Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quest for Equality

I often wonder about our ancient ancestors and what were the real roles of men and women in ensuring survival of early humans.  I was reminded of this recently when I saw an ad for a film I watched many years ago (1981)--one that was quite interesting and entertaining.  It remains one of the most unusual and thought-provoking depictions of prehistoric humans (although one can quibble about the science and postulated interactions between humans and pre-humans). 

In the film, "Quest for Fire", a group of prehistoric tribesmen (Homo neanderthalensis) embark on a search for fire.  Lacking fire-making knowledge, primitive humanoids depended on finding natural sources of fire or stealing it from other clans.  After being attacked by another group (Homo erectus), their official fire tender (an especially clutzy guy) loses their fire source.  Consequently, three other male clan members are selected to find or steal another fire source.  During their adventure, they barely survive encounters with sabre-tooth cats, mastodons, cave bears, and cannibalistic groups. Eventually, they meet up with a female (Ika) from another, more advanced group (Homo sapiens).  The trio rescue her from the cannibals, and she tries to persuade them (non-vocally, since they have no common language) to return with her to her tribe. One of the males (Naoh) decides to follow her....

To make a long story short, Naoh discovers that this tribe knows how to make fire. The scene in which he realizes that it's possible to start a fire by "rubbing two sticks together" is pretty touching. The trio eventually return to their clan. One of the most hilarious scenes occurs when they hand over a new fire source, carefully packaged in a hollowed-out piece of wood, to the fire tender. Unfortunately, the clan has been hanging out in a marsh, and the clumsy fire tender, in his extreme excitement over getting a new fire source, stumbles into the water and douses the embers. One wonders how many times this has happened over human history: an incompetent man in charge of an extremely important task (see previous posts about the Dunning-Kruger effect).

Not to worry. Our hero proceeds to show his clan how to make fire.  Drumroll....   Unfortunately, Naoh never actually practiced the fire-making technique--he only saw it done by the Homo sapiens tribesmen.  After an unsuccessful and embarrassing attempt, he is about to give up, when Ika (who has followed him) takes over and makes the fire. They live happily ever after.

I was impressed that this film actually had such a scene and others--in which a woman was shown to be superior to a man (in more ways than one). If you've read my previous posts about Hollywood depictions of women, you know that such films are rare.

Some anthropologists suggest that the Paleolithic was the most gender-equal time in human history. Archeological evidence indicates that male and female members of prehistoric groups both participated in decision-making and that some females were of high status. That makes sense to me. For a group to survive, all the members would have to have multiple skills, especially basic survival skills, and to be flexible in allowing anyone who was especially good at some task to use that talent to promote the success of the group.  That egalitarian approach should have provided an edge over groups that may have had more restrictive gender roles in which an individual's inherent skills were not necessarily realized (lowering their overall competitiveness with other groups). 

Anyway, it makes one think about gender roles in modern human cultures, the future survival of our species, and whether our Paleolithic ancestors have something to teach us with respect to the advantages of an egalitarian society.

Image Credits: modified images from "Quest for Fire", International Cinema Corporation (Trivia: this film won an Oscar for best makeup).

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