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A Salute to Our Stone Age Sisters

Studying history means actively looking for surprises, despite the fact that it is focused on events from centuries and even millennia in the past. And I know enough to understand that “progress” through history is not a consistent march uphill but a journey during which we have frequently gotten lost, sometimes forgetting things for hundreds of years before circling back and re-learning them.

What has surprised me most recently is the number of important concepts and everyday items still in use that were developed in the Stone Age – the Paleolithic time from 2.7 million years ago up until 10,000 years ago.

Here’s what One Million Years in a Day(1) and other sources say that our Stone Age Sisters knew to create or use:

The sewing needle, the oldest of which dates back 60,000 years , which also means an understanding of the components of all clothing elements – the hat, cape, sleeve and pant; form-fitting boots and shoes; and the geometry to construct them
Linen, developed 30,000 years ago
Jewelry, the necklace, earring (including for pierced ears), bracelet and pouch – 40,000 years ago
Plates, bowls and vessels
Insect repellent and mattresses, “…ancient mattresses were lined with leaves from River Wild-Quince, a tree that naturally produces an insect repellent chemical, and this may have minimized the lethal scourge of malaria. When the mattress got a bit gross … it was burned to cinders and a new one was simply plunked onto the ashes. Archaeologists have discovered at least 15 separate layers of burned organic ash…dating between 77,000 to 38,000 years ago.”
Herbs for improving one’s health, known 60,000 years ago.
• The importance of storytelling and the techniques for representational art, learned 40,000 years ago.
• A symbolic proto-alphabet. The walls of the well-known French caves festooned with the first paintings (from 40,000 years ago) also contained 26 recurrent symbols that are now being recognized as an alphabet that pre-dated the Bronze Age invention of writing. Its discovery, by Canada’s Genevieve von Petzinger and Dr. April Nowell, makes an interesting story of its own.
Musical instruments:.A bone flute has been discovered, dating from 43,000 years ago.
Dogs, domesticated first of all animals, 31,700 years ago;
Gender equality. While it is generally thought that Stone Age societies had a labor division with men hunting and women gathering, it is now understood that roles were more fluid and equal. “Archeological evidence from art and funerary rituals indicates that a number of individual women enjoyed…high status in their communities, and it is likely that both sexes participated in decision making. The earliest known Paleolithic shaman (c. 30,000 BP) was female. Like most contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, Paleolithic and the Mesolithic groups probably followed mostly matrilineal and ambilineal descent patterns.”
• The joy of bathing in hot springs! "It's likely that our Stone Age predecessors not only groomed themselves… but also bathed regularly. After all, many of the famous Spanish and French caves that boast beautiful prehistoric art are also within walking distance of natural hot springs.”
• Plus, some of the important concepts that pre-date these inventions: the relative importance of different parts of the body for survival; the ergonomics of carrying loads; the peaked roof to repel rain, with a hole in the top for the exit of smoke; the relative quality of combustible materials (e.g. dry wood vs wet etc.)

And developed just shortly thereafter:
Dentistry. "Nine thousand years ago, at a place called Mehrgarh in modern Pakistan, possibly the world’s first dentist was plying his or her trade thousands of years before the blueprints for Stonehenge were even being drawn up. More than 5,000 years before anyone was wielding malleable metal tools, this dentist used a flint-tipped bow-drill to quickly burrow through enamel into the pain-causing caries… A skeleton found in Slovenia, the remains of a young man who died about 6,500 years ago, boasted what seems to be the world’s first filling – a beeswax resin poured into a cracked tooth.”
Cats were domesticated 9,500 years ago. Eating eggs (by nest robbing) pre-dated agriculture by millions of years, Jenner says. It is debated that chickens were domesticated 6,000 BC in China or perhaps in the Indus Valley in 3,000 BC. Sheep are considered one of the earliest livestock animals and were honored in spiritual rituals in Catalhoyuk in 8,000 BCE. Cattle domestication took place at this time as well.

Postscript: Of course everything you read has been written through the lens of male dominant culture and produces some… shall we say ‘odd’… conclusions. In researching and writing this, I’ve asked myself the rhetorical questions: why would women in a climate cold enough to warrant a skirt, a cape and a hood be shown with exposed breasts? Why would a Stone Age woman wear a fur pelt over just one shoulder with a breast exposed? (Like the way they have the bustier in future space travel!) Why, when historians and paleontologists come across statues of women – even when they are clearly on a throne with their hands on the heads of lions – they are categorized as “fertility” totems. Why would a large woman with pendulous breasts be a sign of fertility rather than power? Why, when we know the chickens were called “the bird that is born every day” would it be suggested that poultry farming was done for cock fighting rather than for easy egg gathering or meat production?

#JessWells #paleolithicwomen #womeninhistory #GregJenner #GenevievevonPetzinger #AprilNowell

(1) 1 Million Years in a Day, Greg Jenner, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London) 2015

Image origin from The Story of Women at http://storyofwoman.org/podcast/episode-five-the-red-lady-of-paviland/

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