Review – Lady Sapiens

Posted April 14, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Lady Sapiens by Thomas Cirotteau, Jennifer Kerner, Eric PincasLady Sapiens, Thomas Cirotteau, Jennifer Kerner, Eric Pincas

There was less information that was new to me here than I’d hoped: in part, probably at least in part because this isn’t that recent, and I’ve read some more recently published books that touch on the same subjects. That said, if you’re not that familiar with what we know about prehistoric humans, then this is a good catch-up — whether you’re interested specifically in understanding prehistoric women or not.

In fact, a lot of this isn’t really that specific. While they look to the evidence where possible, trying to discern whether women ever hunted or could’ve hunted, or if women made flint tools or not, etc, often they can only say general things, or speculate. Often it’s like they want to be bold and say women could’ve played an active part in hunts, and then they dial it back and only say “women could’ve been involved at hunting camps”. There is some scant evidence (only men showed one-armed strength enhancements suggesting spear-throwing) but mostly it’s guesses.

It’s a readable summary, but not groundbreaking. Despite the ‘Venus’ figurine on the cover, and frequent references to them, it doesn’t actually dig very deeply into what they are, for lack of evidence.

It also lacks critical engagement: it briefly mentions that women may have made figurines that looked like bodies from their own perspective, looking down at their bodies. It then responds to that saying most in the field think that’s silly, because women would’ve known what women looked like by looking at other women. Well, so? Take another step: why should we always represent what other people look like? The fact that women have usually seen other women doesn’t actually mean they want to sculpt other people. Self-portraits are a thing.

This book doesn’t go so far, just saying “some people say this, some people say that’s silly” without digging into it. I know it’s a popular science book, but still. C’mon. You can dig in a bit deeper than that.

It also, of course, assumes that anyone who appears female based on their bones or burial circumstances had a female role in society, which we know isn’t always the best guide.

Rating: 3/5

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One response to “Review – Lady Sapiens

  1. Faranae

    “only men showed one-armed strength enhancements suggesting spear-throwing” This really bothers me because all that really shows is that men didn’t do much work that required both hands or required use of the off-hand more resulting in balanced strength. It rather makes me think of that survivor bias airplane, misunderstanding the data because of cognitive glitches.

    And yes, bones and burials are really not nearly as useful for gender as archaeologists have wanted to think. I read an excellent if incredibly dry book on Merovingian burials that systematically pointed out child burials in particular to highlight how the creation of burial identity can vastly contradict the lived identity.

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