Friday, October 2, 2009

Prehistoric sexism: speculation about gender roles and "Ardi"

by Brenda Jin

The biggest news in the study of human history this week is the discovery of 4.4 million year old fossil of a female human ancestor, “Ardi”. Now scientists have fossil remains that pre-date Lucy and have a closer glimpse at the origins of bipedalism, especially because Ardi represents a transition phase in human history; her pelvis was not yet fully adapted for upright walking. These fossils have debunked previous speculation about a number of conditions from which bipedalism arose. The team working to reconstruct Ardi’s fossil remains did an excellent and thorough job of collecting other remnants of the environment in which she lived, pointing to the fact that was a woodland creature, and the very beginnings of upright walking started in the forest instead of where Lucy lived on a savannah.

But another interesting and speculative discussion has arisen about the origins of walking. Jamie Shreeve from National Geographic has recently written a blog post titled “Did Early Humans Start Walking for Sex?”. He writes about Ardi's discoverers' analysis based on chimpanzee social structures in which non-alpha males can gain mating advantages by bringing gifts to females. Drawing from the researchers' insights on Ardi, Shreeve applies this structure to our early ancestors, writing that perhaps the rise of monogamous relationships led males to walk upright in order to facilitate carrying food and gifts to females.

To add insult to injury, Shreeve proceeds to write:

“But there is one other, essential piece to this puzzle that leaves no trace in the fossil record. If the female knew when she was fertile, she could basically cheat the system by taking all the food offered by her milquetoast of a provider, then cuckold him with a dominant male when she was ovulating, scoring the best of both worlds. The food-for-sex contract thus depends on what Lovejoy calls “the most unique human character”—ovulation that not only goes unannounced to the males of the group, but is concealed even from the female herself.”

Now I’m no archaeologist, evolutionary anthropologist, or scientist, but this article seems quite speculative to me. If males and females had the same size canines and if our male and female human ancestors were about the same size, then how do we know that males were physically dominant and that females were not responsible and less capable of gathering their own food? And, since Ardi is less biologically similar to a chimpanzee than scientists previously imagined, why are we still comparing her to a chimpanzee?

Let us not exclude the possibility of a matriarchal society when speculating about Ardi’s social life. Perhaps we should be more careful about our patriarchal assumptions about Ardi’s world.

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