Adovasio champions role of women in 'The Invisible Sex'

One of archaeology’s more rugged, swashbuckling types, James Adovasio, Ph.D. softens the influence of macho-male hunters in human evolution while championing the role of women as central to the development of language and social life in his newest book, The Invisible Sex. 

With anthropologist Olga Soffer and science editor Jake Page, Adovasio challenges the traditional view that brave, spear-bearing men hunted the mighty mammoth while women crouched timidly in the background, a bias advanced by a preponderance of men that, until recent decades, had dominated traditional archaeology. 

“Most archaeologists now agree that the image of women in the past has been severely distorted or totally ignored by generations of male archaeologists,” Adovasio writes.

As two of the world’s leading experts on perishable artifacts, including cordage, basketry, and weaving, Adovasio and Soffer depict women of Paleolithic times as far more than passive consumers, pointing to important contributions they made in creating critical materials, from nets used for communal hunting to clothing for survival in cold climates and ropes used to make rafts for travel. More significantly, the book produces evidence of women’s involvement in a broad range of culture-building endeavors.

“Female humans have been the chief engine in the unprecedentedly high level of human sociability, were the inventors of the most useful of tools (called the String Revolution), have shared equally in the provision of food for human societies, almost certainly drove the human invention of language, and were the ones who created agriculture,” Adovasio writes.

This is not the first time Adovasio, founder and director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., has dared to challenge archaeology’s orthodoxies. In The First Americans, he unveiled stunning details of a pivotal archaeological find with evidence of human habitation dating to 16,000 years ago, creating one of the most convincing rebuttals to the Clovis theory that holds that the first humans arrived 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. His conclusions were derived largely from the Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Pittsburgh, Pa., where he is principal excavator.

In The Invisible Sex, Adovasio acknowledges that much of the research on Ice Age humans centered on durable artifacts like spear points, stones, ivory and bones, whereas perishable artifacts like string, nets and textiles, which provided evidence of women’s work, went largely ignored.

Adovasio, himself, may not have tapped into the feminine side of archaeology were it not for a graduate studies professor who suggested – no, ordered – that he develop a proficiency in perishable technologies. Now, a life spent developing that expertise has led to discoveries about women in prehistory that elicit provocative implications for contemporary assumptions about gender and calls one to wonder, was it really “a man’s world?”

J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, & Jake Page, authors of THE INVISIBLE SEX: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory (Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins Publishers; February 2007; $26.95). 

About the authors:

J.M. Adovasio, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Mercyhurst Archeological Institute. He is the author of THE FIRST AMERICANS. Olga Soffer, formerly a fashion industry insider, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Jake Page, a former editor of Natural History Magazine and science editor of Smithsonian Magazine, is the author of many books on American Indian affairs and the natural sciences.

KICK-OFF EVENT: The Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman Street, Pittsburgh, Pa., in collaboration with HarperCollins Publishers and the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute is hosting an invitation-only kick-off book signing and reception on Saturday, Feb. 17, from 2 to 4 p.m.

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