The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture


This lively and provocative book leaves no stone unturned and no taboo untouched as it pieces together evidence from highly controversial artifacts and human remains to decipher the mysteries of Stone Age sex. Archaeologist Timothy Taylor paints a dramatic and startling picture of our sexual evolution as he follows human sexuality from its origins four million years ago to modern times to answer our most titillating questions about this endlessly fascinating and powerful ...
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This lively and provocative book leaves no stone unturned and no taboo untouched as it pieces together evidence from highly controversial artifacts and human remains to decipher the mysteries of Stone Age sex. Archaeologist Timothy Taylor paints a dramatic and startling picture of our sexual evolution as he follows human sexuality from its origins four million years ago to modern times to answer our most titillating questions about this endlessly fascinating and powerful subject.

Taylor draws on recent archaeological discoveries such as skeletons of Amazon women, golden penis sheaths, the charred remains of aphrodisiac herbs, and a wealth of prehistoric erotic art to trace practices such as contraception, homosexuality, transsexuality, prostitution, sadomasochism, and bestiality back to their ancient origins. He makes the startling claim that although humans have used contraceptives from the very earliest times to separate sex from reproduction, techniques to maximize population growth were developed only when farming began--a revolution involving control of animals' sex lives, widespread oppression of women, and an attitude to nature that continues to have devastating ecological consequences. He draws the radical conclusion that the evolution of our species has been shaped not only by the survival of the fittest but by the very sexual choices our ancestors made. And he links ancient sexuality with our own in a contemporary survey of artificial insemination, surrogate pregnancies, drag queens, brothels, pornography, and the spectre of racial dominance.

How has human sexuality changed--and how has it remained the same--over the span of millions of years? How did the ideas of eroticism, ecstasy, immortality, and beauty become linked to sex? Taylor explores these questions and sets out to prove that our sexual behavior is and has always been a matter of choice rather than something genetically determined.  He eloquently and accessibly explains how our sexual politics--issues of gender and power,
control and exploitation--are not new but are deeply rooted in our prehistory.

Surely one of the most illuminating and controversial books on human sexuality ever written, The Prehistory of Sex invites readers to become voyeurs into the bizarre--and so far hidden--prehistoric sexual world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
PW called this examination of four million years of sexual culture a "groundbreaking, riveting survey." (Aug.)
The author is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. His approach is serious, with the intent to broaden understanding of the range of human sexuality by looking at archaeological findings and interpreting their content in terms of what can be asked or surmised about sexual activity and beliefs among early peoples. Among the topics he investigates are the use of contraception by early humans, the implications of prehistoric abortions, and the histories of body piercing, bestiality, prostitution, sadomasochism, homosexuality, and transsexuality. He's careful about documenting references to support conjectures, and the bibliography is extensive. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A chatty, erudite introduction to one of the least publicized areas of archaeology: the sexual practices and attitudes of our prehistoric ancestors.

Taylor's background as a professor (Archaeology/Univ. of Bradford, England) and popularizer for British television serves him well. As he sifts through the archaeological record to reconstruct the sex lives of hominids, Ice Age hunter-gatherers, and Neolithic farmers, he consistently entertains while provoking thought. His crisp, witty style can be found in lines like, "I do not believe that women built Stonehenge. . . . I believe that the making of Stonehenge was ordered by a man and that he was unhappy." The early chapters develop his thesis that sexual culture, including baby slings and contraception, was a shaping force in human evolution; the later chapters are a chronological, selective survey of Eurasian sexuality from Cro-Magnon to Roman times, capped with a loosely connected chapter on race. All the chapters are chockful of little-known facts (herbal "morning after" drugs; Siberian rock art showing a man on skis copulating with an elk) and acerbic rebuttals of other prehistorians' ideas. Taylor's opinions themselves are not always more credible than those he rebuts: His suggestion that language might have first been used to fake orgasm can hardly be supported or refuted by fossil evidence. Many of his claims show a nostalgic preference for the presumed sexual variety of prehistoric hunter-gatherers over the sexual repression he identifies with the agricultural revolution. And his conclusion—advocating breastfeeding and kilts over infant formula and pants—ends up sounding suspiciously trendy.

But where else can you discover that pregnant mares' urine may have once been a form of transsexual hormone therapy?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553375275
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 372
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Timothy Taylor is a lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. He has presented his work on Down to Earth in an episode that won the British Archaeological Award for best popular archaeology on television in 1991-92.  He has contributed numerous articles to Scientific American, Antiquity, and The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe.
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Read an Excerpt

This book tells a story in which biology is intertwined with culture.  It is based on a vast body of archaeological evidence that is virtually unknown outside specialist circles: golden penis sheaths and graphic depictions of sex in prehistoric art, mammoth ivory phalluses, sculptures of women in childbirth, syphilitic skeletons, and the charred remains of aphrodisiac herbs.  The story begins in the mists of evolutionary time, when the human form first emerged and sexual culture was invented.  It ends by surveying the practices, prejudices, and confusions of the last five thousand years.  It deals with sex in all its physical forms, as well as with reproduction, gender, and power--how societies have ordered themselves in relation to sex and sexuality.

Four million years ago in Africa, a small group of chimplike creatures began walking exclusively on their hind legs.  The reason they did so is debated, but it marked a profound turning point, leading to the emergence of modern people. Our tree-swinging ancestors were very successful breeders.  What they found erotic was probably quite varied: they may even have been as extreme as the pygmy chimps of today, who take their pleasure singly or in groups, often with no particular focus on reproduction, sometimes with members of their own sex or immediate family.  However varied the behavior of our prehuman ancestors was, sex involved ideas of beauty, the physical basis of recognition and desire. Females had large clitorises and no breasts.  Males had vanishingly small penises.  Both sexes were covered with thick body hair.  Then, somehow, what was considered beautiful altered dramatically.  Upright walking hid the female genital opening and encouraged the development of buttocks.  The evolution of the first female breasts followed, along with the loss of most of the thick body hair in males and females alike.  The clitoris reduced in size, while the penis grew dramatically larger.

Natural selection--"the survival of the fittest"--cannot explain all these transformations.  In the process of natural selection, a species facing an environmental challenge either changes or dies out.  In any species change occurs because there is some variation among the individual members, and only those best fitted to the new conditions survive to pass on their characteristics.  Generation by generation, over millions and millions of years, changes accrue that turn not only sheeplike creatures into giraffes but fish into reptiles, and reptiles into birds.  As a species changes, it sometimes divides into two different species.  When it does, the criteria of mutual recognition between individual members must slowly alter: giraffes share a common ancestry with okapi, but they no longer try to mate with them.  As Darwin himself pointed out, however, natural selection alone cannot account for the fantastic variety of life on earth.  The peacock's tail, for example, makes the peacock an easy target for predators.  The critical compensation for this vulnerability and an important foundation for this book--is that peahens find it sexy.

Darwin recognized that certain characteristically human features, such as our lack of protective body hair (a stark contrast to our nearest primate relatives), make no sense in terms of basic survival.  He proposed that "sexual selection" was the key to understanding them, arguing that the particular mate choices that individuals in a species make can be as crucial to evolution as pressures from the outside environment.  In one form of sexual selection, brute force is used, almost always by males, to compete for the chance to mate with the opposite sex.  A second, more important form of sexual selection is by the female, who usually makes the ultimate reproductive choice.  Sometimes she may choose to conceive with a physically weaker but more astute and, in her eyes, more beautiful male while the brawny ones are still locked in battle.

Despite these relatively recent influences on our experience of sex, the last few thousand years represent just a tiny part of the four-million-year saga of its prehistory.  By taking a long view of the evolution of human sexual culture--by seeing what people actually did, rather than making claims about what they ought to have done--we will be better able to consider our options for the next four million years.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Beyond Nature
1 Making the Beast with Two Backs: The Evolution of Human Sexual Culture 19
2 Skull Sex and Brain Sex 52
3 Mysteries of the Organism 72
4 Meet the Real Flintstones 97
5 Venus in Furs 115
6 The Milk of the Vulture Goddess 142
7 The Grave of the Golden Penis 167
8 Shamans and Amazons 193
9 The Return of the Beast with Two Backs: Sex and the Prehistory of Race 227
Conclusion: Beyond Culture 261
Notes 269
Bibliography 301
Index 343
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