Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

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Following on discussion arising from this post, here is a revised discussion of throwing in human evolution.

The question of diversity in science, and more specifically, success for women, is often discussed in relation to bench or lab oriented fields. If you read the blogs that cover this sort of topic, they are very often written by bench scientists, for bench scientists, and about bench scientists. Which makes sense because most scientists probably are bench scientists.

Here I want to do two separate but related things. I want to discuss certain aspects of the nature of fieldwork in my area in the 20th century that have had a strong effect on the way women have pursued their careers (or not). Although I characterize this as the situation of the 20th century, this does not mean that the situation has or has not changed substantially since then. Simply put, I’m not discussing the current career related situaton for women in field paleoanthropology here in this post.

The second thing I want to do is to talk about a successful female social scientist with a strong connection to fieldwork in palaeoanthropology, as well as theoretical and administrative contributions. This person is also someone who straddles the boundary between classic mid- to late-Twentieth Century patterns of professional activity (in these field sciences) and more recent patterns. I’m speaking here of Barbara Isaac.

The link between these two topics is a bit tenuous but it is also meaningful. There is nothing stereotypical about Barbara Isaac’s career, and there is nothing short of admirable about her as a person and a scholar. My intention here is to not make strong links between these two parallel topics.

Maybe most scientists are labrats, but just as majority rule in defining normalcy and typicality is damaging in matters of gender fairness and diversity, majority rule in matters of sub field should be viewed with a critical eye. In particular, it may be the case that field sciences are fundamentally different from lab sciences in important ways. Consider the fields of Palaeoanthropology and Primatology. Well known women in these fields include Jane Goodall, Alison Brooks, Sara Hrdy , and Mary Leakey, to name just a few. The significance of these women is not simply that they have been successful. It is much larger than that. People get the “Leakeys” confused, but in my experience with 20 years of teaching introductory classes in human evolution, if you mention Mary Leakey, the average person (students, members of the press, people I’ve just run into) knows that you are speaking of one of the main Africanists who have studied human origins. Many Americans are aware of Sara Hrdy because her books Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species and The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition have been read so widely, and assigned in so many intro or mid level classes covering the biology of women, or intro bioanthropology. Indeed, people often ask me about her, having read the book at some point in time. The average American may not know who Alison Brooks is, but Africanists acknowledge her as one of the leaders, if not the leader in African Paleolithic archaeology.

For many years I have had the imporession that Jane Goodall is one name that is often recalled when students are asked to name a living famous scientist. In an earlier “edition” of this blog post I made the claim that this was well known, and many individuals objected to this. Since I don’t have the time to investigate further I’ll assume that it might not be the case that Jane Goodall comes to mind when people are asked to name a scientist. (But in my heart of hearts I think her name DOES often pop up.) Surely, dear reader, YOU have heard of Jane Goodall.

My point is that there may be something about the field studies of which I speak that is different from other areas of science. The list of physisists who have contributed to our modern understanding of cosmology includes many women, but the list of people who come to mind when the average American (for instance) is asked to a name famous physicist is (it is my impression) mainly male. I’m arguing here based mainly on my own impressions that the opposite is true with palaeoanthropology and primatology. I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.

Does this mean that these fields are contributing in an important way to perceptions of diversity in the sciences generally? Well yes.

I would now like to make a carefully worded statement about the difference between men and women in traditional 20th century academia in the roles they played in both the professional and personal setting. Listen carefully.

Click the hominid face to see more on Human Evolution!
All else being equal, most men in 20th century field sciences had the assistance of highly capable spouses … the proverbial woman behind the man, while most women did not. Women did not typically have this resource available to them. Numerous other barriers to women’s success existed, of course, but this differential is especially interesting in the context of field bioanthropology because of the nature of the pursuit itself. It is quite possible that some areas of science (or other endeavors) had more opportunities for a spouse (usually a woman) to assist the career professional (usually a man) than other fields. For various reasons, field Palaeoanthropology is probably one of these areas.

It is interesting to survey the primary African Palaeoanthropologists of the latter part of the 20th century. I can do part of this informally in my own mind as I recall various conferences, biographies, and obituaries of the day, and collate (again, this is all in my head….) these with acknowledgment sections of major monographs. Bill Howells acknowledged his faithful wife, Muriel, who traveled around the world with him measuring skulls and keeping him in line. C. Loring Brace never forgets, in a public talk to note the contributions Mrs. Brace made to his research efforts. Betty Clark was always there for her husband Desmond, in the field or in the lab. And so on and so forth. You get the picture.

Now, here comes a statement about this observation that is meant to be dripping in sarcasm and over the top in cynicism. But, some people (owing perhaps to their own biases) will not understand that this is a cynical statement about the patriarchy and how it operates. So, remember, the following statement is not what I or anyone with even a modicum of political enlightenment would ever think. If you do not understand what I am saying in the paragraph you are reading now, then GO BACK AND READ IT AGAIN! And if you still don’t get it, then PLEASE LEAVE NOW. OK, ready? Here goes:

That is, indeed, what every scholar needs: A wife (or two) who knows how to type, edit, wield a caliper, and still have time to do the grocery shopping, have lunch ready at noon, and give birth to and raise the kids.

But the women who are well known in this field come from a slightly different background. Either they powered ahead into the field of study along side their husband (about whom … the husband … I make no claims in this post) in a similar area, as with the archaeologist Mary Leakey, who’s husband was a palaeontologist or primatologist and naturalist Jane Goodall, who’s husband was director of the Gombe chimp field site and a film maker/naturalist, and/or they worked in a field setting for much of their career whereby they actually lived in-country, or both.

Living in-country provides a significant career advantage for anyone. The basic cost of transport and scheduling of research is different, and easier. When Ofer Bar Yosef was visiting Harvard from Israel, prior to being hired at the Ivy League college, he told me “I’ll never take a job here. In Israel, the sites I work on are in my back yard. Nothing is more than an hour drive away!” (Apparently Harvard made him an offer he could not refuse a year or so later.)

Another advantage of in-country work (meaning you LIVE IN THE COUNTRY IN WHICH YOU WORK), when the country is a developing (or in some cases, unraveling) nation, is the basic cost of doing business. Dianne Fossey , Jane Goodall, Shirley Strum (to name a few highly successful women) and a number of men as well have probably benefited significantly from having inexpensive household and professional staff while working in the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and so on. An academic ex patriot’s (an ex patriot is someone who has moved to and works in a country other than their native land) household can be a very easy place to get things done. Excellent libraries may be far away, but you may have a driver and a cook and a cleaner and, as was the case with the Leakeys and many others, a number of technical staff who do not cost much but who can work with the fossils or carry out data collection better than any passing graduate student. Everyone knows, and the people involved readily acknowledge (to their credit) that the big names … Leakey, Walker, and so on, hardly ever actually found a hominid fossil. A hominid fossil found in Kenya is more likely to have been found by Kenyan Kimeu Kimoya than by anyone else.

For the present, I’ll just skip over the part about the subaltern contribution to the career of the privileged. Not because that is not important, but rather, because it is too important to address as an aside. I will save that for another time.

I have two reasons for mentioning all of this. One is simply to point out the nature of these field studies, and to note the fact that some of the successful women in these fields were successful in part because they had the equivalent (more or less) of a spouse, just like all the men in these fields did. (Keep in mind, this all primarily applies to a 20th century context.) The second reason is to mention that Barbara Isaac’s career involved being the spouse (for several years) and being independently successful without the aid of a spouse or minions as highly skilled low-salaried field workers.

Barbara’s career has been fairly low key. She contributed in all the usual ways, as part of a team, working with her husband, Glynn Isaac. Following Glynn’s untimely and tragic death, Barbara edited a volume of his major papers, and shepherded (a mild word compared to the reality) the production of the Koobi Fora monograph. At the same time, she continued work on an important research project that I’ll shift the focus to momentarily, on the role of throwing in human evolution.

Very few people know this, and I’m not going to go into any details here because they would necessarily be too vague, but Barbara Isaac was instrumental in the process of opening up international research in the Republic of Georgia, where the Dmanisi site has yielded important hominid fossils. Barbara stepped aside from that work early on, but it continues today. Barbara also oversaw the repatriation of Native American materials at the Peabody Museum, and served for ten years as assistant director of the Peabody.

I’ve always thought, but some may argue that I’m wrong, that Barbara was also responsible for the branding of African Stone Age archaeology, in a visual sense. Barbara did many of the illustrations for the work at Koobi Fora and for Glynn’s theoretical contributions. The fanciful rock art-inspired figures that play out the various theories of bipedalism, or central place foraging, or acheulean activities of one sort or another seem to have come from her imagination, although they’ve been imitated subsequently many times.

Barbara’s work with throwing is especially important and underscored a number of her excellent intellectual and personal skills. Here is the basic question: Did throwing things, as weapons, play any role in hominid evolution? It turns out that many of the earliest considerations of this idea, and some of the investigations carried out contemporaneously with Barbara’s interest in this, were kinda nutty. One ‘researcher’ took the opportunity of being a tourist at Olorgesailie — a site excavated by the Isaacs in Kenya at which thousands of hand axes are seen still on the ground, with the tourists walking over them on a wooden catwalk — to pick up an actual hand axe from its place in situ and wing it across the landscape to see what would happen. Crazy people with crazy ideas totally ruined the whole throwing thing, simply because taking a look at throwing would be received like launching an expedition to find Bigfoot. Crazy.

But, the idea is not really so crazy, and Barbara Isaac recognized this because of some work she had done on the question. So, despite the Bigfoot like nature of the throwing hypothesis, she went ahead and assembled a large amount of information in an effort to have a run at the idea. This is how many ideas in palaeoanthropology are addressed scientifically. You can’t run lab experiments for most of these things. So instead you work out a model that described the putative phenomenon, and then apply several lines of evidence to the model to see how stupid the model turns out to be. This evidence can include some experimental work, but it also includes seeking patterns in the archaeological records (objects that can be thrown) looking at medical, physical, or anecdotal evidence (cases of successful homicide by throwing, sports related research), and ethnographic evidence where available. After numerous attempts to make the idea look stupid, if it ends up not looking to stupid, then you may be on to something!

The point here is that Barbara had the cachet in the field, among her peers, to look for Bigfoot and be taken seriously. And when she looked, fully prepared to reject the idea, she ended up making a reasonable argument that throwing was a plausible technique for interpersonal conflict, defense, and hunting. She would not and did not go beyond plausibility, but that is all she attempted. The idea of her work was to demonstrate the implausibility of the throwing hypothesis, and she ended up essentially unable to do so, leaving the idea standing at the end. As plausible. That is good paleoscience.

“Ability to throw was probably achieved at an early stage in human evolution but has received little scholarly attention. Although this ability is poorly developed in apes, anatomical studies suggest that the hand of Australopithecus afarensis was adapted to throw with precision and force. Archaeological evidence and early ethnographic observations are cited in order to demonstrate the importance of the throwing skill in human evolution.”

This of course applies to the use of thrown spears but Isaac looked beyond this to the idea of any deadly projectiles, including basic rocks or the famous Middle Stone Age “spheroids” (rocks shaped by hominids to be round) and such contrivances as bolas. Even to this day, the validity of any claim that a particular artifact is a throwing spear or something similar is very questionable prior to the Upper Paleolithic.

Isaac reviews the ethnographic record and there are a number of examples of cultures in which throwing relatively simple objects for hunting is documented. Most of these are cases of people throwing rocks (as a regular practice) at small things like hyraxes . But there are more extreme cases. The Portuguese encountered natives in the Canary Islands who were able to keep the Portuguese at bay using thrown stones and horn tipped wooden lances.

“In hardly any time at all they had so badly beaten us that they had driven us back into shelter with heads bloodied, arms and legs broken by blows from stones: because they know of no other weaponry, and believe me that they throw and wield a stone considerably more skilfully than a Christian; it seems like the bolt of a crossbow when they throw it…”

(Notice the passive-aggressive “that’s all they know” along with the “They kicked our arses.”)

In addition to the ethnographic record, Isaac reviews the archaeological, human and more broadly hominid anatomical evidence, and looks at chimps. Again, there is general support for the idea.

She concludes, among other things: Stone throwing can be highly lethal, and is widespread in areas where there are no firearms, in the ethnographic record; The anatomy allows for this practice, and there is evidence of this ability in early hominids as distinct from ape models.; The archaeological evidence is suggestive but equivocal to date, owing mainly to a lack of consideration of the nature of the evidence. She also briefly discusses observed sex differences in throwing behavior.

Isaac, Barbara. 1987. Throwing and Human Evolution. The African Archaeological Review 5(3-17). PDF here.

More on Human Evolution here.

The image is from De La Perouse, JFG, 1798, A Voyage Round the World in the years 1785, 1786, and 1788, English translation J. Johnson Publishers, London, and is used as Figure 1 in Isaac (1987).

This post first appeared on this blog in March, 2009. Even though the main points included a critique of the bad way in which women in certain STEM professions had been treated, as well as the unfair advantage men managed to give themselves, the post was subjected to inappropriate and, frankly, dishonest critique by individuals who chose not to read it carefully. I rewrote a few sentences to clarify beyond what should have been necessary, and you can see this in the wording in its present form. (If you like, you can also follow up in the comments here to see get more background. Or you could just stick a pencil in your eye. Same effect.)

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One thought on “Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

  1. I have wondered about how important throwing was in human evolution, and find this very interesting. I had thought, given the importance of throwing in various sports, that the anatomy and physiology of throwing would be well understood. I have not previously been aware of any paleo work in this area. Thanks very much!

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