Tag Archives: history

Painting of a horse in Lascaux Cave

Wednesday Geek Woman: Annette Laming-Emperaire, archaeologist

Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.

Born in 1917, Annette Laming-Emperaire was a graduate student at the Sorbonne when she began to study Paleolithic cave paintings (like this one from Lascaux.)

Although during her life her brilliance was always apparent, her great originality seems to have burst into being like a fire. La signification turned out to be that most rare beast, a graduate thesis that changed an entire discipline.

All quotes are from The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists, by Gregory Curtis.

In this thesis, which became a 1962 book, Laming-Emperaire summarized the discovery of Paleolithic art and the methods proposed so far for dating it. Then she looked at various interpretations of the art that scholars had suggested over the years: that the paintings evoked hunting magic; that they were fertility symbols; that they represented the totems of tribes.

Then she dismissed it all.

All of this, the whole body of work dedicated to explaining cave art, sixty years of consistent effort by many brilliant minds, she sweeps aside.

For Laming-Emperaire, all the research that had come before her – all of it – was fatally flawed because it depended on ethnography…. Laming-Emperaire said researchers “indiscriminately invoke facts from some societies that, by their social, religious or economic structure, can be very different from prehistoric societies – about which we know practically nothing in any case – and that are often very different among themselves.”

Painting of a horse in Lascaux Cave

For the time of writing, Laming-Emperaire was making a distinctly 21st century point. She had harsh words for her predecessor, the abbé Breuil, who in his discussion of masks in the paintings had invoked Paleo-Siberians, the Inuit peoples, Native Americans from North and South America, the bushmen of South Africa and Australian tribes in turn – conveniently glossing over the fact that in each of these societies, the masks mean different things. The bushmen use them for hunting; the Native Americans use them for sacred dances and the Australian Aboriginal people use them to represent gods and ancestors. Different cultures are different from one another. Breuil’s argument tells us nothing whatever about the Paleolithic painters.

Laming-Emperaire went further. Such comparisons, she said, are inherently arbitrary. An archaeologist forms a hypothesis about an artifact, then trawls the monographs of ethnology for evidence that supports his view. Confirmation bias might as well be built into the process.

What, then, are our options? If we can’t use arguments from existing cultures to shed light on cave paintings, how else might we bring the Paleolithic painters back to life? As Laming-Emperaire saw it, our options exist on a spectrum between rigorous empiricism – exact and objective enumeration of places, shapes and sizes – and prehistorical fiction – just making stuff up. The discipline, she said, had been oscillating between these poles: “sclerotic rigor on one side, a lively but unreliable creation on the other.” In the rest of La signification, she tried to show another way forward.

We can know only three things (she argued) about a prehistoric artifact: how it was made; any signs of use; and where it was found. The methods of painting cave art are interesting, but they don’t shed much light on what the paintings mean. Nor is it helpful to look for signs of use, since in the vast majority of cases there simply aren’t any.

What she proposed, instead, was to look at where the paintings are. Instead of allowing our preconceptions and prejudices to blind us, Laming-Emperaire called us to pay attention to what is in front of our eyes. She drew diagrams of the cave walls illustrating what species were represented and which way they faced. By carefully inventorying each scene, she began to identify paintings that might represent the same scene: a bison in a trap, surrounded by horses; a man threatened by a bison.

If she is right, these scenes are the oldest messages in human history, communicating across tens of millennia. And this hypothesis is based not upon idle speculation, but upon rigorous scholarship. Not surprisingly, Laming-Emperaire’s own legacy changed archeology, and her influence endures.

This audacious graduate student is saying it’s time to leave the thinking and the methods of the past behind and march in the manner she prescribes into the future.

And, broadly speaking, that is exactly what happened. The goals and expectations are rather different, and the techniques, particularly those using computer graphics, are more sophisticated, but detailed inventories and comparisons like those she first suggested remain at the heart of the study of Paleolithic art.

Wikipedia: Annette Laming-Emperaire

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Remorseless husband-stealing no-good linkspams (15th August, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Sugar and spice, and everything linkspam (31st July, 2011)

  • 18 year old German woman Lisa Sauermann has just won the International Mathematics Olympiad (contested between talented high school students) with a perfect score of 42. This is Sauermann’s fifth medal, four of them gold and one silver, the best series of performances ever. (Some sources say she’s the first recipient of four golds, there have actually been two others.)
  • BU Today reviews Project Artmesis, a five week summer computing program for high school girls that has just wound up.
  • Please Sir, I Want Some More: LGBTQs need more and deserve more. We need escapism just like our cis straight brothers and sisters. We need to be portrayed in roles we wouldn’t be expected to be in. (See comments for why this link was removed.) (For that matter, new to this linkspammer: the Gay YA site where this appeared.)
  • Help Us Find These 1970s AT&T Engineers: In this 1975 AT&T film, five female AT&T engineers are profiled. The film starts with male attitudes towards women working as engineers. There are no surprises there… What’s most interesting, though, is that AT&T apparently cannot locate any of these five — they (and I) would like to ask followup questions and learn how things have changed since 1975.
  • Open Source Community, Simplified: The Bugzilla community’s secrets. Not specifically feminist advice, but advice that will help create a woman-friendly coding space.
  • Erase me: And, basically, it comes down to authors wanting either something exotic or inclusion cookies without putting in any real effort or respect into their characters or having any awareness of the tropes and stereotypes they are tapping into… So I’ve finally come down on saying – stop. Erase me. No, really. I’d much rather be erased than tokenised or stereotyped.
  • Girls Go Geek… Again! and Normalizing Female Computer Programmers in the ’60s: This article appeared in a 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan and quotes computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the field, discussing why programming is a perfect fit for women — by drawing partly on gender stereotypes by assuming women are naturals at programming because they’re patient and pay attention to details…

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Where are all the linkspams? (14th March, 2011)

  • Betsy Leondar-Wright and ana australiana write about the impenetrability of middle-class activism to working class people, and about how the sidelining of middle-class subcultures isn’t equivalent to systemic oppression: It’s not “them” — it’s us!, Equivalences.
  • “Very rarely do stories of women and technology vary in tone from the gender gap theme. Where are the women? Well, heck, we’ve been here all along – something we’ve recently pointed out in our Valentine’s Day piece about ENIAC.Writes Amber Bouman in MaximumPC for Women’s History Month.
  • sqbr is interested in user stories about the use of image descriptions on Tumblr. my arguments have all been about hypothetical users and it would be useful to have some evidence against the “but noone who needs descriptions would use a visual medium like tumblr” argument. There’s lots of feedback in comments.
  • s.e. smith: Why I’m Leaving Feminism: So many disabled people, nonwhite people, transgender people, people of colour, poor people, adamantly refuse to identify with feminism in its current incarnation in the United States… The model of feminism we see is one where oppression perpetrated in the name of “activism’ is acceptable, where casual ableism, racism, classism, transphobia run so deep that many of us don’t even bother to point it out anymore.
  • A bit of history: Carl Sagan’s appeal to the Explorers Club to admit women.
  • Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research: Women’s reluctance comparative to men to accept the [offer] wasn’t really a reluctance to have casual sex, but rather a response to a different offer than the men got — the didn’t think the men would be as much fun.
  • Heidi Grant Halvorson on the difficulties of high achieving girls: What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science.
  • Gaming industry finally recognizes the work of a pioneer: It was back in the mid-1970s that [Jerry] Lawson developed the first video game console system, breaking ground in more ways than one. You see, Lawson, 70, is black. And while we often try to pretend that's neither here nor there, the truth is it is here — and it was even more-so there, when Lawson arrived in the valley in 1968.
  • Inoculation Against Stereotype: …choice isn’t as simple as people think. People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation, Dasgupta said. …Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspam outside alone after dark (5th February, 2010)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Everyone gets a linkspam! (27th January, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Florence Nightingale pioneered data visualisation of statistics.

From Diagrams that changed the world (BBC News):

One of the first to use the visual world to navigate numbers was Florence Nightingale.

Although better known for her contributions to nursing, her greatest achievements were mathematical. She was the first to use the idea of a pie chart to represent data.

Florence Nightingale's Crimea diagrams Nightingale had discovered that the majority of deaths in the Crimea were due to poor sanitation rather than casualties in battle. She wanted to persuade government of the need for better hygiene in hospitals.

She realised though that just looking at the numbers was unlikely to impress ministers. But once those numbers were translated into a picture – her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East – the message could not be ignored. A good diagram, Nightingale discovered, is certainly worth 1,000 numbers.

Continue reading

From comments: women in science, their history as told by… men?

A few strands are coming together in comments.

First, our linkspam linked to Richard Holmes’s The Royal Society’s lost women scientists, and Lesley Hall then commented:

I’m somewhat annoyed at all the coverage A MAN talking about lost women scientists is getting, when we have several decades-worth of women historians of science who have been saying the exact same thing. This seems to me pretty much the standard thing of no-one listening until it’s said by a bloke (even if the women have already been saying it).

Meanwhile on the Wednesday Geek Woman post on Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Chronic Geek asks:

As a side note. I have been searching for a good book on a history of women in sciences. Can anyone recommend one?

The following have already been recommended:

  • Margaret Wertheim (1995) Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War
  • Julie Des Jardins (2010) The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science

Lesley Hall herself also has a book chapter: (2010) ‘Beyond Madame Curie? The Invisibility of Women’s Narratives in Science’ in L Timmel Duchamp (ed), Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles.

For readers just starting out on this, what works would you recommend on the history of women in science and the invisibility of women in science? What women historians of science do work you love?

Wednesday Geek Woman: Chang Jung a.k.a. Zhang Rong (张戎)

Submissions for Wednesday Geek Woman are still open and will close October 27 (this time).

This is a guest post by Wednesday. Wednesday (late of Weekday Blues) is a young geek feminist with an interest in postcolonialism, gender, acafandom, and literature.

Dr Chang Jung (b. 1952) is a Chinese author and historian most known for her three-part memoir Wild Swans , which documented not merely her coming-of-age in Mao-era China, but also the lives of her mother De Hong and her maternal grandmother Yu Fang. I first read Wild Swans at the age of twelve, and it left a vivid impression on me: her descriptions, the thoughtfulness of her observations, and her awareness of both privilege and oppression.

While Dr Chang’s published work has focused mainly on the lives of twentieth-century Chinese personages, it’s also worth noting that her qualifications are in linguistics. I was surprised when I learnt of this, because I had come to think of her as a historian, but I find the fact that her work is interdisciplinary to be pretty cool in itself.

Wikipedia: Jung Chang