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S19 Ep2

Lady Sapiens

Premiere: 10/27/2021 | 00:00:32 | Closed Captioning Icon

Incredible scientific investigations from across the globe are helping piece together the untold story of prehistoric women. The latest research separates fact from fiction and sheds new light on our ancient foremothers.

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-For more than a century and a half, experts have been uncovering and analyzing ancient human remains on a quest to understand the story of the earliest members of our Homo sapiens species who migrated from Africa to Eurasia around 45,000 years ago.

♪♪♪ The typical image of early man is a strong spear-throwing hero who ensured the very survival of the species... [ Woolly mammoth roars ] ...while the study of early woman has been limited, emphasizing her role as a mother and preventing a full understanding of her.

But brand-new discoveries and cutting-edge science are painting a whole new portrait of early woman.

-We operate under the assumption that it's the prime-age males that are the be-all and end-all of Ice Age lifeways, and they're not.

♪♪♪ -Now the true story of prehistoric woman is being brought to light.

♪♪♪ Archaeology, DNA analysis, the study of prehistoric art, and other research is introducing us to a much more complex woman.

♪♪♪ So, what her story?

Who were the Lady Sapiens?

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -'Secrets of the Dead' was made possible in part by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.

Thank you.

♪♪♪ -Caviglione cave. Northern Italy.

♪♪♪ Here, French archaeologists uncovered a 24,000-year-old human skeleton... from a time when the earliest members of our species roamed this land in small hunter-gatherer groups.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ The remains show signs that this ancient being had strong muscles and a wide and imposing stature.

And the artifacts around the body suggest an elaborate horse-themed burial.

-[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: She was buried with a sense of grandeur.

Not everyone was buried in this royal fashion, with a very elaborate funeral rite based around the horse figure.

A pin made of horse bone was placed in front of her face.

A pendant carved into the shape of a horse was placed atop of the grave.

And engraved on the exterior wall, five feet from the ground, this magnificent horse engraving.

♪♪♪ -The body had been covered in red ochre and given an intricate headdress made of Mediterranean shellfish and more than a hundred stag teeth.

The grave held other astonishing objects, including two fine blades of flint used for hunting.

-[ Speaking Italian ] -Interpreter: This tells us indirectly that there existed a spirituality in these prehistoric communities to the point of providing their most valued members the essentials needed for their journey to the afterlife.

-[ Speaking Italian ] -When the remains were found in 1872, experts were quick to label the skeleton as male.

Their assumption was typical of the time, when scientists were almost exclusively men.

For more than a century, the assumption remained fact.

-[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: We have to think back to a society in the 19th century, when women were not highly regarded.

The women were at home, and men played all the important economic and social roles.

So, naturally, it was assumed that roles were similar in the Paleolithic era, that it was solely the male hunter who advanced society.

The female was simply forgotten. We did not talk about her.

And if she was mentioned, she was simply the homebody who took care of the children.

-But in 1995, scientist Marie-Antoinette de Lumley took a closer look at the pelvic bone.

Usually quite delicate and rarely found intact, this one was well-preserved... and led to an astonishing realization.

-Interpreter: My wife, Marie-Antoinette de Lumley, while clearing the skeleton, which was kept at the Musée de l'Homme, noticed that the iliac bone had an enlarged cavity and that this was, in fact, a woman.

-This curve indicates the width of the human pelvis.

A woman's pelvis is larger than a man's to facilitate childbirth.

The specific shape of the pelvis of this strong, seemingly important person indicated it belonged to a woman.

The discovery stunned the world of paleontology.

It defied long-standing presumptions that hunter men were the sole leaders of prehistoric societies... and the belief that they were their tribes' primary providers, to whom we owe the survival of our species.

-Interpreter: What is implied here is that if hominization is based on hunting, then that means the male was solely responsible.

In other words, that the female did not have a role in the evolution of humanity.

-Can science lead to a better understanding of prehistoric Homo sapiens women?

♪♪♪ [ Drill whirring ] The most reliable indicator of biological sex is DNA.

♪♪♪ But extracting a quality sample is deeply invasive and limited to fossils less than 100,000 years old.

♪♪♪ But at the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, José Braga is developing a whole new technique to determine the sex of ancient remains, even those that are several million years old.

[ Beeping ] ♪♪♪ Using state-of-the-art X-ray microtomography, he can access a special clue in an ancient ear.

♪♪♪ -[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: We can observe miniscule details in a fossilized skull.

This allows us access to the interior structure to reveal what is invisible to the human eye.

-From the data collected, Braga can then create a virtual 3-D model of the internal ear with accuracy that's finer than a quarter of the thickness of a hair.

-Interpreter: Microtomography enables me to see this series of images here.

The interior of this bone appears, which we see here in white, a void -- more notably, a particular shape that corresponds to a void left by an organ that has since disappeared since the individual's death.

And this organ is the hearing organ, the cochlea, which is shaped like the shell of a snail, a spiral form.

-The ear's spiral-shaped cochlea rotates in a way that's distinctive to every individual, as unique as a person's fingerprints.

There is also a difference in the cochlea's form between sexes that allows women to hear higher frequencies better than men.

-Interpreter: We had good reasons to think that there could be differences here, because when we measure the precision with which humans hear high frequencies, we see that women have a better sensibility to high frequencies compared to men.

Using this method, we are able to determine, with 95% accuracy, the correct sex of that individual.

-Exciting new techniques like this one allow for a more precise study of Homo sapiens female fossil remains.

In turn, scientists are learning more about how these women spent their days.

First and foremost, did women participate in the hunt for large game?

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Woolly mammoth roars ] ♪♪♪ To find out, scientists have turned to one particular Olympic sport.

♪♪♪ When it comes to weight and size, spears used by prehistoric hunters have often been compared to the javelin.

♪♪♪ Hunting with spears engages very similar muscle groups to javelin throwing.

It's an action that leaves its mark on muscle joints.

♪♪♪ French javelin champion Jona Aigouy knows far too well the toll her sport can take on a body.

-[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: Javelin throwing is a high-intensity sport.

The most common injuries are in the shoulder or elbow areas.

When it comes to the elbow, the stretching movement will cause internal constraints, which in turn will cause tendonitis.

It can also cause a nerve to pop out of its place, which we call a dislocated nerve.

-At the University of Bordeaux, Dr. Sébastien Villotte has been investigating a range of European fossils from the Paleolithic era, like these Elbow joints found in northern Italy.

♪♪♪ Time and again, he's found signs of muscle trauma that can only be caused by a specific dynamic motion.

♪♪♪ -Interpreter: In this area, we see a small remodeling, which seems to be the healing of a tiny bone tear.

-[ Speaking French ] -This is something that I have observed in other individuals of the Upper Paleolithic.

I have also seen this similar tear in many prehistoric European collections... and often only in men.

♪♪♪ This lesion is usually only caused by the gesture of the throw.

Obviously, the first idea that comes to mind when we talk about this gesture is the javelin throw, a projectile used in hunting.

-Evidence of close-range, high-energy impact... but found exclusively on male fossils.

[ Creature growls ] Villotte's analysis seems to confirm the long-standing 'man the hunter' hypothesis.

[ Hunter whistling ] ♪♪♪ But one discovery, high in the Andes in Peru, tells a completely different story.

♪♪♪ Archaeologist Randy Haas from the University of California, Davis, uncovered an impressive set of six stone projectile points and blades in the 9,000-year-old burial tomb of a woman.

The find led experts to re-examine other ancient burials in the Americas and identify 10 more women buried with projectile points, a sign that ancient women here may also have been hunters.

Perhaps gender roles varied from one prehistoric Homo sapiens group to another.

-Interpreter: Many, many studies of the Paleolithic era show a diversity of cultures.

Perhaps in some Paleolithic societies there were women who hunted.

Perhaps in other societies there were women who did not hunt.

[ Woolly mammoth groans ] ♪♪♪ [ Indistinct shouting ] -Interpreter: It's rather simplistic to think that there are activities that are exclusively male and activities that are exclusively female.

Even if it's true that big-game hunting is often done by men, we have ethnographic examples to the contrary.

In the Philippines, among the Agtas, women hunted with machetes and bow and arrow.

♪♪♪ -Whether or not women actually chased down large prey themselves, one discovery in the Parisian suburbs has shed light on the vital role they played during a hunt.

♪♪♪ Dr. Michèle Julien and Claudine Karlin from the French National Centre for Scientific Research have spent years excavating a prairie that, 13,000 years ago, was seasonally occupied by reindeer hunters.

♪♪♪ Judging by the number and scale of hunting camps found at the site, it seems around 30 people -- men, women, and children -- ambushed migrating herds of reindeer here.

♪♪♪ A casting of one of the camps is preserved at the Ile-de-France Prehistory Museum.

One single layer of strata represents one hunting season and holds precious insight into the daily life of this group and the sheer volume of meat they butchered.

-Interpreter: We found a very large quantity of reindeer bones which, after analysis, totaled to about 76 animals.

They weren't all killed at the same time, but probably over a period of one to two weeks because they traveled in small herds.

-76 reindeer. Roughly three tons of meat.

According to the analysis, men of the group could never have killed so many animals in such a short amount of time without help.

Comparing this evidence with observations of today's modern hunting tribes suggests hunts must have involved the entire community.

-Interpreter: The men did the hunting, and the women and children and the men who didn't hunt led the herd to where the hunters awaited.

And so the whole group participated in the hunt.

-Once the carcasses were brought back to the camp, processing such a high volume of meat was extremely labor-intensive.

Every adult would have been needed.

-The principal work included cutting up the carcasses, treating the meat by either drying it, or perhaps by other means, in order to create reserves for the winter.

And the animal furs then needed to be treated.

♪♪♪ -There was a real complementarity, and this allowed the group to function.

-Karlin and Julien also uncovered the remains of wild hare.

They believe that if the men were busy hunting large game, trapping smaller animals like hare might have been the work of women.

-There were hares inside the camps.

This animal demands different hunting techniques.

And all the skeleton pieces from the hares were found in one single space.

They were not shared like the larger animals were.

One can therefore assume that women were the ones who hunted the hares.

♪♪♪ -Women also hunted and trapped small game.

We have numerous ethnographic examples of this.

This type of hunt provided a much more stable food supply, much more reliable than hunting large animals.

So about 70% of the food supply came from either small game, from fishing, or the harvesting of plants.

♪♪♪ Evidence clearly demonstrates the roles prehistoric women played in hunting both large and small game.

♪♪♪ Ethnographic studies of gender roles in today's hunter-gatherer tribes suggest women supervised the gathering of plants, as well.

At an archaeological site in Northern Israel, inside a brush hut from 22,000 years ago, experts have found seeds from thousands of medicinal plants.

Mallow to treat wounds, milk thistle to cure liver inflammation and poisoning, and sweet clover to stop bleeding.

-We can assume that since it was mainly women who collected plants, then they must have known their properties -- not just nutrition and taste, but also as medicine.

Therefore, woman is perhaps the founder of medicine.

[ Children shouting playfully ] -Small-game hunters. Botanical experts.

Early Homo sapiens women were crucial members of their hunter-gatherer societies.

But did they resemble one of the most common and iconic depictions of women from the time -- the Paleolithic Venus?

Hundreds of these small figurines have been found across Europe and Asia, all produced between 38,000 and 14,000 years ago.

Carved from a variety of materials, the Venus generally depicts round women with wide hips.

♪♪♪ [ Beeping ] Thanks to DNA analysis, we do know that the prehistoric women and men who lived when these figurines were created had dark skin.

♪♪♪ -Interpreter: The first Europeans to arrive in Europe are Black in skin color.

We expected that because sapiens originated in Africa.

So when they leave Africa for the European continent, they are dark-skinned.

But the remarkable fact is that the populations of Western Europe remain dark-skinned color for quite a long time.

That is to say, we arrive in Europe 40,000 years ago, but ancient DNA extracted from an individual who is 6,000 years old or 8,000 years old, for example, shows that he still carries the genetic code variant for dark skin color.

-And the genetic studies have also revealed a surprising mutation that occurred after Homo sapiens tribes arrived in Europe -- blue eyes.

-Why blue eyes?

We think that this is a phenomenon of sexual selection.

That is, the fact that one has personal preferences.

So, one prefers a partner who, for example, has lighter eye color, and that trait will reproduce better.

Generation after generation of this preference will result in this mutation, and it will spread within the population.

♪♪♪ -It seems unlikely, but did the women of prehistory have round, voluptuous bodies like the Venus figurines?

♪♪♪ Dr. Nicholas Conard offers some insight.

In 2004, he and his team unearthed a Venus dating from roughly 40,000 years ago.

It's the oldest such statue ever found in Europe.

-That's where it's from.

And all the pieces were very close together, right around here, in about this position at the base of the Aurignacian.

-Carved from the ivory of a woolly mammoth, the statuette stands just over 2 inches tall.

Today, it's carefully preserved at the Museum of Prehistory Blaubeuren, where Conard has analyzed it in detail.

-What really is noticeable at the beginning are the sexual characteristics.

The very full breast, the pubic triangle are unmistakably the center of the depiction.

The legs are hardly there at all, right?

Locomotion was not important for this find.

And perhaps most importantly there's no head, there's no face at all.

Real people living a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle would not have physiques like this.

This is in no way a realistic depiction.

It's a depiction of an idea of strength, fertility, but it's certainly not a realistic depiction.

-With their simplified features and abundant curves, Venus statues aren't faithful depictions of early woman's physicality.

Rather, they're tributes to her all-important ability to bear children.

[ Baby cooing ] ♪♪♪ [ Children shouting playfully ] ♪♪♪ But in prehistoric times, when it came to a woman's partner, who did she pair up with?

[ Indistinct conversation ] ♪♪♪ By comparing DNA samples from an extensive database, Evelyne Heyer and her colleagues have found that early man and woman were seemingly already well-aware of the dangers of inbreeding.

-Interpreter: What we see in European Paleolithic populations is that there is no incestuous marriage.

There is no marriage between brother/sister, father/child.

So it's a system that has existed for a very long time, at least in the Paleolithic period.

-[ Speaking French ] -But when it comes to ancient mating patterns, genetic code can reveal much more.

For certain regions, Heyer has actually managed to map out who belonged to which group and who left their group to mate with a member of another.

The results are very clear.

-Data available from Paleolithic era studies suggests that there are no differences between males and females in terms of migration patterns.

In other words, both males and females married and changed tribes.

♪♪♪ -Ancient men and women were equally transient and mobile when it came to searching for partners.

♪♪♪ All these clues give us precious insight into early woman's relationship with her mate 40,000 years ago.

♪♪♪ But does this mean she fully understood the intricacies of reproduction?

♪♪♪ Experts long believed that humans only made the connection between sex and procreation when they adopted an agrarian lifestyle -- growing crops and livestock, moving away from hunting and gathering.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ But the discovery of a 15,000-year-old wall engraving in Central France debunks this theory.

♪♪♪ Archaeologists Geneviève Pinçon and Oscar Fuentes are experts in prehistoric wall carvings, working to decode the messages left by ancient nomadic humans.

♪♪♪ They believe an incredible prehistoric fresco at the Roc-aux-Sorciers rock shelter demonstrates the connection prehistoric people made between sex and reproduction.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -Interpreter: We are here in front of the panel of women, which makes Sorcerers' Rock so important in the study of prehistory.

-Interpreter: It is an extraordinary site, because you have animals and you have this magnificent panel of women.

Here in the Lascaux cave, there is nothing else like it.

♪♪♪ -Today this limestone cliff is carefully preserved under a modern shelter.

But 15,000 years ago, it was out in the open for all to see.

The red ochre and charcoal paintings on white rock, surrounded by low foliage, were easy to see, even from afar.

-We are not looking at hidden art, since here we are in symbiosis with nature.

We are outdoors. We're in sunlight.

And all of a sudden, there you go.

It's, in fact, accessible to everyone.

-We can share stories.

-For Pinçon and Fuentes, one panel tells the story of three distinct moments in a woman's childbearing years.

First, she is expecting, with that recognizable pregnancy line carved over her rounded belly.

The second image carved in the rock shows her nursing, having just given birth.

The third scene appears to be a woman with the potential to procreate, as symbolized by the surrounding bison, animals that also have a nine-month gestation period.

♪♪♪ -On this panel of women, what we see is a myth, a concept.

That is, we want to express a general concept of the female's essential role in the survival of the group.

Namely, fertility.

-And another related image is nearby -- a panel of mountain goats.

-The narrative is laid out like a comic book.

We can add voices without much explanation.

The female, her calf... the male, the males... then procreation.

For me, there is no doubt that the Magdalenians understood the link between sexuality and its consequences.

♪♪♪ -It's possible that if early woman knew that sex led to pregnancy and understood the reproductive cycle, she could control when she became a mother.

♪♪♪ But despite this, when a pregnancy did come, was it always wanted?

Has the maternal instinct been engrained in our genes since the days of our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors?

[ Baby fussing ] At the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Jean-Jacques Hublin is an expert in behavioral evolution, studying what binds a mother to her child... and how this may have changed over time.

He works closely with Professor Sarah Hrdy, who is mapping the biological, social, and cultural factors that have shaped human behavior.

-[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: The work of Sarah Hrdy and other anthropologists are very important because they have shifted the spotlight from technical progress to not only social but also behavioral progress.

-[ Speaking French ] -The maternal instinct to protect, of attachment, of caring for newborns -- one must understand that this is not unique to humans.

It exists in the animal world.

There are biological instincts at play here, and these instincts are present in animals and in humans alike.

-For millions of years, the human mother/child bond has thrived, thanks in part to a hormone that both secrete -- oxytocin.

But according to Hublin, the precariousness of nomadic life meant this bond may have been compromised by the mother's survival instinct.

-Depending on the circumstances, this attachment may be, if not annihilated, at least reduced under extreme circumstances.

It is conceivable that situations may exist that result in the abandonment of the child or in handing over the child to other adults.

Attachment is just as possible as detachment.

-[ Speaking French ] -Studies of women from modern hunter-gatherer tribes reveal that, when the timing isn't right to have a child, some control births with sexual abstinence, prolonged nursing, or abortifacient plants.

[ Children shouting playfully ] Despite all this, if a baby is born during hard times, it can be rejected by the mother in favor of her own well-being and that of her tribe.

-[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: It is a decision often made by the women themselves.

One example is the Kalahari San women, who give birth all alone in the desert.

They alone will make these decisions.

This does not suggest that these decisions are easy to make.

-But according to experts, instances like this would have been exceptions to the norm.

♪♪♪ If she understood her reproductive system, early woman could control her journey to motherhood.

Can science also show how prehistoric women, once they had children, cared for them, fed them?

At the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, archaeologist Dr. Vincent Balter's research examines how long prehistoric women breastfed their children.

♪♪♪ For Balter, the secret is hidden in the teeth.

[ Drill whirring ] -Interpreter: We can analyze the amount of milk that we ingest in our diet.

And we can then see the isotopic signature of milk in fossils.

♪♪♪ -Balter is then able to estimate when a child began eating a more varied diet, having reduced or eliminated its intake of breastmilk.

[ Beeping ] These teeth are from the extinct species Homo erectus, which lived 1.5 million years ago and, it turns out, depended on breastmilk for much longer than modern humans do.

♪♪♪ -These signature milk characteristics have been found in children up to the age of four, which shows that young Homo erectus children were pampered by their parents.

-The Homo erectus species, reliant on breastmilk as its main source of nutrition for a lengthy four years.

If we compare this with hunter-gatherer tribes today, it seems the duration of breastfeeding shortened as humans evolved... and had important benefits for the species.

-[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: What is very particular with humans is that development is quite long.

-[ Speaking French ] -But, paradoxically, the age at which babies are weaned is getting younger and younger.

-[ Speaking French ] -Once children are able to eat solid food, then the mother can share with other adults the time and energy needed to ensure the children's development.

This is what makes us cooperative breeders, and this behavior has an extraordinary influence on the organization of human groups.

[ Baby cooing ] ♪♪♪ -With pregnancies spaced out and the burden of childcare shared, it seems prehistoric mothers may not have been overwhelmed by the demands of raising their young.

♪♪♪ And new evidence now suggests they may have relied on help from one group of clan members in particular -- grandmothers.

♪♪♪ Kristen Hawkes has studied grandmothers from modern hunter-gatherer tribes and witnessed the important role they play in the survival of their groups.

She recalls one particular experience with the Hadza tribe in Tanzania.

-I was spending hours in the hot sun every day with these old ladies.

I mean, with other people, as well, but with these old ladies who were doing what is the heaviest kind of resource acquisition, foraging for these deeply buried tubers that can be more than a meter deep.

They were spending more hours a day doing that particular energetically expensive thing than anybody else, and our records were beginning to show that the weaned kids, their weights were correlated with their grandmothers' foraging effort.

♪♪♪ -The older women collected roughly 30% of the group's daily food intake, which was intended primarily for the children.

Hawkes has demonstrated how the support of grandmothers contributed to the doubling of the early Homo sapiens species' lifespan.

-Older females, by subsidizing the fertility of the younger ones, allowed them to have the next baby sooner without the previous one being left to die because the weaned kids were subsidized by their grandmothers.

♪♪♪ -In addition to assisting with children's physical well-being, it's believed the elderly women also passed on their knowledge.

♪♪♪ -[ Speaking French ] -Interpreter: Human societies are societies that share, that redistribute.

They are also societies that learn and innovate.

And this transmission obviously takes time.

It's a factor that weighs in in terms of natural selection, basically pushing human beings towards, for example, greater and greater longevity.

-[ Speaking French ] -The human species is one of the few in which postmenopausal females still have a fairly long life expectancy.

Why?

Because they are a benefit to the group and to their descendants.

-[ Speaking French ] ♪♪♪ -Supported by older women who helped make childrearing more manageable, prehistoric Homo sapiens women could take on other pivotal roles within their groups -- hunters, gatherers, managers, and planners.

♪♪♪ Early Homo sapiens women did a great deal more than just providing for their tribes.

-From a study of about 70 populations of hunter-gatherers, we determined that the time that women spend gathering could vary based on the tribe's needs.

If there is a lot of big-game hunting, there will be less need for gathering, and therefore the women will be able to devote themselves to other activities.

At that point, they focus on more technical activities.

♪♪♪ -One incredible example of this craftsmanship was discovered on the outskirts of Dordogne in Southwest France -- a collection of intricate, decorative ornaments from around 37,000 years ago.

♪♪♪ Randall White from New York University has been carefully re-creating the steps needed to produce these objects.

In doing so, he has determined that they were made by women.

-They created a series of pencil-like rods that they then split into segments, which you can see very clearly here.

Those were then thinned along one end, leaving a bulb at the other.

And finally, using abrasive tools, they were ground down into this very characteristic shape that's known as 'basket shaped.'

They're absolutely tiny.

It's rare that you can actually answer the question, 'Who made these objects?'

I have relatively, I suppose, normal hands for a man, and I can't make the smallest of these beads, but most of my female graduate students can get down to the very smallest ones.

So it kind of supports the idea that this might have been a women's activity.

-By analyzing traces of friction on the pearls, White can even gauge how these ornaments were worn.

-Each of the beads is sewn onto a garment, probably a skin garment.

They shouldn't be seen as individual ornaments because they're almost invisible, but you have to imagine that they were sewn on in patterns that were the visible part of it.

♪♪♪ -This is just one sample of women's artisanship and technical abilities.

♪♪♪ Scientists have uncovered other stunning examples in the south of the Czech Republic.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Some of the most well-known pieces of Paleolithic art have been found there, including one from the Pavlov Archaeological Park, a museum built on the site of a woolly mammoth hunting camp.

♪♪♪ It's the 29,000-year-old clay Venus of Dolní Vestonice, evidence that the prehistoric people here had an astonishing mastery of clay art.

♪♪♪ The region is scattered with a variety of clay remnants that, for archaeologists Olga Soffer and James Adovasio, serve as stunning examples of plant-based craftsmanship.

-These items were preserved because they had been impressed, pushed into clay, by the aboriginal inhabitants, and the clay was subject to heat.

♪♪♪ -By studying the clay imprints under a microscope, Soffer and Adovasio have spotted evidence of intricate braiding and knot-making decorating a variety of day-to-day objects.

-They could have been pieces of floor covering.

They could have been items of clothing.

In some cases, they were nets or bags that had been produced for the use of the hunter-gatherers who lived at Vestonice.

♪♪♪ -Because of their durability, ancient flint weapons and cutting tools have long overshadowed the study of other forms of prehistoric craftsmanship, likely produced by women.

-90% or more of the artifacts that are produced by hunting and gathering populations in any environment, whether it's the far north or the tropical rainforest, is made of non-durable materials.

These kinds of things, items made of plant fiber, were critical to the survival of these groups.

The majority of the items that are made of non-durable materials are, in fact, produced by women.

This is based on archeological evidence, as well as ethnographic analogues to living hunting-and-gathering populations.

-And for Soffer and Adovasio, a lack of artifacts, plus contemporary social biases, have limited the understanding of prehistoric women's work.

-We have tended, both in Europe and North America, to minimize all the plant material, all the small animals, in favor of the more dramatic image of hunting big animals with spears.

We operate under the assumption that it's the prime-age males, our age, so to speak, that are the be-all and end-all of Ice Age lifeways, and they're not.

Nor is stone.

♪♪♪ -Plant-based items, from clothing to bedding to carrier bags, all skillfully produced by women and just as important as hunting spears and cutting tools to a group's survival.

♪♪♪ These items may have been lost to time, but there are others, still with us 40,000 years later, that illustrate not just a practical mind-set but also an artistic one.

[ Fire crackling ] Most researchers have long assumed that men were responsible for the mysterious prehistoric wall paintings found underground and in caves.

And they speculate that, for prehistoric societies, men believed caves were too dangerous for women.

♪♪♪ In Southern France, the Pech Merle cave holds a jewel of Paleolithic art.

♪♪♪ An extraordinary panel of horses surrounded by handprints.

In many present-day hunter-gatherer cultures, the handprint is an artist's signature.

It's possible the ancient people who stamped their hands around these horses were the artists... though it's difficult for experts to say whether the prints belonged to men or women.

♪♪♪ -Interpreter: Most of the hands found from the Paleolithic era are incomplete.

Phalanges are missing, and so it's difficult to determine whether they are female or male hands.

With the few hands that we were able to determine gender, we did indeed have female hands.

-These handprints may indicate that women, like men, ventured deep underground and made art.

♪♪♪ But there is another piece of evidence that women spent time underground and in caves -- preserved footprints.

♪♪♪ Dr. Andreas Pastoors and his team study prehistoric human tracks.

Their latest analysis is in the Aldène cave in Southern France.

♪♪♪ Here, an underground path is covered with 8,000-year-old footprints perfectly preserved in clay -- 600 of them.

To find out more about the people who left these footprints, they have joined forces with contemporary tracking experts.

-[ Speaking native language ] -[ Speaking native language ] -Yeah.

-[ Speaking native language ] -[ Speaking native language ] ♪♪♪ -Interpreter: We requested the assistance of trackers from Namibia because they have a lot of experience in interpreting both animal and human footprints.

♪♪♪ -It's a daunting trek to reach the site.

The team must follow a 90-foot-long fault in the rock and a narrow channel for more than half a mile.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Inside the chamber, the prints are spread across 90 feet.

The Namibian trackers get to work.

-Interpreter: For about two hours or two and a half hours every day, they observe the soil.

They move from section to section, they observe, and then they discuss.

They will reconstruct the steps and then explain their findings.

♪♪♪ The trackers are able to create what archaeology cannot -- the gender and behavior of these steps.

They create a whole scenario.

Their observations bring these footprints to life.

-Back at the lab, Pastoors is able to illustrate the trackers' analysis using a 3-D scan of the footprints.

Each path is individually highlighted.

Then, by studying the footprints' impressions in the clay, the team can determine how many people left these tracks -- 26, including women and children.

The layout of the tracks helps fill in the details of the story.

-Interpreter: As she exited, the woman left a row of three footprints -- a right, a left, and a right.

She walks towards the exit. And something happens here.

Here she positions her left foot a little bit diagonally.

Doing so can be interpreted to mean that she adjusted something on her back and then continued walking.

♪♪♪ The trackers reasoned that she carried a child or a baby on her back.

-According to the trackers, the number of children's footprints going into the cave is greater than the number going out.

It suggests that some mothers may have felt the need to carry their young.

-Interpreter: The analysis was that people were in such a rush to get out that they carried the children to speed up the pace.

We determined they had issues with lack of lighting, which forced them to turn around and exit the cave.

Using only their visual analysis of the footprints, the trackers came to the exact same conclusion.

♪♪♪ -The study confirms that, in Paleolithic times, caves and underground chambers were not exclusive to men.

Women, too, roamed the underground and may have also contributed to the magnificent cave art we still see today.

♪♪♪ Were early Homo sapiens women given special status because of their many talents and their unique ability to bear children?

♪♪♪ The elaborate burial of the Lady of Caviglione is one indication of the esteemed place women held in prehistoric societies.

♪♪♪ And there are other examples.

At the Renancourt site in Northern France, archaeologists have found fragments of female statues that are 27,000 years old.

Frost may have broken some, but others were found mixed with carving waste.

Experts have an intriguing hypothesis as to why they were destroyed.

♪♪♪ -Interpreter: Another hypothesis as to the condition of these statuettes is that they may have been broken intentionally, for example, during a ritual practice.

♪♪♪ -These statues could be symbols of a particular belief, a reflection of powers Paleolithic people may have invested in these female depictions.

♪♪♪ -Interpreter: When we talk about the power of the statuettes, we imagine powers linked to motherhood, to fertility, perhaps powers linked to the group's survival.

-[ Speaking French ] -We can also imagine that they wanted to represent women who beared multiple children and who therefore contributed greatly to the longevity of the group and -- why not -- to that of humanity.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -But now research suggests that women may have been at the heart of humanity's earliest myths.

There is a narrow passage in the rocks at Fontainebleau Forest, south of Paris, just large enough to crawl through.

Experts believe that, for early men and women, it evoked the birth canal.

♪♪♪ And at one end of the rock tunnel, a remarkable engraving.

Three lines were purposefully carved to emphasize the naturally evocative shape of the rock.

The domed ceiling suggests a pregnant belly.

♪♪♪ And on each side, two galloping horses -- carved in a similar style and technique, therefore believed to have been made at the same time -- offer a date stamp.

These engravings were made around 20,000 years ago.

♪♪♪ During a heavy downpour, rain naturally flows down the central channel, perhaps to evoke a mother's water breaking just before childbirth.

♪♪♪ All this is an homage to the beginnings of the prehistoric world.

♪♪♪ Perhaps an origin myth, a woman birthing the earth into existence.

♪♪♪ The latest archaeological discoveries, combined with cutting-edge science, have provided a new understanding of the earliest Homo sapiens women.

♪♪♪ She played many vital roles in prehistoric society -- strong, powerful hunter... medicinal healer... artisan and artist... mother.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ All of her skills and accomplishments tell the story of a woman respected and honored, responsible for the survival of her community as much as any man.

A tale of men and women united in a common destiny... of which we are the heirs today.

♪♪♪

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