By documenting the usage and creation of stone tools by Ethiopian hide workers, a researcher at University of South Florida St. Petersburg found evidence that challenges some entrenched assumptions about history, invention and the roles of women.
For her work, anthro-archaeologist Kathryn Weedman Arthur was awarded the Gordon R. Willey prize from the American Anthropological Association, which published her article in its journal, American Anthropologist. The prize is given to the best archaeology paper published in the journal during the past three years as determined by its officers.
"Man the toolmaker" and "woman the gatherer" are ideas that have been embedded in Western analysis of ancient and prehistoric cultures since the Victorian era, Arthur said. As such, very little of material culture, the discovered objects that help archaeologists understand the daily lives of long-past peoples, is attributed to women.
"In our Western-centric reconstructions of the past, women bear children while men hunt, butcher, explore, lead rituals and produce technology — including stone tools," Arthur wrote in the introduction to Feminine Knowledge and Skill Reconsidered: Women and Flaked Stone Tools.
But in the Konso region in southern Ethiopia, Arthur found a group of skilled women creating and using stone-flake scrapers to process raw animal hides with methods that provide a window to prehistory. She spent two summers and a December interviewing 16 of the hide workers, learning their methods and customs, and indexing their tools and materials.
While some crafts have been primarily attributed to women in many cultures, particularly hide working and pottery, researchers have typically dismissed their tools as expedient, nonstandardized and made from low-quality, local materials, Arthur said. This is not true for the Konso hide workers, who seek out specific types of rock from distant quarries and, with 10 to 15 years of practice, produce consistent stone scrapers, traits typically attributed to men.
The expert artisans pass along their knowledge by selecting apprentices within their extended families, usually starting with girls 6 to 8 years old. Though there are a few male hide workers, they too learned their trade from women.
Arthur's research "speaks to a very basic principle, something that's been taken for granted for a very long time," said Rosemary Joyce, president of the American Anthropological Association's archaeology division.
"We assign roles to men and women without thinking about them, based on our own cultural preconceptions," Joyce said. "What we should learn from this is that we can't make that kind of assumption."
"It's part of a dramatic cultural change in expanding and appreciating the productive role women play in society," said Jay Sokolosky, who runs the anthropology program at USFSP.
"Archaeology has been a male-dominated field," Arthur said. "That whole Indiana Jones syndrome." As late as 1995, after receiving her master's degree, Arthur was discouraged from focusing on gender role research. "No one is going to fund a project on gender," she was told, though she said the field is opening up to the idea.
Arthur is "one of the few people in the world that is looking at women's use of stone tools from both an archaeological and anthropological viewpoint," Sokolovsky said. "That's why I hired her."
Even in the progressive 1960s when he was in college, Sokolovsky said, "All the books were 'man the hunter,' 'man the toolmaker.'
"Women the toolmaker? … You couldn't think of it."
Arthur's work on the Konso women is just a part of her continuing love of Africa, she said. "Since I was 12 years old I wanted to go to Africa and be an archaeologist."
Upon arriving in Botswana in 1990 as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, she said she knew: "This is it. This is what I'm going to do."
While working on her dissertation, she lived for two years with the Gamo people in Ethiopia. She is currently working with her husband, John, a fellow USFSP researcher, on the political castes and rituals of the Gamo. He does the archaeology, she learns about the people, she said. And since 2005, the couple has brought their daughter, Hannah, now 9, along for the adventure.
"I think she thinks it's mundane since she's been going since she was 3," Arthur said.
"It's not for everyone," Arthur said of work in the field. "It's far away, it has its difficulties, it's cold and wet," but it's not different than any other fieldwork. "People just have a bad conception of Africa. Their lives are very different in some ways, but we all have similar concerns."
Most of all, the people she meets crave better education for their children. At the request of the community elders, Arthur is writing a history book in English and the local language.
"I work in communities that are rural. They're farmers, traders and craftspeople," Arthur said. "They have a really good social life, that's something we've been missing" in the U.S. "Neighbors help each other out."