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Echoes of the Upper Paleolithic?
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Among early modern humans, men faced less mate competition with increasing distance from the equator. They were proportionately fewer in number and fewer of them could afford a second wife. This was partly because hunting distances were correspondingly longer, so that more men died of hunting fatalities, and partly because longer winters made polygyny costlier. With fewer opportunities for food gathering, women were less self-reliant and depended more on men for food (Frost, 2006).

But what happened to those women who remained single? If they had no providers, wouldn’t they have died of starvation and wouldn’t these deaths have balanced out the operational sex ratio?

The short answer is that they remained with their parents and never had children. It is, above all, children who incur food-provisioning costs and make a male provider necessary. Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate about these single women who must have been numerous among early Europeans, particularly in the continental Arctic of Ice Age Europe where opportunities for food gathering were few and far between.

If contemporary hunter-gatherers are a guide, such women become secondary caregivers by caring for younger siblings or aging parents. This spinsterhood is temporary, unless the woman suffers from a serious disability. How, then, would a hunter-gatherer society cope with large numbers of women who remain single? I addressed this question in my 1994 Human Evolution article.

Patterns of behaviour become stereotyped over time, with the result that their ritualized vestiges can persist much longer than the conditions that created them. A surplus of unattached females should be associated with a pattern of specialization in communal rather than family-oriented niches, e.g. shamanism, maintenance of base-camp dwellings, and tending of communal fires. Another pattern should be taboos that would have come to define this caste of unmarried women, e.g. virginity as a mark of caste membership, immunity from harm for fear of their shamanistic power.

Shamanism is strongly linked in early European traditions to women, especially virgins. This linkage is weaker in Siberian cultures, where female shamans predominate but are nonetheless married, and virtually unknown to the native peoples of North America, among whom most shamans are married men (Czaplicka, 1969: 243-255; Saladin d’Anglure, 1988; Hallowell, 1971: 19-22). The oldest sources from Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Slavic culture areas show an overwhelming preponderance of women among seers, witches, sibyls, oracles, and soothsayers (Baroja 1964: 24-57). Gimbutas (1982) and Dexter (1985) have argued that virgin females in early Europe were seen as “storehouses” of fertile energy and thereby possessed of extraordinary power. Thus, at the dawn of the Christian era the geographer Pomponius Mela mentioned nine virgin priestesses on an island off Brittany who knew the future and gave oracular responses to sailors who consulted them (Chadwick, 1966: 79). The first-century historian Cornelius Tacitus described a virgin prophetess among the Bructeri in present-day Germany, saying that this tribe “regards many women as endowed with prophetic powers and, as the superstition grows, attributes divinity to them” (Tacitus Histories 4:61). A similar caste of prophetesses, called dryades, existed among the Gauls (Chadwick, 1966: 80-81).

Single women also figured in what appear to be ritualized communal activities. The first-century geographer Strabo described a community of women who inhabited an island at the mouth of the Loire where “no man sets foot.” (Geography 4.4.6) A sacred rite required them to unroof the temple and roof it again before sunset, a rite which Lefèvre (1900: 93) interpreted as recalling an age when women daily removed their hut’s thatched roof to air the smoke-filled interior.

Another pattern links female virginity to the tending of communal fires. In both Roman and Greek mythology a virgin goddess, Vesta or Hestia, guards the communal hearth. The cult of Vesta required that the sacred fire of Rome be tended by a caste of virgin women — the Vestals. There is general agreement that this cult constituted an archaic element of Roman religion; the word Vesta, itself an archaism, appears to have come down unchanged from proto-Indo-European (6,000 B.P.), suggesting ritualization at an early date (Dumézil, 1970: 311-324). The idea that a celibate female must guard the hearth still survives in European folklore, the most familiar example being Cinderella — an unmarried woman whose name came from her having to sleep by the cinders of the fireplace.

Is there direct evidence of ‘excess’ women among Ice Age Europeans? We have a snapshot of one extended family from the Magdalenian period. The Maszycka Cave in Poland has yielded the remains of 3 men, 5 women and 8 children, all apparently from the same family and all apparently dying the same sudden death (Kozlowski & Sachse-Kozlowska, 1995).


Baroja, J.C. (1964). The World of Witches, trans. by N. Glendinning, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Chadwick, N.K. (1966). The Druids, University of Wales Press.

Czaplicka, M.A. (1969). Aboriginal Siberia. A Study in Social Anthropology, Clarendon.

Dexter, M.R. (1985). Indo-European reflection of virginity and autonomy. Mankind Quarterly, 26, 57-74.

Dumézil, G. (1970). Archaic Roman Religion, University of Chicago Press.

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color – A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103

Frost, P. (1994). Geographic distribution of human skin colour: A selective compromise between natural selection and sexual selection? Human Evolution, 9, 141-153.

Gimbutas, M.A. (1982). The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6,500-3,500 BC, myths and cult images. University of California.

Hallowell, A.I. (1971). The Role of Conjuring in Saulteaux Society, Publications of the Philadelphia Anthropological Society, Vol. 2, Octagon.

Kozlowski, S.K., & Sachse?Kozlowska, E. (1995). Magdalenian family from the Maszycka Cave. Jahrbuch der Römisch Germanischen Zentral Museums Mainz, 40, 115?205. Jahrgang 1993, Mainz.

Lefèvre, A. (1900). Les Gaulois – origines et croyances, Librairie C. Reinwald.

Saladin d’Anglure, B. (1988). Penser le “féminin” chamanique. Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, 18(2-3), 19-50.

Strabo. (1923). The Geography of Strabo, Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann.

Tacitus. (1969). The Histories, Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann.

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    According to wikipedia, San Bushmen women have their first kids around 18 or 19. That’s a long time to be supported by a family but wikipedia indicates that the first menstrues are late in bushman because of a low fat diet.
    In europe, paleolitic women certainly were not skinny (
    This one was was not missing vitamin D and obvioulsy her husband was a good hunter.

    Or this one:

    According to some researchers, this one was supposed to be 13 at the age of her first menstrue, because there are 13 marks on the cornucopia.

    Since they are older than 12000 bc, these figurines represent pre-modern europeans and could not have been white skinned women, correct ?

  2. Tod says:

    The idea that a celibate female must guard the hearth still survives in European folklore, the most familiar example being Cinderella

    Keeping a fire going without much of a wood supply must have required intensive gathering of dung or bones for fuel, presumably this would often be done by childless women. If food was precious the method of food preparation would waste nothing and allow the toughest meat to be eaten.

    “What is the best way to cook meat?

    Loren Cordain: The way we tend to cook meat these days is very different from the ways of hunters and gatherers who tend to slow-cook meats over a long period of time. A favored cooking procedure was digging a pit and putting in hot stones, putting in the whole animal or portions of it, putting in vegetable matter and other stones above the vegetable matter and cooking the meat all day long. So what is suggested is slow cooking at low heat.

    Robert Crayhon: Throw out the microwave and get a crock pot.

    Loren Cordain: Well, yes. If you take a lean cut of venison, elk, or buffalo, and throw it on the barbecue, you’ll find it’s as tough as rubber but if you put it on a crock pot or a Dutch oven and cook it all day long, you’ll find that it will come out quite tender and also, the nutrient content remains relatively high. Also, you don’t have to worry about bacterial problems.” (from the interveiw linked to in Skin Colour and Vitamin D)

    If slow cooking was the method of food preparation it might require fires to be kept all year round.
    Spinsters may also have paid their way in making necessary clothing, and footwear. An echo of this from Greek Mythology might be the Moirae

  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    None of the links I gave were “lived” but anyway, if you copy paste it, they point to pictures of these ace age european “statues of venuses” that I am sure most of you already know.
    The point is: there are all, eh…”very well fed” at the very least.
    The Cinderellas of that time didn’t lool like the disney Cinderella.


  4. Tod says:

    15,000-year-old Early Modern Human Skeleton Has Oldest Recorded Case Of Impacted Wisdom Teeth
    “This is significant because impacted wisdom teeth are thought to be the result of dietary changes associated with later developments in human cultures. …
    Finding impacted wisdom teeth 15,000 years ago indicates that the human diet might have already changed, some would say ‘deteriorated,’ earlier than previously thought,” said Robert D. Martin, Field Museum provost and primatologist”

    In fact the woman’s diet consisted of
    the meat of large terrestial herbivores
    Sexual selection could have reduced the jaw if selection for robust jaws was relaxed not by a change in diet, but a change to food preparation by slow cooking.

  5. N/a says: • Website

    Echoes of the Upper Paleolithic?


  6. Anon,

    Most of the changes in physical appearance seem to have happened between the glacial maximum and the end of the ice age, i.e., 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. With respect to skin color, early Europeans seem to have acquired alleles for light skin 11,000 or so years ago at one gene and 12,000–3,000 years ago at another. But this is rough dating. We should have better estimates in the coming months.

    Holt & Formicola (2008) have reviewed the physical anthropology of the Upper Paleolithic and come to the same conclusion. The glacial maximum seems to coincide with a period of relatively rapid morphological change.

    Holt, B.M., Formicola, V. (2008). Hunters of the Ice Age: The biology of Upper Paleolithic people, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 137,70-99.

    M. Boule and H.V. Vallois (Les Hommes Fossiles, 1946) studied figurines of early Upper Paleolithic women. They came to the conclusion that these figurines look like present-day Bushmen, particularly in their peppercorn hair and large buttocks, (see photos on pp. 329-330). I don't think hair curlers were available at that time, so the natural hair form must have been short and 'peppercorn' in style.


    Thanks for the hat tip to slow cooking.

    Many sites from the late Upper Paleolithic are characterized by a line of centrally located hearths. It looks as if these hearths were communally run, but, if so, who was tending them all daylong (while not neglecting other tasks)? The problem of task sharing would have been avoided if a group of women were specifically dedicated to this task.

  7. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I think there is a problem in your reasoning.

    There is no such a think as a free lunch, and there will always be worthless males.

    Females are always under pressure to properly select the fathers of their offspring, but as you mention, closer to the equator they need less in the way of male assistance in provisioning.

    This means that closer to the equator females are selected to have different weightings on the various selection criteria for the fathers of their offspring.

    However, further away from the equator, those women who choose the wrong males to have sex with are much more likely to have their children die before those children reach reproductive age. There is no such thing as no worthless males.

    This results in different social structures arising, it seems to me. Closer to the equator women are more able to have sex with multiple males (of good quality) and thus improve the chances that more of their children will survive.

    However, further from the equator they have to choose a male who can provision them and are more likely to delay first sex etc and to choose males with resources. Indeed, they are more likely to enter into polygyny under those circumstances …

    This means, it seems to me, further from the equator we are more likely to see females with the genetically determined trait of waiting for the right guy, and fatally waiting too long, whereas closer to the equator we are much less likely to see such traits because while all males are not equally desirable, having lots of resources is not that high on women’s list.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Is there direct evidence of ‘excess’ women among Ice Age Europeans?

    Do you have any evidence that a greater proportion of males contribute to the next generation among peoples closer to the equator than among peoples further from the equator?

    Given that the biological fundamentals are the same, I suspect that the finding that only 50% or less of males contribute to the next generation is universal among all groups of humans.

    This means that all groups have an excess of females, or lots of worthless males.

    (Note that 80% or more of females contribute to the next generation.)

  9. Tod says:

    The short answer is that they remained with their parents and never had children. It is, above all, children who incur food-provisioning costs and make a male provider necessary.

    I am having a problem with the concept of young women remaining in camp but food being so scarce that they were unable to raise children. (Even if impregnated).

    There would also be many older widows as the older husbands (whose strength and stamina would progressively wane with age) would be increasingly likely to die on the rigourous hunting trips. I think the sons of these widows would support them (and their unmarried daughters) with food.

    Indeed there was no other way for them to survive the winter. If the men had been prepared to let their mother and unmarried sister starve to death then they would have enough food to have another family. I did read somewhere that some Inuit tribes abandoned the elderly when they had outlived their usefulness.

    This still leaves these fertile but just not special enough women, many of whom must have been made pregnant by straying husbands. How much extra food would they need to give birth, breastfeed, and feed a child. And if they were tending the fire they were supervising the food. For the food scarcity to work everybody must have been hungry and surplus people starved to death.

    If they had no providers, wouldn’t they have died of starvation and wouldn’t these deaths have balanced out the operational sex ratio?

    I don’t understand how the excess women dying would hurt your theory, they were not the ones with the novel or care inducing characteristics.

  10. Tod says:

    Another thought on women who remained single assuming that things were as described in your post.

    If starvation was uncommon and most unmarried women lived out their lives then I think there must have been very strong sanctions against the unmarried becoming pregnant, possibly even expulsion. The married women would certainly have a very strong motive for supporting this.

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The concept that there are excess women seems pretty nonsensical.

    In the examples provided it just might be that powerful men have setup a system where the community provides for these ‘excess women’ while the powerful men service them.

  12. Anon,

    Even if one accepts the argument that women would more likely prefer polygynous males as paternal investment increases (I don’t follow your reasoning here), there simply wouldn’t be enough polygynous males to go around. Males who can afford polygyny in a high paternal investment environment are a limited resource.

    “Do you have any evidence that a greater proportion of males contribute to the next generation among peoples closer to the equator than among peoples further from the equator?”

    What we see is actually the reverse (because polygyny is more frequent in environments with low paternal investment).


    Food scarcity is endemic among Arctic groups. Typically, food crises occur over yearly and generational cycles.

    Who ends up being sacrificed when food runs out? Typically the old, followed by males who are poor hunters.

    This is speculation, but I think that in the Upper Paleolithic there would have been a strong incentive on the part of parents to care for unmated daughters as long as they were still fertile and potentially marriageable. Even in a small community, mating opportunities do come up, such as when a woman dies in childbirth.

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