Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three Million Years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War

Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three Million Years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War

by Judy Foster, Marlene Derlet


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Based on many years of research into ancient history and prehistory, this insightful tome argues that three million years of peace—a period when women’s status in society was much higher than it is now—preceded the last 6,000 years of war during which men have come to hold power over women. The book challenges the idea accepted in academia that history is a linear development in which society is steadily moving out of a violent and patriarchal past to a more equitable and peaceful future, and it reexamines both the archaeological work of Marjia Gimbutas and recent research into the prehistories of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia and Oceania.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781876756918
Publisher: Spinifex Press
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Judy Foster is an art teacher and the author of books for primary school art teachers. Marlene Derlet is a linguist with a background in anthropology and sociology. She formerly taught at the Monash Centre for Indigenous Studies and is the coauthor of Talking Up a Storm.

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Invisible Women of Prehistory

Three Million Years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War

By Judy Foster, Marlene Derlet, Maree Hawken, Susan Hawthorne

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Judy Foster and Marlene Derlet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-876756-91-8


The Theory Of Marija Gimbutas

Our search for the origins of visual symbolism led to the accidental discovery of The Language of the Goddess (1989), the first of three major works by Lithuanian archaeologist and mythologist Professor Marija Gimbutas. This impressive text illustrates the symbolism and records the underlying meaning of the prehistoric female figurines and associated objects belonging to a prominent female deity whom Marija Gimbutas named the 'great goddess'. In her second book, The Civilization of the Goddess (1991) she noted the presence of female figurines first appearing in the Upper Palaeolithic period. She recorded in great detail the habitations and cultures in the Neolithic world of Old Europe; these were peace-loving and communal agricultural societies in which women were respected, even revered, and highly visible until as recently as 6,500 BP. Marija Gimbutas explained how these societies faded away or ended, often abruptly, as new horse-riding invaders proceeded to spread across Europe and Asia over the next thousand years, bringing with them new hierarchic and violent ideas and practices. So began the present patriarchal period.

In her third and final book, The Living Goddesses (2001), published after her death, Marija Gimbutas provided what has to be conclusive evidence of women-centred societies in prehistory, particularly in eastern Europe, reaching as far west as England and Ireland. She recorded thousands of female figurines and other artefacts reinforcing the powerful presence of the female principle. She followed the development of the multi-faceted goddess cultures from 9,000 years ago through the emergence of the Indo-Europeans and into the early historical period, observing the goddess's changing and diminishing role until recent times when the goddess has become almost invisible.

This unknown world before written history was revealed through the skills of archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and mythology, combined disciplines which Marija Gimbutas named 'archaeomythology', and she used these to reinterpret the period in prehistory from 10,000 BP to 2,000 BP. It was not enough for her just to record the material culture of a society; she also found it essential to utilise other nonmaterial research to discover the true picture of an archaeological site. Marija Gimbutas explained to Joan Marler that this different approach to the archaeology of Europe came about because of her background in Lithuania surrounded by folklore, mythology, and living goddess traditions, and her exposure to both Indo-European sky gods and earlier mythologies which were deeply connected

with the Earth and its mysterious cycles that was still alive in the Lithuanian countryside ... The rivers were sacred, the forest and trees were sacred, the hills were sacred ... The people still followed traditional ways of working the land.

She discovered that the great goddess who was to be found everywhere in Indo-European religions had been inherited from the earlier religions of Old Europe, and she came to recognise that there were two distinct systems: firstly, that of the peaceful Palaeolithic and Neolithic women-centred Old Europeans; and secondly, the aggressive male-dominant religious systems of the Indo-Europeans. It became necessary to study symbols through their context and association, and it was in this way that she discovered how the Old European cultures experienced long-term peaceful living with egalitarian social structures and non-material value systems of benefit to all. Until Indo-European contact these were, and where possible, still are, the values of most indigenous people around the world. Although Marija Gimbutas spent 25 years examining the visual symbolism of Old Europe, she felt she had only just begun the search, and her greatest wish was for succeeding scholars to discover the full story of the Old Europeans.

While a researcher at Harvard University, Marija Gimbutas led several excavations in Europe, Yugoslavia and Italy over 13 years. In her first report, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (1974), she began to develop her hypothesis concerning a Palaeolithic and Neolithic multidimensional female deity, Indo-European origins and the beginning of the patriarchal period. She always read other excavation reports in their original language so that her overview of the general picture was as accurate as possible.

In her excavations Marija Gimbutas found many artefacts including female sculptures in household sites in positions which suggested they may have had religious significance. She began to notice certain often-repeated forms of symbolism, such as bird and snake imagery, associated with these female goddess forms which suggested a symbolic meaning. It was already known that from earliest times humans were aware of metaphysical forces such as spirits in various animal or other forms, or ancestral beings or deities, often manifested in ritual burial practices or incised rock art imagery that were concerned with some religious aspect. She found that metaphysical beings in the Neolithic context were female and noted not only for their birth-giving and nurturing aspects, but also for their guiding roles as carers of the community.

It also became clear to Marija Gimbutas that Palaeolithic and Neolithic (goddess) female sculptures expressed many more functions than those of fertility and motherhood. She defined the goddess as unifying all natural things, as a metaphor for earth's powers, and the expression of the power of nature through plant, animal and human life. In The Language of the Goddess (1989) she explains that the goddess religion was "a cohesive and persistent ideological system" aspects of which live on into the present time despite being eroded away within the historic era.

Marija Gimbutas regarded as a serious ongoing problem the critical Western male association of female figurines with 'fertility' rites and cultic imagery when interpreting societies of the deep past. Such views are more likely to reflect pervasive masculinist and mainstream prejudices, and they assume prehistoric cultures to be similar to our own; it is still hard for most people to admit that a very different world could have existed.

Earlier women-centred earth/nature/goddess symbolic systems in which women and men each had their own role and their own power, were found to be very different to those in the warrior period, where all the gods were warriors. The most important gods in the new Indo-European era were the 'god of the shining sky', the 'god of the underworld', and the 'thunder god', while the goddesses were demoted to become powerless brides, wives or maidens lacking any creative or social powers. These later Indo-European patriarchal cultures were found to be considerably less sophisticated than the earlier goddess culture, and this was clearly demonstrated by the disappearance of the refined and beautiful Neolithic artefacts which, evidence suggests, were replaced by the rather less sophisticated tools of the violent Bronze Age warriors.

Most (male) archaeologists also assume hierarchical interpretations for village layouts in the Neolithic period when the property of the peaceful agriculturalists had been communally owned; but it was the Proto-Indo-Europeans who introduced individual male ownership of people and goods. Social organisation became class-based, led by powerful wealthy kings or chieftains; women became male property and war victims were reduced to slavery. Villages now had to be surrounded by defensive fortifications in order to prevent unauthorised access or invasion. Agriculture and war did not start at the same time in the past: agriculture was developed over 4,000 years before the emergence of the pastoralist Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Since Marija Gimbutas completed recording her discoveries other evidence has emerged which supports her theory. For example, archaeologist David Anthony (1998), when studying horses' bit wear in the Russian steppe region, also identified the original Proto-Indo-European homelands in this area north of the Caucasus, a scenario similar to that described by Marija Gimbutas. He examined the jawbones of horses found in the earliest graves on the steppes and dated them to about 6,000 BP, providing a date for the earliest horse riding, and for the homelands of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. His dates also align in every way with those of Marija Gimbutas.

In The Mummies of Urumchi (1999) Elizabeth Barber provides interesting and convincing textile evidence for the steppe homelands of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and includes comparisons of looms and thread used in the Indo-European homelands and surrounds as against those used elsewhere in Eurasia. This research supports Marija Gimbutas's identification of the Proto-Indo-Europeans' homelands and their aggressive activities as they spread outward into the surrounding Neolithic European farming lands.

Geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza (2000) has acknowledged the theories of Marija Gimbutas concerning the origins of Indo-European speakers. He also notes that genetic evidence supports David Anthony's more recent discoveries of the rise of horse riding in southern Russia. He is enthusiastic about the idea of multidisciplinarity (such as Marija Gimbutas's use of archaeomythology), and considers there are major benefits to be gained by involving many disciplines when examining a field of study.

The inspired scientific investigations of Marija Gimbutas have opened up to us new ways of seeing and understanding our past, but have upset many conservative (male) researchers, most of whom still refuse to recognise her discoveries, even as new evidence continues to support them. She has been greatly respected by European scholars for her meticulous body of work. In 1963, Marija Gimbutas became emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where she worked until she retired in 1989. Up until her death in 1994, she remained satisfied that her theories were soundly based, but anticipated that it would take 30 years or more for her theories to become generally recognised.

Achievements of Marija Gimbutas

A number of researchers have endorsed the greatest achievements of Marija Gimbutas. Starhawk (1997)argues that Marija Gimbutas's work has allowed acceptance of the antiquity, continuity and sacredness of immanence within Western cultures. Researchers can disagree with Marija Gimbutas's interpretation of the goddess culture but they cannot ignore it without revealing their ignorance. Marija Gimbutas not only presents the evidence, but demonstrates how it had meanings which reflect spiritual values shared and understood by many peoples of the time.

Shortly before his death, noted mythologist and historian, Joseph Campbell told Maureen Barlow in 1998that he profoundly regretted that Marija Gimbutas's research of Neolithic Old Europe was not available when he was writing The Masks of God. He compared the importance of the effect of her work to that of the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

For Michael Dames (1997), it was the subversive nature of Marija Gimbutas's approach, and her use of available techniques to examine the enormous variations between prehistoric cultures that allowed access to the individuality of those different worlds, which was so impressive. Marija Gimbutas set the format, leaving others to fill in the details later, and providing us with many stimulating questions to answer.

Charlene Spretnak (1997) feels that the basis for critics' attacks is the "anti-nature, anti-body orientation" of Western philosophy. Indigenous cultures and prehistoric societies understood the continuity between humans and nature, and Marija Gimbutas's evidence shows it is entirely possible for humanity to again become whole with nature, just as we had been for a very long time in the past.

Carol Christ (1997a) points out that Marija Gimbutas's work unintentionally challenges patriarchy because it is implicitly feminist and radical. She would not have attracted so much criticism if she had not dared to challenge the "myth of progress" which underlies Western 'civilisation' and condemns prehistory as inferior, primitive, and barbarian. Carol Christ warns that we must be continually aware that the critics of Marija still aim to discredit her carefully interpreted and developed theories.

Diarmuid O'Murchu (2000) feels it would be unjust and very arrogant to ignore the many recent inspiring and visionary researchers who are also convinced of the presence of a single multidimensional female deity as Marija Gimbutas had envisaged.

While Marija Gimbutas was certain that prehistoric societies were predominantly peaceful from earliest times until contact with the emerging violent warlike Proto-Indo-Europeans, Elizabet Sahtouris (2000) draws to our attention certain recent scientific theory which suggests that humans are indeed not innately violent, since our genes are closest to those of mainly peaceful orang-utans, chimpanzees and gorillas. She stresses that the occasional violence among these creatures is seized upon by patriarchal influences and emphasised to prove human violence as innate. In recent years the research on the lesser-known primate, the bonobo, has led to the thesis that human society could model itself on the female-centric social patterning of bonobo interactions. The chimpanzee turns out to be a very different model and there is no necessary connection between chimp behaviour and human behaviour as previously argued. Animals use ritual dances and fights to preserve their continuity in the natural world, providing they have adequate territory. These rituals of behaviour, formed in evolution, are a system of rules for living together in relative peace. (Humans, too, observed these rules until 6,000 BP). An obsession with violence (for example, the history of warfare) portrayed in the media and taught in schools and universities, perpetuates this myth of innate violence. Only in the past 6,000 years have humans been the only animal that stores more food and occupies more land than it needs. She warns that violent practices against other humans endanger us as a species and unless we return to living within peaceful cooperative communities, as have other successful long-surviving species, we may not have a future.

In an interview with Paula Harris in Sonoma County Independent (1997), Joan Marler describes Marija Gimbutas's work as a "radical retelling of the origins of Western civilization." Marija Gimbutas had no feminist agenda but reported what she saw and discovered within a scientific framework. Joan Marler argues that her greatest legacy has implications reaching far beyond academic circles, and gives us hope and direction for the future in an uncertain world. Marija Gimbutas's dream was for us to share our discoveries of women's lives in prehistory and to always respect and remember our foremothers.


Marija Gimbutas has been most criticised for her identification of a single 'great goddess' who was worshipped all over Europe and beyond. This interpretation was based on her extensive study of the symbolic aspects of a wide-ranging collection of diverse female deities. For her, the great goddess "was one and many, a unity and a multiplicity." People worshipped a goddess or goddesses in many forms; according to Marija, the great goddess "was the feminine force that pervaded existence."

Most mainstream 'scientific' archaeologists consider it impossible to uncover the meanings of prehistoric symbols, or speak of religion because, in their opinion, there is no substantiating evidence. They argue that it was unlikely that one 'goddess' was recognised over such a large area when human groups were small and scattered and intercommunication limited. However, it is important to note that all 600 groups of Indigenous people in Australia, despite differences in language and culture, recognise the one Law, as well as the Earth Mother who had been known to most indigenous people prior to the historic period.

Despite the great respect that some European archaeologists have for the integrity and thorough investigations of Marija Gimbutas, her research has been considerably undermined by harsh and unfounded criticism by processual archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, and his followers. He has disagreed with every aspect of the Gimbutas theories ever since 1974, when he first proclaimed that it was impossible for agricultural practices to take place before the emergence of pastoral activities and the domestication of animals. However, linguists reject this view, as the earliest words for 'agriculture', and the names of most cultivated grains, are pre-Indo-European; furthermore, Old Anatolians and Old European Neolithic people would have been non-Indo-Europeans. Colin Renfrew also argues that horse riding could only have occurred between 4,000 and 3,200 BP despite all evidence to the contrary.


Excerpted from Invisible Women of Prehistory by Judy Foster, Marlene Derlet, Maree Hawken, Susan Hawthorne. Copyright © 2013 Judy Foster and Marlene Derlet. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

A Timeline of Human Prehistory ix

Part 1 The Prehistoric Female Principle: The Goddess of Old Europe 1

Chapter 1 The Theory of Marija Gimbutas 3

Chapter 2 Identifying Bias in Research 13

Chapter 3 Intangible Evidence: The Role of Language, Oral Transmission and Myth 27

Chapter 4 Tangible Evidence: Prehistoric Art, The Visual Image, Sign and Symbol 41

Chapter 5 Northern Hemisphere: The Prehistoric Goddess Figurines of Old Europe 53

Chapter 6 Hunter-Gathering, the First Horticulture and Agriculture 69

Chapter 7 Three Prehistoric Civilisations 83

Part 2 The Indo-Europeans: 'Civilisation' and History Begin 113

Chapter 8 The First Indo-Europeans: The Beginning of ?Civilisation' and Written History 115

Chapter 9 The First Changes to Women's Status 129

Chapter 10 Indo-European Philosophies: Their Development and Effects 143

Part 3 The Hidden and New Worlds: Prehistories, the Female Principle and Indo-European Influences 157

Chapter 11 Hidden Worlds: Africa 161

Chapter 12 Hidden Worlds: The Indian Subcontinent 179

Chapter 13 Hidden Worlds: China, Korea, Japan 203

Chapter 14 Hidden Worlds: Thailand and Indonesia 223

Chapter 15 New Worlds: Australia 243

Chapter 16 New Worlds: Oceania 265

Chapter 17 New Worlds: The Americas 285

Conclusion: Weaving the Threads 311

Acknowledgements 321

Notes 325

Bibliography 365

Index 393

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