Women Making History
How Men Get Women’s History Wrong
Amazon warriors were real. Matrilineal societies dominated. And the sexism that has become our status quo was a construct of historians. Finally, scientists are uncovering the truth.
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For most of history, the fierce Wonder Woman–esque warriors known as Amazons were believed to be a myth—an invention of the Greek imagination, but surely not actual people who once lived at the time of Plato and Socrates, centuries before the start of the Christian era.
In fact, Amazons were real. The discovery of four female warriors’ skeletons buried in western Russia, first revealed in early 2020, joins a mounting body of evidence that women battled across Eurasia during the Scythian period, between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE. The women are believed to have ranged in age from 12 to 50.
“This is very exciting, because it has the four women of such an age range, [and because] it’s just adding to the body of reports we already have had,” says Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist and historian of ancient science at Stanford University. “There have been at least 300 discoveries of women buried with their weapons from Antiquity, from the steps of the Black Sea all the way through Central Asia. This is yet another confirmation that such women really did exist.”
Three hundred discoveries, yet the 2020 news that Amazons were real still surprised many.
This is the heart of the disconnect between what the scientific community knows, and can know, and what the general public is taught about women—a disconnect further loosened by a generations-deep failure to properly identify the actual roles of women throughout the ages.
Today, however, archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, and others are working to reverse that tide of ignorance, and rewrite history in the process.
Last year, scientists specializing in ancient tartar were able to solve a mystery that had puzzled archaeologists for 30 years: the nun with blue teeth. The woman’s skeleton—thought to be about 1,000 years old—was discovered in 1989 in an unmarked grave near a monastery. Only in 2019 was it discovered that in fact, the blue was derived from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone from Afghanistan reserved for only the elite of the time.
But why were her teeth blue? As it turned out, she had likely been a painter and scribe of religious texts, a work so holy that in many cultures only men were allowed to do it. Her teeth had probably been stained by wetting her brush or quill with her tongue.
Dr. Sonia Zakrzewski, a bioarchaeologist who teaches at the UK’s University of Southampton, says a growing variety of perspectives on ancient remains and methods of examination is helping us to understand that the sexism that women have faced in recent centuries is not what life used to be like for earlier women. Rather, the gendered lens—things like “man the hunter, woman the gatherer”—was a product of the time those studies were written in, and not the time those people lived.
“Women had very different lives from women now, but there certainly were women who were living full and active lives, and that they just weren’t recognized in history, obviously primarily because records were written by men, about men,” says Zakrzewski.
There are many reasons why the historical record is slowly changing. Some of it has to do with more women, and more open-minded men, studying these fields. Another reason, according to Zakrzewski, is that many countries are trying to decide what to do with their collections of skeletons that haven’t been studied in years. Repatriation and reburial is currently the subject of heated debate within the domain of archaeology.
Some researchers are using this moment as an opportunity to re-examine skeletons—and they’re discovering new information about cases that for years were considered closed. Not all that new information is related to women and their roles in ancient societies. But a lot of it is.
“So much stuff has just been accepted in past studies, but actually, people haven’t really gone back into detail until quite recently. People now have started looking back at past excavations and past skeletal evidence, and discovered that they really have missed half the stories about women in the past,” Zakrzewski says.
Zakrzewski adds that beyond bones, the grave goods bodies are buried with can tell researchers a lot about the dead’s roles in their societies. After all, it’s the people around the deceased who determine what to inter along with the body. She points to the remains of Princess Vix, a skeleton from around 500 BCE first discovered in France in the 1930s, whose burial site is still studied today. Vix had been buried inside the box of a chariot alongside an embarrassment of riches that included gold jewelry, a silver bowl, and a 450-pound elaborate bronze vase (krater) used for mixing wine and water.
“It took a long time for anybody to actually look at the skeleton and go, ‘well, it’s a woman,’” she laughs. “There’s been understanding that, actually, women with power existed in the past, too.”
Contrary to what many high-school history books would have some believe, across North America many of the first peoples to occupy the land lived—and some still live—in women-led, matrilineal groups.
Dr. Cheryl Claassen, a research professor in anthropology at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, has spent her long career studying indigenous groups in the eastern U.S. She’s found very little evidence to suggest that the “nuclear family” vision of village life—namely, the idea that women and children stayed at home while men went out to hunt—was at all important to ancient societies in the region.
Rather, people were far more nomadic, and their roles were far more varied. For instance, women often decided when to move camp, Claassen says. As well, groups of women would travel for work and other tasks. In fact, many groups of women and men traveled to large gatherings held near lakes and rivers in different parts of the eastern U.S. to perform burial rituals Claassen calls “shell burials,” where the bodies of notable people were buried inside piles of seashells. Within the host group, Claassen says both men and women would work to get food, gifts, and sacrifices ready for the event; their responsibilities were not gender-segregated.
So how did we get here, to a place where women are fighting for the very same kinds of social and economic equality that we supposedly had long ago?
For some women, the patriarchy began with the post-Stone Age Agricultural Era about 12,000 years ago, when large-scale farming saw some groups settle down and build populations. Tasks became increasingly gender-segregated at this time; men operated plows, women sowed fields. They also had babies—lots of them.
But not all early societies were agrarian, nor were they patriarchal. As the Amazons, Princess Vix, and the indigenous groups once living in North America prove, there were women born after the beginning of the Agricultural Era who had very different roles than the submissive ones we’ve long presumed. They weren’t all docile gatherers and homemakers; instead, many were warriors, traders, merchants, hunters, and leaders.
In the case of North Americans, Claassen says contact with the Europeans could be the beginning of the downfall. Exposure to the norms and laws of European colonial societies that had already succeeded in subjugating women often under the guise of religion did indigenous women no favors. In Canada, for instance, prior to contact many of the first peoples enjoyed relatively egalitarian societies where women held positions of power and influence. The country’s Indian Act of 1876—a law in effect to this day—shoved European patriarchy and religion down the throats of indigenous people, disrupting their social structures and ways of life. Similar phenomena—albeit with different religions and ideologies—are considered to have disrupted other egalitarian or female-dominant groups across Eurasia and other parts of the world, as well.
Archaeologists, anthropologists, and others who study human history closely know all this. Zakrzewski says it’s about time everyone else does too. For a long time, ancient women weren’t studied because people just presumed they knew what their roles had been.
“Now we’re starting to realize that actually, in many situations, the women were much more important and much more central to the community and in holding everything together,” she says. “I think it’s really important that we start adding the nuance to history.”
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