Presentation Title

In Search of Women in the Paleolithic

Document Type


Presentation Date


Abstract or Description

The story is familiar: Man uses his large, complex brain to invent stone tools. Man uses stone tools to aggressively hunt large wild animals. Man, being an exemplary mate, brings meat to his mate and their offspring. Man's mate is passive: she remains at a home base, watching the offspring, while Man directs humanity's evolution. The collective consciousness surrounding paleoanthropology is rife with Stone Age reconstructivist fantasies like this one, that reify modern Western interpretations of familiar heteronormative gender roles. The Paleolithic, a nebulous period stretching from the first stone tools until the development of agriculture, is so susceptible to such fantasies, that the typical narrative describing it seems ordinary in its familiarity. Yet, this narrative is a strange palimpsest of paleoanthropologists' personal experiences of perceived gender roles superimposed on great ape and historically contingent hunter-gatherer evidence used to model the evolution of human gendered behavior. Can we improve our interpretations by bringing in careful and thoughtful analyses of archaeological and biological evidence? We have a half century's refinement in concepts of gender, labor divisions, and standpoint theory with which to address this issue. In this panel, we will advance beyond the “add women and stir approach” to thinking about gender during deep prehistory in a way that highlights its possible strangeness from modern experiences. The authors will explore how gender and sex are identified in the fossil and archaeological records, how gender roles are interpreted from this evidence, and what this means for the representation of men and women in the Paleolithic. By emphasizing our relative unfamiliarity with the gender roles of the past, we will reveal the strangeness of the familiar, male-centric Paleolithic narrative and seek a more holistic vision of gender in the past.

Additional Information

Virginia Estabrook and Caroline VanSickle organized and co-chaired the panel.

Link to video of presentation:


American Anthropological Association Meeting


Denver, Colorado