What was life like for our grandmothers one and a half million years ago? How did they cope with (ahem, cough, cough) ‘women’s things’ in the days before Always With Wings and TV adverts made us believe that menstruating women suddenly turned into rollerskaters and white jeans wearing disco dancers? It wasn’t until I was asked at the last minute to prepare a talk on the subject of menstruation in the Stone Age recently that I thought I’d better do some reading around it… The event, called ‘Women. Period’, held at Hove’s Regency Town House, promised to reveal how our foremothers dealt with ‘the curse’. It looked at attitudes towards (and some of the names given to) Aunty Flo’s Monthly Visitor around the world, as well as showing a fascinating animated instructional film aimed at young women produced by Walt Disney in 1946, ‘The Story of Menstruation’. Other delights included a look at some…. well, interesting gadgetry our Victorian sisters would have to struggle with during her ‘Lady Time’. Harnesses? Rubber straps? It’s a good job rollerskates hadn’t been invented. As, just the previous week, I’d seen a young woman in a shop visibly cringe while buying a box of Tampax and wondered for the millionth time why, in the twenty-first century, while taboos drop like flies around sex and other bodily functions that used to raise a blush, periods should still be such an embarrassment, this fun and interesting event wasn’t before time. Incidentally, since the event I’ve come across a fascinating article in the Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/menstruation-study-finds-over-5000-slang-terms-for-period-a6905021.html) , looking at some of the amazing euphemisms for the time-of-the-month from around the world. Tops for me had to be ‘Der Er Kommunister I Lysthuset’ (‘There are communists in the fun house’ – Thank you, Denmark) and, oddly, from France, ‘Les Anglais ont debarqué’ (The English have landed’)
Then there was me, an absolute Stone Age novice, trying to surmise how things went 2.5 million years ago. I have to say a big thank you to my colleague at Brighton Museum, Su Hepburn, the original guest for the evening, who handed me her notes on this. Su found out that the main difference between Stone Age women and us is that they menstruated far less. Today’s modern, industrialised woman can expect a total of 450 periods in her life compared to perhaps 50 for our Stone Age ancestors. One of the reasons was that girls started to menstruate much later. It’s thought that menarche occurred at the average age of 16 rather than 12 today. Women also gave birth earlier (at 19 rather than today’s early to mid 20s) and had more children (up to about 6 live births per mother). Also, it’s believed that breastfeeding would continue until the child reached 5 (in comparison, the last NHS Infant Feeding Survey revealed only 1% of babies were being breastfed in this country after 6 months). Of course, we can’t be completely accurate with facts and figures when we’re talking about people’s lives in 10,000 BCE, and the term ‘Stone Age’ covers over 3 million years during which time people progressed – in this country, at least – from being wholly nomadic to having the opportunity to live in relatively settled and more hierarchically organised communities, enjoying a more varied diet. It’s generally thought, however, that our ancestors would have had less body fat and could have been deficient in things that keep us healthy today.
What’s certain, though, is that women’s lives were busy and often brutal. Not only was there the average 6 children to think about, the relentless breastfeeding, and, with a typical life expectancy of 40, not so many grandmother figures around to help with childcare, their lives also consisted, according to Rosalind Miles in the ‘The Women’s History of the World’ (1989), of food gathering, hunting smaller prey, instructing children, making garments, cooking, tool making, possibly weaving grasses and other materials to make containers to store and carry food, erecting and pulling down living quarters as they moved to follow harvests and food sources. Although the term ‘hunter-gatherer society’ puts the emphasis on the hunting part of the equation as the most important and difficult contribution made by men, the ‘gathering’, far from the passive picking at berries and leaves it connotes, required enormous skill and great knowledge of what was edible and what to do with it. Ensuring that food was provided for the family every day, not just on the days when animals had been successfully hunted, required climbing trees, digging, grinding, travelling long distances and carrying things back. And it’s thought that women did their share of hunting too, either in their own right or alongside the men.
So, although it probably didn’t come round on a monthly basis, how did our grandmothers manage all this while they were menstruating? Grasses, animal skins, moss, leaves? Practicality-wise, they must have come up with something that allowed them to roam long distances, climb trees, and do everything else necessary for survival. Anthropologists from more recent times have observed hunter gatherer people easily fashioning slings and bags to transport children and foodstuffs. Who’s to say our fore mothers didn’t come up with an early type of sanitary belt, of the type women who went to school in the ’70s and ’80s remember being shown in the sex education lessons as an alternative to the new-fangled adhesive pads? (In my class two girls actually fainted at the sight of the elastic trusses we’d just been told we’d soon be wearing for most of our adult lives. They saved the concept of tampons for another lesson completely) For readers born later, this early Kotex advert shows what I’m talking about…
These women would have had to figure out a way of transporting their babies as they worked, so why not use the same technology? As Rosalind Miles says ‘it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the women capable of bringing the infant human race forward into the future could also have found the way to deal efficiently with their own bodies’.
A clue to how women may have been seen at this time could come from the many so-called ‘Venus’ statues dating from the period found by archaeologists in Europe. These figures, as shown in the image at the top of this post, appear to be representations of women. Around 150 of them have been found, mainly around areas thought to have been occupied by Stone Age settlements, both open-air sites and in caves. They’re usually small – the most famous one, found in Willendorf, Austria in 1905 (below), and dating from 25,000 BCE, is only four and a half inches tall. Most are lozenge shaped and have scant facial features, yet large breasts, big bellies, and sometimes prominently displayed genitals.
Many suggest that they could have been painted red originally. As obesity wasn’t commonplace at the time, it’s been suggested that the full bellied figures represent pregnancy with the red colour perhaps symbolic of menstrual blood or childbirth. Their purpose is unknown. Maybe they were made as an appeal to, or celebration of, fertility. Maybe they symbolised abundance and hope for longevity, survival, and success. The statues suggest, however, that the people investing time and resources to their creation understood and had awe and respect for this side of womanhood. Or could they have been made by women themselves? In the days before mirrors, the statues could have been a good attempt at self depiction. Women readers, the next time you’re naked, look down at your body and you’ll recognise the sloping of the breasts and the tummy, as well as the lozenge shape as your body tapers to your feet. Could they even be some of the first examples of women’s art?
More information about these figurines can be found here: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/venus-of-willendorf.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines, http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/play/3d-models/venus/
Here in Brighton we have one of Britain’s earliest Stone Age monuments in the Whitehawk Camp, dating from 5,500 years ago (predating Stonehenge by 1000 years). There’s lots of information on the Brighton and Hove City Council website here: http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/leisure-and-libraries/parks-and-green-spaces/whitehawk-camp
And here’s a link to the 10 minute film ‘The Story of Menstruation’ produced in 1946 by Walt Disney. It was commissioned by the International Cello-Cotton Company (now Kimberley-Clark). It was part of a 1945 to 1951 series of films that Disney produced for American schools. Inducted last year into the American National Film Registry due to its cultural importance, it’s believed to be (according to Wikipedia) the first film to mention the word ‘vagina’, and, as part of its advice, urged women not to shower in water that was too cold or too hot and to ‘avoid constipation and depression, and to always keep up a fine outward appearance.’