We’ll talk about the ways in which we write our headlines and our titles, and how we might redo that to better convey information.

In any case, we now don’t talk about “hunting societies” because we know that these societies are always composed of both hunters and gatherers, so: hunting and gathering societies. There’s been a major shift in people’s thinking, for both the scientific community, and perhaps popular culture, in part because of the popularity of the Paleo Diet. There’s been a major rethinking of what it was like to be a hunter-gatherer, and how we should interpret this phase.

One of the things that we know now is that there wasn’t just one way of hunting and gathering. In the ways in which people spread out all over the habitable world, you had to use different kinds of techniques in different habitats. It became a very successful subsistence strategy, a sustainable strategy, and one that people used in many different places. It was working for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years in some cases. It is not an unchanging strategy. But one in which people need to have deep ecological knowledge of their environment and be very invested in the place in which they were.

We also know that the technological apparatus for hunting and gathering was a lot more sophisticated than we once thought. We used to think that the tools of hunters and gatherers were incredibly simple. We now know as that box titled “Deconstructing Cave Men and Cave Women” (128-129) that it’s very difficult to make a lot of the stone tools and other tools that were used. By some measures, the things that you need to hunt and gather, especially large mammals are more complicated than the tools that you would use for some of the first horticulture or agriculture, which may be as simple as a digging stick, and in some ways not as technically sophisticated as the hunting and gathering techniques.

We also know that they were not simply “harvesting” what we might call wild plants and animals, but they had deep knowledge of the environment to do this. People have started to talk about how they were actively managing their environments, in some cases using fire, not simply as something to cook with on a small scale, but on a large scale to burn off large areas to encourage the growth of the favorable plants and animals that they would like to hunt and gather.

Many landscapes that we saw, such as in the Americas when the Europeans first arrived, were extensively shaped by the people who had lived there, in ways that the Europeans did not understand because Indigenous peoples used large-scale techniques to transform the landscape.

We’ve talked about the importance of women in these groups, for gathering, and calories, but, especially in the last 10 years there’s been a realization that perhaps this isn’t simply man the hunter and woman the gatherer. The gender divide may not be as deep and ancient as we once thought. This is something that we’re only now coming to terms with, in part because we’re figuring out some stuff about our own gender ideas, but we’re also starting to rethink how artifacts are interpreted in the past. Like I said, this has been something that’s been going on I would say since the since the 1960s and 1970s perhaps at around the same time that we had some of those bipedal revolution ideas. The reshaping of human evolution also was a reshaping of our ideas about hunters and gatherers.

For me one of the beautiful culminating articles about this, and about the figurines, which I used to assign in class, was a great article called “New Women of the Ice Age.” It’s easier to read because it was in _Discover_ magazine. It was a more popularly written article by a science journalist. It was written in 1998, and it talked about these figurines. Again, 1998! None of you were even born then. . . . As I sometimes say, your parents could have read this article. I’ve been teaching this article for 20 years.

Basically, Heather Pringle was talking about these same figurines, the Upper Paleolithic figurines. One of the speculations was that the reason they were the way they were is they were used in rituals of prophecy and divination and reading the future. This is mentioned briefly in Nowell and Chang (570), that they could have been used for divination. It’s a speculative idea, but it was a cool idea, because what they found out is when they tried to remake some of these figurines, they noticed that a lot of them seemed to be in pieces, and that perhaps the ones that they found intact were not necessarily the main reason people had made these figurines. If you recreated them, they would explode in the fire, and by finding out where the pieces went, the shards or the cracks of the lines–the same way that we have palm readings of lines–you could tell the future.

They also use what is called “ethnographic analogy”: looking at some of the hunter-gatherer groups in contemporary times that have similar practices and interpreting them onto the past. It is an interesting idea about how some of the figurines might have been used.

There was another interesting speculation, which Nowell and Chang mentioned, which is that if you look at some of these figurines from the top-down, the body perspective looks like it is a woman looking at her own body in various stages of pregnancy. Some people have said that they seem to perhaps have had a medical or a purpose in understanding pregnancy and reproduction. That may explain some of the strange angles that you see, or shapes that would be different from when we look at it head-on. There’s been an article written that argues this point quite well.

But from this article, “New Women of the Ice Age,” we were very sure, as Heather Pringle put it, they were *not* “poor females waiting at home for these guys to bring home the bacon.” We were very sure that the figurines weren’t primitive porn. In my favorite part of this article, Jim Atovasio, the archaeologist just says, “what crap.” Why would we even think that anymore?

I love this article, like I said it could have been read by your parents back when they were in college. I figured when I used to teach this article that it was well-written, in a popular publication, and so we had it all wrapped up. It’s not that we knew exactly what was going on, but we knew what was *not* going on: the whole idea the figurines were like primitive porn.

The question from the next article though, which was written in 2014 by Nowell and Chang. . . . Why is it that we’re still dealing with these interpretations, as they put it, “despite decades of reflexive critiques” (563). When Heather Pringle wrote that article in 1998 for _Discover_, that was already based on a lot of criticism and critique of the idea that these were erotica. Some of you had a similar reaction, like why is this still going on? It’s very frustrating. . . .

One of the reasons that sometimes good scientists are unable to get their points across, is that we spend a lot of time critiquing things, but not headlining what we want to say. This has come up in the idea of what you need to do is make what the linguist Lakoff calls a “truth sandwich.” The problem with academics is they’re always critiquing something instead of telling us the truth. You’re supposed to tell the truth first. Then the lie. Then the truth again. That’s why he calls it a true sandwich. What I wanted you to do in reading through this article was to look at these headlines and then to read the critique. But one of my issues with this article is that if you just read the headlines, these bolded parts, you might come to exactly the wrong conclusion. Like the _Man the Hunted_ book, if you just look at the big word, it’s Man, which is not what they were trying to say, but it still comes up.

What I’m going to try to do is talk about the critique. Then, I’m going to try to retitle it in my own way, or what I think they should have said, or we should be saying in today’s world.

Let’s start with this one: “Venus Figurines Were Made by Men for Men” (564).

. . .

They could be made by anybody. In fact, in other cave art it’s hard to tell who makes things. We have evidence that many people were involved. Here’s my better headline for you, which is: Women Make Stone Tools & Art. As we learned in the last class, we know that they do it in today’s society. They make Art. It’s not just something that men do, women do it too. We don’t know that they were doing it, but we know it can be done. We know it is done.

“Only Men Are Aroused by Visual Stimuli” (564-565)

Very much not true. It’s probably too early in the morning for many of these statements. In my crude way, I’m just going to say that when you look at porn, or when you look at who looks at porn, it turns out that this is something that women like too. They were just afraid to tell the researchers that, back in the 1950s and 60s. Some women like porn too. . . .

“All of the Figurines are the Same” (565-566)

This is a little more complicated because the assumption was that they followed a certain pattern in terms of their curviness. What we see when we look at various figurines is that there’s all kinds of body shapes, and what are called waist-to-hip ratios. The original idea was that they had waist-to-hip ratios which were sexy for primitive guys, but it turns out there’s all kinds of body shapes being represented. There’s not one waist-to-hip ratio which is biologically favored or the same.

. . .

What’s that?

It’s titled “Rod with Breasts,” because they decided that it should be oriented this way. In the museum, it’s like “hey that must be a rod with breasts, that’s a female, obviously.” But if you orient it the other way or you put it sideways, it’s not that it couldn’t be that. . . . Headline: “All of the figurines are female” (568).

No, some of the figurines are male, some of them are otherworld creatures, some of them could be other things. We tend to put them in museums in certain ways and give them titles, but nobody told us to do that, we just did it.

“Paleolithic Systems of Meaning Recognized Only Two Genders” (568-569).

What do you say about that? That’s ridiculous.

I think we can be clear that ancient gender systems were not simply a projection of the binary that we believe into the past. If you go to Muckle, González, and Camp on page 120, they talk about the division of labor based on sex for close to 2 million years. In the old version of this, when it was simply Muckle and González, back in the second edition, I had to put up there that I hoped that they would revise this. I told them to revise it. They did! In this edition they said, “we recognize that a two-gender binary is overly simplistic and, as in the present, there were probably multiple genders” (120). So, yay, we got that one in there, because like I said, in the old days we used to talk about this ancient division of labor. Obviously, there were divisions of labor and some of them are with us, but that doesn’t mean that it was extended into the past and the same form as the present.

“Being Unclothed is Erotic” (569)

True or false? False. Not necessarily. In fact, I think it is better to say that the very definition of what people are going to count as erotic varies both historically–what we in our own society thought was erotic 50 years ago, it’s a turn off now– and cross-culturally. Just because someone is showing or not having something covered up doesn’t mean it is counting or should be counted in the spectrum of being erotic.

One question we could ask: Why do these Man the Hunter stereotypes endure? Why have they been so difficult to dislodge?

Part of it, as we know, is that science is not unbiased. It’s hopefully self-correcting, but it has been part of a sexist society as Muckle, González, and Camp tell us (112), a lot of the first people to look at these figurines were guys who interpreted them in a guy way. . . . That one is an obvious bias.

But this one is less sexist, in the sense that I think nobody wants to be a scavenger. Nobody wants to say that people were once hunted: that sounds yucky. I think people wanted to glorify the idea of human achievement and hunting seems like a way of glorifying human achievement.

The other thing that happens in the ethnographic evidence is that even if hunting doesn’t give you a lot of daily calories, it’s often more exciting to talk about the stories of pursuing large game animals. This might only happen once a month or once every 10 years, but everybody’s going to hear about it. Whereas the nuts and berries and tubers that people collect are not usually part of the folklore. They don’t usually talk about that in a glorified way.

Also, in terms of the archaeological evidence, it’s often very difficult to get the evidence of small-boned animals, or of nets that might have been used for net hunting. These things can sometimes be reconstructed, but some archaeologists–I think Muckle, González, and Camp discuss this later on–have eaten small animals and seen how much is left after you eat it. You basically come up with none: no archaeological evidence is in the record. What lasts longer are those large-boned animals and things like stone points for hunting.

Moreover, the depictions of those kinds of things tend to endure. We see evidence of those. Then, we interpret the past in that way.

The other thing, I think Nowell and Chang discussed this (570-571) when they talk about “why does the Venus hypothesis have such staying power?” is that people in general like to have an explanation. They want to know why things happen. We talked about: at what point do you just say, “we don’t know.”? People don’t like to hear, “we don’t know.” They want to hear what it was for, why did they do this. They don’t like being told, “well it might have been for divination, or it might have been for reproduction, but it’s not really clear.” That’s just not fun. It’s more fun to say, “it’s this!” or “it’s that!” People don’t like to have all this complexity around. There are probably multiple reasons for the art, and in different societies there were different ways of interpreting the figurines. Sometimes it’s difficult to convey that message, especially in a headline.

The thing that depresses me though, and going back to perhaps the first point, is that I think in the last few years there’s been a backlash against some of these reinterpretations. You may know this from looking around the political scene and seeing people getting all upset about something that nobody even knew existed, like Critical Race Theory. There’s been a huge backlash. If anybody says anything that might be considered politically progressive, they’re accused of interpreting this and being “too woke” and being this and being that. There are people that just don’t want to change. As Muckle, González, and Camp put it: “Despite the recent movement of decolonization in which many archaeologists are involved, however, the traditional vocabulary remains the norm in the early decades of the twenty-first century” (113). It’s still the norm. I believe I’m seeing more of a backlash whenever anybody tries to do anything that reinterprets the past in ways that are non-traditional or more open-minded.

But at least it’s there. At least we’re trying. Some of us.


In Intro to Anthro 2022 following our first discussions of archaeology, we finish chapter 5 “Cultural Diversity from 3mya 20,000ya” in Through the Lens of Anthropology. We also read “Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Figurines” by April Nowell and Melanie Chang (2014). This article is referenced in box 5.4 of Muckle, González, and Camp, “Upper Paelolithic Figurines – Not Just Erotica” (126). Next up: Expansions

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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