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.