A Census of Women in the Upper Paleolithic

Author(s): Melanie Chang; April Nowell

Year: 2017


Binary models of gender are often uncritically applied in paleoanthropology, even if the biological sex or gender identity of a specimen or representation is ambiguous. In the Upper Paleolithic, indicators ranging from simple bifurcating lines to overt representations of secondary sex characteristics may be used to identify an illustration, engraving, or piece of portable art as "male" or "female." These taxonomic rubrics are rarely stated explicitly. Still, the impression given by an overview of the relevant literature is that Paleolithic artists (usually assumed to be male) overwhelmingly objectified females in their works, with corresponding interpretations of the meanings of these representations and the artists’ intent that reflect modern biases.

We present an empirical survey of human representations in Paleolithic art using an explicit classification scheme that relies on unambiguous markers of biological sex to identify representations as biologically male or female. We attempt to resolve the many ambiguous instances by comparisons to less ambiguous representations and assess the likelihood of abstract representations (disembodied "vulvas" or "breasts") to be intentional representations of females. Within this context, we discuss the difficulties inherent in recognizing sex (much less gender) in Paleolithic art and the consequences of unfounded assumptions in scientific and popular discourse.

Cite this Record

A Census of Women in the Upper Paleolithic. Melanie Chang, April Nowell. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver, British Columbia. 2017 ( tDAR id: 430856)


Geographic Keywords

Spatial Coverage

min long: -11.074; min lat: 37.44 ; max long: 50.098; max lat: 70.845 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 16390