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The Prehistory of Sex

Four Million Years of Sexual Culture

by Timothy Taylor

On 30 January 1997, BBC2 Horizon broadcast a feature entitled The Ice Maiden about the remains of a Pazyrik priestess unearthed from a frozen grave in Siberia. I wondered at the time whether, if the body had turned out to be male, whether they would have quietly reinterred it. Their evidence seemed to be no more substantial than that the body had long hair and wore ornaments. There was the intention to carry out DNA tests (for political reasons, to determine her relationship to modern ethnic groups), but no more has been heard. There is, of course, the possibility that the person was XY with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which has always been a fairly common condition, and rather than carrying a stigma, as it does nowadays, it might have been seen as a symbol of special powers. It could also account for her unusual height.

Timothy Taylor looks at modern ideas of human history from Australopithecines onwards, and specifically the evolution of human sexual features. The word 'sex' has made some bookshops leery about listing the work, even though they are quite happy to promote female erotica. Perhaps if he had compromised his academic integrity and used the word 'gender' he might have been viewed more favourably.

Many human features that began to appear in Paleolithic times, as Darwin himself pointed out, make no sense in terms of natural selection - survival in the face of environmental challenges. At least some must have appeared because, for whatever reason, they must have been sexually attractive. In addition, to an extent greater than for other species, natural selection superseded itself by learning and inherited enculturalisation. The central problem in researching the period is that we can only speculate on surviving remains and such items as are obviously artifacts. When snares and traps - and baby slings - first appeared is unknown since they would not have survived, let alone direct evidence of cultural behaviours. When, and why, did we habitually walk upright, lose our body hair, begin to wear clothing, use language?

It is a general principle that sexual dimorphism in body size among most species - where males are much larger than females - is correlated with inter-male aggression. In those species where males and females are much the same size, male competition is more subtle. We can therefore hope to speculate about their social behaviour. Given that most early fossil specimens are little more than teeth, with some jawbones and skulls, it would seem to difficult see how their sex is determined, though some workers claim to have done so. On the other hand, others have cast doubt even on Don Johanson's famous "Lucy".

At some time, the size of the brain became larger, which had implications for motherhood. On the one hand, the baby would be born earlier, would be less mature and needing more care. On the other, mothers could no longer give birth safely by themselves, but needed the help of other females. One much later skeleton from the 4th. Century AD was certainly female, for she had, within her, the skeleton of her unborn baby whose head, it would appear, was too large to pass through her birth canal. Traces of cannabis were found, which besides being a pain-killer, also stimulates the birth contractions, and has been in use since early Egyptian times.

Taylor goes on to look at cultural attitudes to sexual behaviour and sexuality, and at some of the sociobiological speculation of recent years. It would seem that much that has been written about animal behaviour has been influenced by prudishness and cultural reticence about sex. But, in particular, he attacks the idea that sexual behaviour is determined solely in terms of reproductive success. Although the alternative of sex-as-power has been proposed, it seems reprehensible to consider sex-as-enjoyment.

Why else would a woman consent to, indeed enjoy, sex, then use a contraceptive? The most reliable method in fact, is breast- feeding, and hunter-gatherer mothers continue with it much longer than those in the developed world. However, there is also evidence that they can physically regulate whether, or not, they conceive. But a vast range of herbs and other drugs have been in use since antiquity for all aspects of conception, pregnancy and motherhood.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle tends to be at subsistence level, that is, having enough to live on. Ovulation would tend to be limited to times when nutrition was adequate. As farming and the domestic animals appeared, women could raise more children, but many suggest that being tied to motherhood encouraged their exclusion from an increasingly male-dominated social structure.

The author goes on to examine two debates among evolutionary biologists; the fact that the onset of female ovulation is not accompanied by overt signals, as it is in many other species, particularly primates, and the phenomenon whereby women who spend much of their time as a group, synchronise their periods. In particular he examines the so-called "sex-strike" theory, and a more recent one concerning the use of red ochre to mimic menstruation.

Formal burial first appeared perhaps 100,000 years ago. Particularly where there are grave goods, we can learn much about the people concerned, but there is something more. It is a 'rite of passage'- one of several that have so much significance to modern humans. Then there are the so-called 'Venus figurines'. Less well documented are items that may carry a phallic significance, and diffidence precludes the idea that there are some that could have been associated with the sex act itself, although some sort of ritual may have been involved. There is also a puzzling passivity to the Venus figurines in contrast to vigour of cave art, which also carries a great deal of symbolism, some of it explicitly sexual.

But can we really say that a particular body is that of a man or a women, in the way that we understand the words today? This is without considering the possibility of intersexed people. What can we say about the experience of being a man or woman in those days?

Through the Middle Stone Age, human population increased, with a spread of settled farming, where the relationship with nature changes from symbiosis to exploitation. The earth itself, too, became symbolically female, as the provider of life. Many writers have portrayed an "Age of the Goddess," an idyllic classless, balanced society, built around matriarchy, but how likely is this picture? What did appear was the idea of property, and the control of resources.

By the New Stone Age, life was increasingly violent, as new populations moved eastward, displacing the indigent peoples, with evidence, even, of genocide. Early weaning would have been facilitated by the availability of non-human milk, increasing the rate of childbirth. It may indeed have been tactically advantageous - the side with greatest numbers usually prevails. In any case, more children would provide more labour in the fields. It seems likely, though, that early weaning had an emotional effect on the offspring; moreover that boys were bred to be fighters. The intersexed, seen to be non-productive, may have been at best ostracised, at worst, killed at birth, although it doesn't seem to be the rule. Rather it would seem that, in some cases, new categories of gender appeared.

Which brings us to the chapter Shamans and Amazons, and to some clues about our Pazyrik priestess. While demarcation appeared between men's and women's burials, a significant number have been found to be cross-gendered. In some communities, however, what men and women were allowed to do was less rigidly prescribed. British Celtic history is replete with warrior queens, such as Cartimandua and Boudicca. It is also becoming apparent that the accounts by Herodotus, in 5th. century BCE Greece, were more than merchant's tales. Among these were the Amazons, beloved of feminist writers. Many burial sites of the Iron Age have proved to be of female warriors. Less well-known are the accounts by Herodotus and Hippocrates of the Enarees, androgynous men. Another burial in the Sokolova region contains what is described as a middle-aged woman, though the published measurements are vague. The grave goods have unusual features, and the reconstruction shows a tall slim person with a masculine looking face. However, it would seem that it was the societies where alternative genders appeared that were least tolerant of ambiguity.

During the 'Dark Ages' after the fall of the Roman Empire, inappropriate sex seems to have been brutally punished, particularly women who had committed adultery, or been raped. However, even though many remains, such as the 'bog bodies', have been well preserved, forensic examinations have often been less than thorough. However religious transvestism - shamanism, or wizardry - seems to have continued.

The final chapter looks at race, "where culture meets biology at a political level." One of the continuing controversies in paleoanthropology concerns the variety of fossil remains. Did they constitute a few species, or many, and how were they inter-related? Could those at the fringes of their territories mate and produce new hybrids. The most recent has been whether Neanderthals simply died out, or whether they and Homo sapiens interbred. Variation could have appeared in different populations that became isolated, influenced no doubt by breeding practices. Typically traditional societies practice exogamy, or out marriage, while propertied people have tended toward endogamy, to preserve the family line. Even deliberate strategies have been employed, as when Alexander the Great encouraged his generals to marry into aristocratic Asian families. Where populations shifted and mingled, great efforts were often made to emphasise racial differences; the most extreme, perhaps, being the 5th. century Huns, whose elongated skulls resulted from tight binding through infancy.

The evolution of sex differences and sexual cultures covers a much wider range of considerations than one might expect. Certainly if only one particular form of sexual behaviour, or sexual expression, was 'natural' then one might expect everyone to do it, and enforcement would be unnecessary. But what implications does a study of past history have for the present, and for our health? Why is the risk of cancer greater for women in the developed world, and why is male infertility increasing? Is the attempt to develop factory-made artificial breast milk an extension of Neolithic patriarchal values? Why has the introduction of the contraceptive pill been accompanied by a global increase in the birth-rate?

Perhaps I am biassed in praising this book, for it echoes so many ideas that I have been working on myself.

Published by
Fourth Estate, £8.99 pbk
paperback, 353pages,
ISBN 0 55337 527 X (Formerly 1 85702 573 3)
GO TO TOP Copyright GENDYS Network. 10.10.01 Last amended 01.02.04