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The best books on Prehistoric Women

recommended by Thomas Cirotteau

Lady Sapiens: Breaking Stereotypes About Prehistoric Women by Eric Pincas, Jennifer Kerner & Thomas Cirotteau

Lady Sapiens: Breaking Stereotypes About Prehistoric Women
by Eric Pincas, Jennifer Kerner & Thomas Cirotteau


Thanks to scientific advances, we're finding out more and more about prehistoric people, including women and their lives during the Upper Paleolithic era. French filmmaker Thomas Cirotteau, director of the documentary and co-author of a book about Lady Sapiens, recommends books to find out more about our female ancestors, who while separated from us by tens of thousands of years, have been brought tantalizingly close by new techniques and discoveries.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Lady Sapiens: Breaking Stereotypes About Prehistoric Women by Eric Pincas, Jennifer Kerner & Thomas Cirotteau

Lady Sapiens: Breaking Stereotypes About Prehistoric Women
by Eric Pincas, Jennifer Kerner & Thomas Cirotteau


Our topic is prehistoric women, also the subject of your documentary, Lady Sapiens. Before we get to the books, can you give us an idea of the timescale we’re discussing?

We’re not talking about all of prehistory because that started three or four million years ago (with the birth of our lineage, Australopithecus). What we talk about in Lady Sapiens is only the Upper Paleolithic era. That’s the last period of the human as hunter-gatherers. Before, they were also hunter-gatherers, but we really don’t have a lot of information about women: it’s very difficult to find any research that has been done on the early and mid-Paleolithic.

So we focus on the Upper Paleolithic period, which started around 45,000 years ago. That’s an approximate date because it shifts, depending on if you’re talking about Africa, Europe, America or Asia. The scale of this period is not the same in all these regions. The period ended around 10,000 years ago. After that, you have the Neolithic era, which is a very, very different story in terms of the role of women in human societies.

And basically, for the Upper Paleolithic period, there is enough evidence now to say quite a bit about women. Could you explain what it’s possible to know about human beings living in this period and how?

Science has a lot of new techniques to investigate this period and fossils from prehistory. You can measure and understand the evolution of the species, but you also have the possibility of getting inside the bones with, for example, CT scans, which deliver a lot of information about the brain, about the ears. Also, you can analyze the isotopes that can be found inside the tooth. That tells you about the growth and nutrition of these prehistoric people. You also have the tartar, which is on the tooth itself, that delivers a lot of information about what they were eating, what they suffered from, and how they managed to cure some diseases, for example.

You also have the DNA, which in this time period is still possible to find. Scientists say that before around 100,000 years ago, it’s very difficult to find DNA, so we’re still in the good period. If they are well preserved—it’s not too hot or humid or dry or cold—you can find DNA inside these fossils. That also gives you a lot of information. And it’s only just started. Svante Pääbo won the Nobel Prize for paleogenomics just this year. It shows that science has made a really big jump in analyzing fossils from Paleolithic times.

“It’s about combining different types of evidence”

So there are a lot of new techniques and we talk about a few of them in our book. I can give you two examples that really surprised us as we investigated these new scientific techniques for finding out about prehistoric people. The first is that, based on the isotope of the tooth, you can tell how long prehistoric people were breastfed. Even with fossils more than 1.5 million years old, you can tell women were breastfeeding their babies around three or four years. It’s just incredible to know that. The second thing we focused on is the inner ear. You can tell the sex of an individual based entirely on the shape of the cochlea, which differs from man to woman. Even if this organ has disappeared, it left its imprint inside the bone of the skull.

So yes, lots of things can be said now, and science is still working on new evidence, new clues to find out more about those ancient times.

You’ve made a film and also written a book, Lady Sapiens, which I really enjoyed. Is the basic idea behind both to look at what academics have found out and put it all together so a popular audience can understand what’s happening in the science?

Yes, exactly. We started working on this project in 2018. We had just finished a documentary about Neanderthals and were thinking about what we would work on next. There had just been an important new discovery about our species, homo sapiens, in Morocco, at the Jebel Irhoud. They said this early homo sapiens was 300,000 years old, so we’re older than we thought—our species gained around 100,000 years of existence.

But they were only speaking about men, and the story of man is not the story of humanity. There were also women. Where were they in this story? That question was our starting point. We weren’t sure what we would find, if anything. We turned to Sophie de Beaune, who became our scientific adviser. She did a summary for us of all the research over the last 30 years, everything science has found out about women in prehistory.

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We found out that while we have been finding and analyzing fossils found in the Earth for more than 150 years, women have been mostly invisible as far as archaeological science is concerned. It seemed as if humanity developed because of certain skills, and those skills were the role of men. It was their creativity that allowed humans to evolve and change. That led to our curiosity about the subject. We were thinking, ‘It’s not possible that half of humanity has no role to play in this story, that it was only the men who were creative geniuses. It can’t be only because of them that we are where we are today.’

From Sophie de Beaune, we found out the story of fossils that changed sex. That was quite funny. It changed our way of seeing women in prehistory. For example, there is a fossil called the Lady of Cavillon. For a long time, this fossil was called the Man of Menton. Archaeologists said he must have been a very strong hunter, who captured horses, and this is why he had been buried in such a prestigious way. He had lots of beads, shells and teeth as part of his elaborate headgear, as well as flint tools.

Then it was discovered that this fossil was a woman. From that day, they decided this could not be a hunter and had no explanation for why she had all these prestigious items. The ideas changed because of new discoveries, but sometimes it’s hard to grasp what’s changing in our own views of prehistory.

Let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen about prehistoric women. The first one is Femmes de la préhistoire by the French paleontologist, Claudine Cohen. So is this book covering the same ground as yours but in a more academic way?

Yes, it’s more academic and she did not focus on science as we do. We wanted to be with the researchers in the field, inside the laboratory, to understand how they work and their thinking about those discoveries. Claudine Cohen is not a field researcher; she’s working mainly on objects. She’s trying to find clues and evidence inside museums—looking at Venuses, at artefacts, at skeletons. So it’s quite a different point of view, sometimes.

The second book is Femmes, naissance de l’homme: Icônes de la préhistoire by Florian Berrouet and Alexandre Hurel. This is looking chiefly at the art, is that right?

Yes. It’s only about Venuses. It’s also a very interesting point of view. So there are three or four periods of Venuses from this Paleolithic period. With this book, it’s possible to grasp the differences between them in terms of shape, form, maybe symbolical explanation, the material the Venuses were made off, where they came from. Also, the resemblances when they are from the same period, but are found in very distant places. It tells you something about the dispersal of these prehistoric groups. The book helps us to understand prehistoric culture through the art.

For example, at Renancourt in France, near Amiens, they found the same figurine as one in Vienna, from Willendorf. It’s not completely the same, but the body of the woman is sculpted in the same way, with big breasts and a very generous figure and wearing a hat. There’s quite a big distance between Vienna and Amiens, more than a thousand kilometres. It tells you how this ancient culture evolved and spread all over Europe.

For those who don’t know, can you explain what the Venuses are? They’re these little figurines, is that right?

Yes, the Venuses are small sculptures of a woman’s body. The oldest one that’s been found in Europe was in Germany, near the border with Switzerland, the Venus of Hohle Fels. It’s about 40,000 years old. After that, there are many more. So they date from the starting point of the Upper Paleolithic and go on until the end, but the shapes are always changing. Sometimes women are represented with very generous forms, with big breasts and bottoms. Sometimes they’re thin, just a few lines in a drawing. It makes you question what these women really looked like. Are these Venuses a portrait of these prehistoric women? Or are they some kind of symbolic way of representing them?

We asked a paleoanthropologist what the bodies of prehistoric women found in the ground were like because the bones can tell us about their muscles and weight and also the strength of these women. The portrait that the bones give is not the same as the Venuses. So it seems that those Venuses are more symbolical representations of the power of women—maybe it’s about fertility or an amulet for luck. Or they’re just a symbolical way of thinking about femininity or maybe even a broader belief in some kind of cosmogony, a way of representing the world in its entirety. But the Venuses are not exact portraits.

No, because prehistoric women were very thin and athletic, weren’t they?

Yes, that’s what the skeletons say. That’s logical, if you think about hunter-gatherers. Even if they don’t move from place to place every day, they have a very, very physical everyday life. You’re gathering plants or hunting or preparing the skins of animals or making objects. You also carry your baby. They say that the territory hunter-gatherers moved in through a season was around 30 kilometres squared, so it’s quite a large territory. You’re searching for wood, for stone, for ochre to adorn your skin. It gives you an idea of how physical those times were. You have to use your muscles a lot. So the very generous forms of the Venuses doesn’t seem to fit with the hunter-gatherer way of living.

Okay, let’s go on to the next book, L’homme préhistorique est aussi une femme by Marylène Patou-Mathis. I like the opening line, ‘No, prehistoric women didn’t spend all their time sweeping the cave.’

Yes, that’s Marylène Patou-Mathis’s approach in this book: she’s trying to explain why we have these preconceived ideas about prehistoric women engraved inside our heads. She explains it from the starting point of Western culture, from Greek times, to the Christians, and to the time when the science of archaeology was born. In the 19th century, in Victorian times, women were mainly dealing with domestic matters. Men had political power, economic power, military power, and all the rights. Women at that time were treated like minors: they didn’t have the right to vote, or handle money. She explains why, because of this history, we have these representations like an anchor inside of our brain.

Next, let’s look at The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Role of Women in Prehistory. What did you like about this book?

The Invisible Sex is a very important book for understanding the activities of women and their role in the group. It’s by James Adovasio and Olga Soffer who were the first scientists who were interested in what doesn’t last in an archaeological site. They found evidence of all the material that has disappeared, which was made by those people—clothes, bags, nets, ropes—things made of leather, made of plants: everything that dies over time. They then drew parallels with hunter-gatherers today and ethnographic studies and found that more than 90% of the craftsmanship of hunter-gather groups is made of these types of fibres. You cannot walk without a bag to carry things. When you make a tent or a place to live, you have lots of things you need for sleeping, for making your food, or games or nets to fish with. It’s a whole world the first archaeologists didn’t think was important and didn’t find in their excavations.

It’s called The Invisible Sex because most of these objects have disappeared from the archaeological sites, but this craftsmanship was mainly done by women. We’ve mostly discovered bones and rocks, but that’s not all the objects that those people made.

In your book, you’ve got a picture of a woven material that has disappeared, but that we know about because of the imprint it left behind.

That’s incredible. It’s from a site in the Czech Republic that’s around 25,000 years old. They discovered that when you dry out clay by putting it inside an oven you can make hard objects. They made wonderful objects, like lion heads which are so cute and so delicate. They also made this wonderful figurine—called the Black Venus of Dolni Vestonice—with this clay material.

But when you make clay you might put it in your bag to carry it or put it inside something. And the clay sticks to that woven textile. The clay then lasts through the ages, but the pieces of woven material don’t. So at this site they found imprints of this material on the pieces of clay. It tells you that even 25,000 years ago, people were weaving bags, nets, and even ropes, for fishing, transporting things, sleeping, or even wearing clothes made of these very thin pieces of textile.

So it seems from this book—and from reading your book—that one tool for reconstructing the life of prehistoric women is to take an anthropological approach, looking at the behaviour of hunter-gatherer groups today?

Yes, it’s about combining different types of evidence. There’s archaeological evidence that can’t be argued about like the sex of a fossil or its DNA. But there are several ways of interpreting those findings. Ethnology and anthropology are a way of finding the most likely hypothesis that could be true. It tells you the field of possibility for interpreting the results of the scientific findings. All the prehistorians and archaeologists we met made a link between what they found out in the field or in their laboratories and hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers today are not the descendants of prehistoric people. Most of them have no relation to those ancient times because the population has transformed and moved around a lot.

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But what scientists say is that when a group of humans live in an environment, without any output or input from others, they develop the same kinds of techniques. For example, if you’re living near water, you will build nets to catch fish. Even if there are differences between how you think or represent life or your culture, the techniques for dealing with raw material—rock, wood, skins of animals, etc—tend to be similar. So it’s another way to understand those ancient times, to make the link between ethnography and prehistoric people. It narrows the field of possibility. If your hypothesis has a resonance inside those ethnic groups, it could be the truth. You have to be cautious, but it could be that you’re right or more likely to be right.

For your fifth and final book, could you recommend a book about prehistory in general—not just about women—and available in English?

I don’t have a lot of English books on my bookshelf, but I like books by Chris Stringer, who is a paleoanthropologist that works at the Natural History Museum in London. He has a lot of great books that tell the history of humanity. He is an anthropologist, so he doesn’t focus so much on everyday life, but his books are very interesting on how our species evolved from the start of prehistory—about 3 or 4 million years ago—up to today.

At the beginning, you said you weren’t going to cover the Neolithic period because at that point things changed. That was around 10,000 years ago, is that right?

Yes, approximately. You have a short period—called the Mesolithic—just before that, when people were using some techniques from the Neolithic period, but not all of them. The main change in the Neolithic period is that men and women became settlers. They built houses, they lived in villages, they planted crops, they raised animals. They’re agro-pastoralists. And the demography is exploding. During the Upper Paleolithic time, there were around 150,000 people on Earth. During the Neolithic period, after just a few 1,000 years, there are more than a million. Just because people settled down and grew cereals, the population exploded.

In your book, don’t you speculate that it may have been women who started agriculture and made this change possible?

There is a site in Ohalo, near Lake Tiberias in Israel, that raises a lot of questions. A lot of seeds from cereal have been found there that are still used today. They found more than 90,000 seeds from 142 different species. They also found an oven for cooking, that can make bread. It’s not a bread that rises, like the bread in our bakeries today, but more like galettes, this thin bread that you can eat. They settled at Ohalo for several years, as a seasonal occupation. It’s possible that those people understood the cycle of life, of growing things. That’s also what the ethnography and anthropology tell us. These people understand a lot because they live near nature—they are not away in cities in apartments very far from the growing fields. It’s scientifically impossible to be sure these people had a growing strategy—taking the seeds to put into earth and waiting for the plant to grow—but it’s unlikely they would use so many seeds just for cooking or for healing. You cannot be sure, but it could be the first agriculture.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

November 3, 2022

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Thomas Cirotteau

Thomas Cirotteau

Thomas Cirotteau is an author and director. He created and co-wrote the documentary Lady Sapiens. He also directed the documentary Who Killed the Neanderthal?, which he co-wrote with Eric Pincas and Jacques Malaterre. This film received a number of prizes in France and abroad.

Thomas Cirotteau

Thomas Cirotteau

Thomas Cirotteau is an author and director. He created and co-wrote the documentary Lady Sapiens. He also directed the documentary Who Killed the Neanderthal?, which he co-wrote with Eric Pincas and Jacques Malaterre. This film received a number of prizes in France and abroad.