September 28, 2013
Finger Sizes Can Tell Us About Stone Age Sex
I recently read that the Stone Age was 3.4 million years long. That astonished me. So, I ended up reading more about the Stone Age, and found out some interesting things.
One of those things is that our Stone Age ancestors were probably more promiscuous than we are, if we are prepared to accept the theory that the length of fossilized finger bones can tell us about sexual behavior. In the absence of much recorded history, or any at all for the earlier parts of the period, we need to rely on science to determine social behavior as well as anatomical details. It is a happy stroke of luck if the two are linked, as in this case.
The study of fingers in determining sexual activity is based on the relative lengths of different fingers on a hand, not on the length of any particular finger. This method has already been used to study sex in different primates, and can now be applied to our primate cousins from way back. The relative sizes of the fingers are established in the womb as a baby, when the presence of greater or lesser amounts of male sex hormones affects finger growth.
By looking at fossilised bones and applying what we already know about other primates, we can make guesses about how Stone Age creatures carried on (literally). According to Emma Nelson of the University of Liverpool’s school of archaeology, classics and Egyptology, “promiscuous primate species have low index to ring finger ratios, while monogamous species have high ratios.” It makes sense, then, that the same could apply to historical primates.
As I have already pointed out, the Stone Age lasted for a very long time, and it covered people from a wide geographical area, so it’s not easy to simply say ‘Stone Age people did X, Y and Z.’ And apparently some groups’ fingers showed that they were less promiscuous than others. What’s most fascinating about the story is that we can find out about ancient people’s sex lives simply by looking at fossils of their fingers.
Further reading about Stone Age family life in general threw up more ambiguity. It is generally believed that contained family life began in this period, and a piece I read confirmed this. But it is worth pointing out that the piece is on Fox News, where the idea of a solid, nuclear family is more likely to be highlighted than any counter-evidence. I read elsewhere that a study of Stone Age burial at a site in Turkey suggested that a regular family set up was not so evident.
Both arguments used burial conditions to draw conclusions. In the Fox case, because families were all buried together it is assumed they were close. Whereas in Turkey it was discovered that instead of being buried in communal, ceremonial sites, people were buried beneath their houses. But because the study of teeth and bones shows that relatives were buried under different houses, we can conclude that, in this Turkish community of Stone Age people at least, relatives didn’t live together.
Whatever the reality, it is certain that bones are essential to even begin making theories.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com