I’ve seen this quote popping up a lot lately on friends’ blogs, feminist-communication theory blogs, etc.
“When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’ It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions?”
While I have no problem with the sentiment or the revelation (yeah, women made awesome contributions throughout history, and yeah, plenty of them went overlooked for many reasons), there is a flaw in the central argument here that really bugs me. “What man needs to mark 28 days?”
The first calendars were lunar, based on the lunar cycle, which is approximately 28 days. The Islamic calendar still is based on a lunar month. The Chinese, Hebrew and Hindu calendars are still based on lunar months. (Though they have made provisions to keep themselves tied to the contemporary solar year, like adding extra months in here and there.)
Pretend you’re a homo neanderthalensis. You live in a cave, or maybe a hut. You have language and live with a social group somewhere in an west-to-east band between what is now Portugal and Kazakhstan. You are an apex predator because you have learned to use tools. You eat plants and animals. You make simple clothing to protect yourself when it’s cold. You notice it gets dark and light outside. You see the sun and the moon.
Which one do you begin to notice a pattern in?
Obviously, the moon. New moon to full moon cycles are visible to the naked eye, neanderthal or otherwise. The sun is generally bright ball that looks different at certain times of day, but is generally unchanging. So, you start to count the cycles of the changing moon, and then you notice more patterns. After three moon cycles, the weather changes. It gets warmer. Three more and it’s hot. Three more and you start to cool off. And then there’s three of cold weather.
The first calendar is made.
Now, I’m not saying that the bone in the picture at Cambridge wasn’t of a neanderthal woman’s menstrual cycle*. I’m just saying that to assume it was (also, to assume it was a man or woman’s lunar calendar, or to assume it was anything else), and then to base an argument on that, is not logical.
If you want to say that women’s contributions to history have been overlooked, just say they have and give examples that can be proven with facts, not assumptions.
*The average length of a woman’s menstrual cycle is 28 days, but that’s exactly that: an average. Recent studies have put the mean cycle at 29.1 days, with a standard deviation of 7.5 days. Which means that most women report their cycle being between 21.6 and 36.6 days long.