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Stone Age woman comes into her own


Indomitable primoridial woman, who can maximise her Stone Age career opportunities, has taken the place of the grunting Caveman as the superhero of paleo-fiction. The stories play a major part in spreading theories about prehistoric humans and their behaviour and are coloured by shifting perceptions of gender.

FORUM/June 2001 In my previous article From Killer Ape to Hippie Ape, I described how theories about prehistoric sexual behaviour and gender roles have changed according to society's changing norms. The way prehistoric humans are portrayed in scientific paleo-anthropological literature, however, does not in itself have anything to do with the ideas that are most prevalent outside of the scientific community. Popular science and literature plays a major role in spreading these theories. In my last article, I mentioned Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape as a prime example of popularised anthropological science, but just as important are novels featuring prehistoric humans, so-called paleo-fiction.

There are many examples of anthropological theories about prehistoric humans being directly used in paleo-fiction, where theories can be presented outside the constraints of scientific convention. And just as scientific theories reflect norms of current society and serve to explain or legitimise them, so do novels and comics.

There are roughly two main story lines in novels about prehistoric man or paleo-fiction. One takes place in prehistoric times and the other in the present. The latter may sound like a contradiction in terms, but a typical plot involves placing a prehistoric individual in the present usually by inventing a small group of surviving ape men - so-called relic hominids - in a very remote geographical setting usually in Africa or the Himalayas. Typical examples of these two types of novels are Jean M. Auel's books about the Clan of the Cave Bear and the Stone Age woman Ayla, Robert Darnton's Neanderthal and Philip Kerr's Esau. The last are two of many books from the 1990's that describe the discovery of relic hominids and both suggest that the basis of myths about the Yeti or the Abominable Snowman are observations of surviving groups of relic hominids. Both story lines are found throughout the 20th century for example Jack London's Before Adam (1911), William Golding's The Inheritors (1955) and Vercor's You Shall Know Them (1954) (Les animeaux dénaturés, 1952)

The two main story lines have in common an emphasis on descriptions of the encounter between modern and prehistoric humans. In the novels set in the present these meetings are almost self-descriptive. The stories set in the past, however, often take place in Europe during the Ice Age, where both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens lived. A description of the encounter between different types of humans offers the possibility of outlining differences and similarities between the types, which often concentrate on basic subjects such as sex, food and violence. The purpose of these encounters is to demonstrate how human prehistoric humans actually were, and to what extent modern humans are still encoded with a kind of animal legacy or the opposite -how highly evolved and sophisticated we are.

The traditional notion of how fiction portrays prehistoric man is centred on The Caveman. The ungainly, hairy, unintelligent, cruel, fur clad caveman complete with club and dragging a female by the hair is the stereotype one imagines as the main character of paleo-fiction. The popularity of the Caveman is, however, only true to a certain degree. Although a strong and evil male outsider often is a familiar character in the aforementioned novels, another figure has become at least as prominent a symbol of Stone Age humans: namely primordial female.

The rebellious primordial female is unconventional and often up against the Caveman as she sets out to become her own woman within the context of Stone Age career opportunities. One can protest that drawings and comics most often feature the Caveman - Gary Larsson's Far Out Neanderthals are classic examples of this, but here the Caveman usually has a comic function. He is an absurd character, not a role model. In most modern paleo-fiction, woman is the hero. Woman embodies the characteristics, which are considered typical for modern humans.

There are an overwhelming number of novels with this theme. The following is a typical story line: The main female character is from the onset placed in a marginal situation -she's an orphan, deformed or has strange habits or is particularly gifted. She survives by her wits and will power and gains a high position as either leader or more often as a religious or medically knowledgeable Shaman. It is hardly surprising that most of the authors of these novels are women.

The Ayla character in Jean M. Auel's series Earth's Children is an obvious inspiration for a great many prehistoric novels with a more or less feminist slant. Ayla grew up as a Homo sapiens among Neanderthals. She is oppressed and abused by a cruel Caveman, runs away and overcomes many obstacles and finally finds the Homo Sapien man in her life. Along the way she manages to invent the needle and fire-making, domesticates the horse and dog, saves several lives with her medical knowledge, has lots of sex with various partners, develops contraception and efficient menstrual pads, and becomes a mother and a great hunter. Ayla is a modern career woman and housewife, she is competent in both male and female dominated fields and contrary to the vulgar Caveman she is a clear-cut idol.

The primordial woman of paleo-fiction also has a sister that often is found in novels that are set in the present. The encounter between surviving relic-humanids almost always features a smart, sexy and competent female anthropologist/archaeologist. She typically has had an affair with the also always prevalent slightly older male scientist and they are typically at odds in their scientific approach. Even though the female anthropologist is enthusiastic and objective in her scientific observation of relic-humanids, one thing is almost certain: At one point or another she will feel sexually attracted to one of the shaggy Cavemen. Despite her intelligence and efficiency she is driven by the same animal instincts that she observes in her prehistoric subjects.

A male anthropologist is rarely attracted to prehistoric females. However Petru Popescu's Almost Adam: A Novel from 1996 serves as the exception that proves the rule. In this novel the anthropologist Ken is stranded on an African savannah with a group of Australopithecine - the hominids that are believed to be the origins of all humankind. Ken eventually gets so accustomed to the behaviour and appearance of the group that he reluctantly acknowledges a certain sexual attraction to the dominant female. The relationship is never consummated however.

Another relationship is consummated on the other hand, namely that of Ken and his girlfriend, a sexy black journalist and chieftain's daughter. Both females are described has having almost parallel lives: both are strong, efficient and beautiful (in their own way) - and both are caring and in love with Ken. Thus Ken's girlfriend is presented as a modern kind of primordial woman, and the presence of deep, animals instincts in her sexuality are described to the point of tastelessness, when Ken after a bout of love-making explains to her, that the reason why she gets an orgasm is because of her upright gait, her narrow pelvis and the development of deep emotional ties to her partner in the dawn of time - the same theories that are presented by Desmond Morris and others.

The Caveman is in most cases no longer a chauvinist or threatening figure. With authors of various comic strips dealing him the death knell, the Caveman has been transformed into a figure of ridicule. In political satire, the Caveman is used to represent something that is completely out-dated and obsolete. In longer stories and novels he still retains chauvinistic and violent traits but is conquered by female ingenuity and charm. In many novels it is in fact uninformed male opposition that sparks primordial woman to revolt and develop: opposition makes her strong.

Thus it seems that the function of female characters is to represent the development of humanity itself - from the struggle for survival to intelligence and "soft" values. Sexuality is the only area where females are still described as being dominated by prehistoric urges. Sex is the one theme that constantly emerges in paleo-fiction along with violence and cannibalism. When two species of humans meet, invariably one or more of these themes are brought into play. All three themes are connected to the definition of what it is to be human. Sexual attraction between people indicates similarity of anatomy and spirit - when Ken in Popescu's novel does not consummate the relationship with the female Australopithecine it is a symbol of the distance between them. One of them simply isn't quite human. When her Neanderthal rapist disgusts Ayla, then it is because of his rape, not because she regards him as sub-human or rejects the idea of a relationship with another Neanderthal. Violence and cannibalism serve the same defining function. There is a difference in the emotions and attitudes to them, depending on whether or not the victim is considered human.

While both scientific theories and the exploration these three themes in various novels illustrate that what is at issue is the question of prehistoric man's humanity, it is clear that in literature it is primordial woman who symbolises progress, evolution and growth while the Caveman is described as out of date, abhorrent and ridiculous. This is no doubt due to the author's values and gender. While earlier paleo-fiction applauded masculine strength as expressed by hunting, fighting and tool making, feminine values are now regarded in a positive light: patience, diversity, inventiveness and caring.

It is remarkable that there is no shift in which behaviour that is considered typical for women or which values they symbolize. The values have not been changed, but only given another and greater meaning. Primordial woman is capable of everything and thus becomes a yardstick for how modern women view themselves and their desires: They are given a role model that triumphs in her every intellectual and practical endeavour and in her ability to awaken, take advantage of and enjoy basic animal instincts. Caveman on the other hand is obsolete. If modern man is to find any role model in paleo-fiction, he either has to identify with primordial woman or risk being made a monkey of.

Anne Katrine Gjerløff is a Ph.D. student at the Department of History, University of Copenhagen.

Translation: Annette Nielsen, FORUM Editor.
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