Tag Archives: feminism

Half the Neanderthals Were Female

first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA
first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA

Laurie and Debbie say:

Paleolithic archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has a terrific longform essay, Sheanderthal, in Aeon. It will come as no surprise to any of us that Neanderthal women, like women and females in every species, have been undervalued and underexamined.

identifying X-chromosome frequency is one thing; what was the life of half the Neanderthal world that she represents – women – really like? … Most often discussed indirectly via theories of fertility as a potential reason for their disappearance by 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal women have been ‘protagonists’ only a few times in recent research.

Sykes is out to correct that oversight, and to use all of the physical and technical tools at the command of the contemporary archaeologist.  She starts with a history of the first Neanderthal skull, eventually identified as that of a woman, and goes on to explain why it’s difficult to identify sex from bones alone (so of course most bones and fragments have been assumed male). DNA testing has changed that picture. And Sykes, laudably, doesn’t assume that Neanderthal gender matched contemporary notions of Homo sapiens gender:

Those [individuals] identified through DNA include the Altai woman who lived in western Siberia around 90,000 years ago, another slightly later in time but relatively close by at Chagyrskaya cave, and the Vindija woman who died in what’s now Croatia much closer to the final few millennia of the Neanderthals.

Even where we’re lucky enough to have DNA samples, assumptions must still be made. Since prehistory lacks written texts, we can’t hear testimony on how Neanderthals categorised themselves. Therefore, archaeologists must draw on biological and anthropological understanding of sex and gender. While it’s highly likely that the majority of Neanderthals conformed genetically and visually to today’s sexual classification of male and female, in reality these aren’t neatly boxed because bodies are messy. For example, based on living people, around one in 2,000 Neanderthals might have been intersex.

She goes on to speculate about Neanderthal women’s physical appearance and social behavior, never for a moment letting us forget that this is speculation and guesswork, not confident knowledge:

Let’s begin at the start. Hold two crumple-faced newborn girls, one human, one Neanderthal, and you’d have to look closely to see differences. Both equally vulnerable, fitting the smallest-size onesies, their skin velvety-soft. The Neanderthal baby doesn’t yet have heavy brows and, lit by a hearth’s dull glow, her eyes are probably as slate-dark and limpid as any human newborn’s. But cradle her downy head, and it will feel slightly longer, with a bony nobble discernible above her neck….

As a fellow primate, she needs constant care and affection for proper development. Neanderthal infant brains appear to have started out around the same size though differently shaped, and followed a similar growth pattern to our own. She will hit roughly the same magical milestones as a human infant: looking intently at faces within the first month, probably smiling in some form by six weeks.

As she tries to imagine childhood and young adulthood, her speculations venture into primatology and anthropology: were Neanderthals like bonobos, chimpanzees, or later hunter-gatherers? How can we think about whether or not Neanderthal women were hunters, and how else did they spend their time?

One of the most convincing reasons to believe that Neanderthal women did experience life differently is the testimony of their own bodies. Research on limb bones suggests that, while their thighs were as strong relatively as men’s, their lower legs appear less intensively used. Sample sizes are small, however the impression is of different habits in moving around, with men perhaps scaling more rough terrain. Arms tell a similar story, with women’s lower arms getting more of a workout than their biceps. On top of this, while Neanderthal men apparently used their right and left arms differently (comparable to the asymmetry in professional tennis players), women’s arms were more symmetrically developed. Carrying heavy loads in both hands could cause this, just as we lug loaded travel or shopping bags. But pushing something up and down – or backwards and forwards – with both arms would also fit, which is particularly intriguing because one of the things we know that Neanderthals were doing an awful lot of is hide-working.

She walks us through what information we have to spark imagination about sexual encounters, about birth, about aging and grandparents, and finally about the end of the species.

In the decade since, recognised periods of contact now number at least four and perhaps seven or more, going back beyond 200,000 years ago. Most intriguingly, something of the dynamics is visible. In some earlier instances, Neanderthal women had the children of H sapiens men, but the later interbreeding after 60,000 years ago tells a different story. Nobody today has mitochondrial DNA like that in Neanderthals and, since it’s passed only maternally, this implies that interbreeding was more often between their men and our women.

It’s in these last hybrid babies that the female heritage of Neanderthals lives on. The DNA legacies of the mixed babies’ relations – half-sisters, half-aunts, half-grandmothers, and beyond – persisted through thousands of generations. Their billions of descendants are still here, walking Earth today.

The combination of superb science, careful sorting of fact from guesswork, and excellent writing is rare indeed. Read the whole article; you’ll spend some satisfying time thinking about the lives and possibilities of Neanderthal women.

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Vietnam Observations

Debbie says:

All countries have contradictions; countries that have been the subject of centuries of colonization and invasion are even more subject to confusions of identity and values. Please take this blog post in the spirit of what I noticed and what surprised me, not as a judgment on the country I found so welcoming (and where I am aware that I barely scratched the surface of the culture).

Everywhere we went in Vietnam (Hanoi, Da  Nang, Hue, the Central Mekong Delta, and Saigon), we saw these two flags: the flag of the country on the left, and the hammer and sickle of the Vietnamese Communist Party on the right.

“Communist country” covers a range of expectations — but my jaw nearly hit the floor when our guide, the son of a North Vietnamese Army soldier, said that the country has no health insurance. He and his wife have employer-paid health insurance, but the government provides none. “If a farmer gets sick, he might have to sell his water buffalo.” This is, of course, tantamount to selling his livelihood. I had no conception of Communism that doesn’t include basic human needs being met by the state.

A couple of days later, at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang, the same guide told us that the Cham people (a Muslim ethnic group which has largely migrated out of Vietnam to Cambodia and elsewhere) do have government-paid health care. On further questioning, it turns out that the Cham people put up a significant enough protest to get some basic care. It seems to me that this must create some contemporary inter-ethnic resentment, beyond the centuries-old conflicts, but the guide didn’t want to talk about that. He’s a tourist guide, it’s his job to tell the truth but not dwell on the rougher aspects.


On the whole, the Vietnamese seem fairly prosperous, and very committed to what they call “the free market,” because they can’t call it capitalism in an officially Communist country. Vietnam was united as an independent country in 1975, and until 1991 received a good deal of support and subsidy from the Soviet  Union. When the Soviet Union fell and the support evaporated, Communist values like basic income, health care, and real equality for women seem to have disappeared as well. “We are ashamed of Cuba,” said our guide cheerfully when asked, apparently because Cuba offers too much to its citizens for free, and therefore doesn’t encourage a work ethic.

I wrote from Vietnam about the expectations placed on women in the country today, and the stark contrast between the all-too-familiar 21st century “do it all” role of hold a job, and care for the children (and care for the husband’s parents, and the house, and the external religious life of the household). Ho Chi Minh, who fought for (some) gender equality in his army, would have called for similar equality in home responsibilities — but then, he also wanted to be cremated. Instead, his embalmed body is on display in central Hanoi, and respectful visitors (tourists and Vietnamese citizens) file past it every day, instructed not to wear shorts or flip-flops. I wonder whether Ho’s reaction would be laughter, sadness, or both combined.

The Vietnamese are hard-core gamblers; famous worldwide for their love of the tables. Gambling is (almost) illegal in Vietnam, however. Foreign countries have established casinos on the beautiful beaches near some of the big cities–and only people with foreign passports can play. Like the health care of the Cham people, this inevitably must cause resentment, especially if locals work in the casinos, which seems inevitable.

Vietnam is a beautiful, friendly place, where most of the children you see on the streets seem well-fed and happy, where the flowers abound especially before the Tet (New Year’s) festival, when all businesses stop and virtually everyone connects with their family and local community. Oh, and during the five days of Tet, the ban on gambling is lifted.

I am excruciatingly aware of what a comparable post by a Vietnamese person visiting the U.S. might say about my country. Today on the bus in Oakland, it struck me that I saw no tent encampments by the side of the streets of any Vietnamese city. If anyone knows any more about Vietnamese culture and can deepen any of this, please let me know in the comments.