Invisible Women of Prehistory by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet, restores one’s faith in human existence. Patriarchal capitalism is not inevitable! Greed, male violence against women, the earth, and endless wars did not exist 6000 years ago.
We often think of history as a linear development in which we are steadily moving out of a violent and patriarchal past to a more equitable and peaceful future. While we have no shortage of wars – and the incidence of violence against women is alarmingly high – we are told that humans have never lived in such peaceful times. We continually hear that our predecessors were violent but also that patriarchy is inevitable and universal. But what if none of this were true? What if we were descended from peaceful societies in which women were respected and equal to men?
I thank Judy Foster and Marlene Derlet for their curiosity and dedication and Spinifex Press for this publication that is packed with ideas challenging our current understandings of the past. This dense book reassures its readers that three million years of peace, a period when women’s status in society was much higher than it is now, preceded the last six thousand years of war during which men have come to hold power over women. We can consider the possibility that if peace existed thousands of years ago, then why not now.
Invisible Women of Prehistory emanated from Judy Foster’s inclination to discover and record the truth about women’s roles in prehistory. Judy Foster has always been interested in symbolic imagery; her background in art and design exposed her to stimulating art history books from which she learnt of the early societies which were suddenly, violently invaded and destroyed. Information about these communities was sparse but clearly they were cultured people, creators of wonderful painted symbols and rock images such as those from northern Australia, and the renown animal painting in European caves. Judy Foster’s curiosity, particularly as to why women featured so prominently in symbols and artefacts led her to The Language of The Goddess (1989), the major works of Lithuanian archeologist and mythologist Marija Gimbutas.
Marija Gimbutas had previously provided evidence of women-centred societies in prehistory, particularly in eastern Europe. This she had found through the discovery of thousands of female figurines recorded in The Living Goddess and which are evidence of the ‘powerful presence’ of the female principle beginning 9000 years ago and into the early historical period. This world that existed before written history was revealed using archeology, linguistics and mythology.
Marija Gimbutas discovered that these prehistory female sculptures expressed far more functions than just fertility and motherhood. She defined the goddess as unifying all ‘natural things, as a metaphor for earth’s power’. These peaceful women-centred societies ended as horse-riding invaders spread across Europe and Asia introducing hierarchical systems, violence and male ownership. Male gods and warriors replaced the early goddess symbolic systems now relegated to powerless brides and wives.
Marija Gimbutas’s theory of a prominent female principle has enormous implications for the current status of women considering paleolithic and neolithic women played such an important social and cultural role before the warrior age. She refused to refer to these early societies as matriarchal as such terminology is understood in relation to patriarchy and dominance over others. Her preferred terminology of this early societal structure was ‘matristic’ because they were non-hierarchical.
Marija Gimbutas discovered that agriculture had begun well before the emergence of the pastoralist Proto-Indo- Europeans. Non-hierarchical societies in the neolithic period produced many foods by agricultural methods; they kept sheep for wool and built houses and temples and significantly during this time there was no evidence of domination or violent deaths.
The invasion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans meant the end of communally- owned goods and the beginning of a class-based society with women becoming the property of men. These multi faceted-goddess cultures changed and diminished as did the decreasing the role of women.
And such is our present state of existence. Invisible Women of Prehistory has enormous implications for women today.