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The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory    by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer & Jake Page order for
Invisible Sex
by J. M. Adovasio
Order:  USA  Can
Collins, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

While the cover of The Invisible Sex - with its parchment design and implied cave painting of a woman - suggests a history book, many may be deterred by the title and subtitle. They might assume this to be a book championing the role of women only, pointing out chapter by chapter where men got it wrong through the ages. This would be an error on the reader's part.

The Invisible Sex is an amazing read that charts our ancestry from times when apes were the most evolved animal around, to some four to six thousand years ago when humanity settled down and began farming. What makes this book different is that the authors (anthropologists Adovasio and Soffer, and Page, former editor of Natural History and Smithsonian) point out the known history of each period and then reveal evidence that shows women having a much larger role than was previously believed. Incorporating up to date information and discoveries on our ancestry, The Invisible Sex is a great, easy to read book for anthropology or archaeology addicts, and for anyone who wants to know what really was going on with our species in the last two million years.

The authors present a comprehensive meld of human history, beginning with the discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia and explaining why this was such an important find whether Lucy is actually female or simply a male of small stature remains unknown. While presenting a complete history of the Homo genus, they introduce the reader to the archeologists, anthropologists, and historians who made the important discoveries in the last couple of hundred years. It is here that the essence of the book is revealed, as the authors point out assumptions of the role of men in hunting and gathering while the women supposedly stayed in the hut, looking after the kids, and occasionally collecting the odd nut and berry. Coupled with this is the image of brave and strong cavemen/hunters taking down woolly mammoths and giant sloths, providing the tribe with food for weeks. Coincidentally, these assumptions were made by historians in a time when traditionally, women stayed home, cleaning house and looking after the children.

The authors reveal known history and then take it apart and get to the evidence, revealing what was really the dynamic of the time: that the men in fact weren't killing wooly mammoths easily, providing all with bountiful meat, because the mammoth was the most feared animal around with its immense size and gouging tusks. In all likelihood the hunting was done in a large group involving women, children and other family members. They were not going after wooly mammoths and sloths, but were more focused on smaller animals like foxes and rabbits. They would scare these animals out from hiding, catch them in the nets, club them to death and then have a supply of meat for some time. The authors don't hold back, revealing all prevalent ideas on which human species was the first to leave Africa, for example, and then discussing their own theories. In some cases there is disagreement amongst them, such as over the speed of development of language. I found the idea very interesting that the initial stages of language developed with the relationship between a mother and her baby, communicating in motherese.

The Invisible Sex combines two important themes. There is the history of humanity covered from its early evolutionary stages as these ape-like creatures decided to start walking upright, to ideas on how language and then writing developed, and on to reasons for people ending their nomadic ways and beginning long-term farming. Then there is the fascinating element that puts straight women's involvement - revealing a far larger role than has been previously believed - and tells us that they were in fact instrumental in many significant events in history.

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