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Dr Cathie Koa Dunsford reviews 'Invisible Women of Prehistory' 11 Sep 2013
Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three million years of peace, six thousand years of war by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet.

INVISIBLE WOMEN OF PREHISTORY: THREE MILLIONS YEARS OF PEACE, SIX THOUSAND YEARS OF WAR is a work of solid research and inspiring ideas and writing. The subtitle for the book captivates the reader with its stark truth. The massive span of matriarchal living has contributed many more years of peace to the earth than the relatively small but brutal years of patriarchal oppression and war. Having stated this, the authors then go to great lengths to convince us of their argument.

This is a wonderful work of research which is like reading a detective novel, or even more appropriate, as if listening to our matriarchal elders telling us their oral stories throughout time. As if our ancestors could come alive and speak to us of their existences. The authors unravel layers and layers of former research and theories and posit many illuminating theories of other scholars.

Paying homage to the original theories and work of Maria Gimbutas, the text takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery and re-discovery. It does not shrink from the task of showing that there has been much bias in past research and in suggesting new theories and supporting these with evidence.

This includes what they call “intangible evidence” in their chapter on the role of Language, Oral Transmission and Myth [pp27-41]. I found this one of the most interesting chapters of the entire text. For most people raised in indigenous cultures, there is little debate over the importance of this approach. But all too many scholars in the past have either ignored or misconstrued the vital importance of oral storytelling and the transmission of history by these means. Some had other agendas and were threatened by this approach. The current book addresses this issue and convinces even the most wary reader of the importance of taking this area of cultural history seriously.

This is later summed up in the section regarding Plato's philosophy [p147] where it is clearly stated  that the art of writing was taken over by the patriarchy “as their secret or sacred knowledge”, thus leaving women, foreigners, indigenous people and others of lower caste or outcast cultures as “outsiders”. 

When you consider the history of print up until the mid twentieth century, despite some outstanding work by women being printed, this hold on the power of writing and later the printing press was so powerful that it barred all but a small minority of women from getting into print. It also served to keep oral and indigenous stories and women's stories and histories out of the mainstream. This is just one very powerful example of the massive weight given to that which is favoured, written, in print and shows the old adage that he or she who owns the press, runs the press.

I mention this because the book is just one from the vast scope of quality books that Spinifex Press has produced over many decades that encourages readers to question what books they are being fed and why, what research is on offer and why. In fact, they urge us to question everything and not assume that what is in print or in favour is necessarily the truth.

Reading this book provides a kaupapa or reason for the kind of work Spinifex Press publishes. It shows us, over centuries, how a world can swivel on its axis from one way of working to another, so much so that many do not stop to question its underlying assumptions. Beyond the wonderful and revealing detail of this book, is the request asking each of us, as readers, to delve deeper into our assumptions, based upon the revelation of evidence provided, and think about human lives from prehistory until now, uncovering the assumptions that so many world changing decisions have been based upon. This is the heart of this book, its core. And it is wildly successful in getting the reader on side.

Judy Foster studied at Monash University and taught art. Her artistic vision enlivens the research of this book. Marlene Derlet taught at the Monash Centre for Indigenous Studies and is a linguist with a background in anthropology and sociology. These authors come from diverse backgrounds and this diversity is generously reflected in the wide scope of the text. 

Despite their academic backgrounds, the authors also have the gift of making complex research and ideas accessible to the reader. You become immersed in this book as you might in any good novel or work of research about which you are passionate. Their ability to weave words from multiple perspectives and then back this up with evidence is impressive.

The Timeline of Human Prehistory at the beginning of the book is very useful for readers not familiar with the overview and sums up the main developments well. Compressing such a vast amount of research into this summary is a feat in itself. But it leads the reader gently into the book and makes us eager to discover more. Throughout the book, the timelines are a fantastic and useful guide to refer back to while reading and afterwards when reflecting on the ideas and research.

Sometimes I would have liked even more detail. For instance, the illustration of the “Seed/vulva symbols/Old Europe” [2], p28, is clearly a depiction of the earliest symbols for the cowrie shell. The cowrie shell was both an African [and later Pacific] system of coins and also the word for the vulva. How the vulva came to be valued as an erotic symbol and also as coins could be an interesting exploration. Does this show that the vulva was a system of sexual/slavery currency  or indeed as valuable as coins? Does this make us reassess the true symbolism of the vulva? And from whose perspective? The illustration leads to so many possibilities. It is also the representation of the turtle shell and head in Hawai'ian ki'i pohaku or rock drawings but alas this is not explored in the book in this regard. 

Yet these are very minor issues. What the book does provide more than compensates for any small questionings I may have. In fact, it is  testament to the power of this book that it does get us thinking further about the language, symbolism and stories that it reveals and presents to us on so many levels.

The scope of this book outshines so many others in the field. It ranges across a wide variety of cultures and stories and has a richness and depth that few books of research in this genre have where such skill is employed to bring this vast knowledge to the reader in an original and enquiring way, wanting us all to know more.

It is not possible or fair to attempt to summarise such a rich text in a such a short review. But I predict that this tome will become a classic in its field and be read for many centuries to come. It may be added to by feminist scholars of the future and may be honoured as offering the kind of ground-breaking ideas that indeed the work of Maria Gimbutas' research did in her time. 

The last sections on the New Worlds [including Australia and Oceania] add a dimension so often missing from European texts. This is refreshing and exciting, and it is to be hoped that this will be extended in a new edition or perhaps a sequel?

This is not just a book for scholars in the field but a book for all of us to enjoy and debate. I know I will delve back into it time and time again as it offers so many ideas - enough to keep us going for decades to come. I am grateful not only to the hard work of these authors but to Spinifex Press for publishing and supporting such research into print in the twenty first century. The phrase that stays with us long after the book has been finished is: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war. It's certainly worth pondering as the first Black President of the USA, Barack Obama, [who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize], teeters on the brink of invading Syria as I am writing this review. What kind of Peace is this when the majority of the world wants to find an alternative solution to the problem? Maybe our women ancestors could have advised him wisely? Maybe they still will? This book shows us we can always have hope, based on the wisdom of our elders. That we should never give up hope, no matter what.

Dr Cathie Dunsford

Dr Cathie Dunsford is the author a the Cowrie series of novels and Director of Dunsford Publishing Consultants. She lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Orkney Islands.

Associated Author: Cathie Dunsford
Associated Book: Invisible Women of Prehistory


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