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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 1999 > Bookshelf Detail



Robert Proctor

Ancestral Images: The Iconography of Human Origins. Stephanie Moser. 224 pp. Cornell University Press, 1998. $39.95.

What a delight to browse through this carefully prepared, beautifully illustrated volume!

Stephanie Moser's thesis is that images of ancient humans are far more than contrivances designed to transmit scientific facts to a public audience. They also tell stories about who we are or what we want to be: of masculine and feminine virtues, of gender dominance and submissiveness, of the centrality of tools and the inevitability of progress, of the naturalness of war and the nuclear family. Moser follows Wiktor Stoczkowski's argument that prehistoric peoples were invented long before they were actually discovered and Stephen Jay Gould's argument that biblical illustration formed the basis for early prehistoric art as chronological pageantry.

Pithy picturesClick to Enlarge Image

A lecturer in archaeology at the University of Southampton, Moser deftly shows that many pictorial conventions long predate Darwin or Dubois: Twentieth-century dioramas and textbooks routinely draw from classical images of barbarism, biblical conceptions of creation (Adam and Eve in the Garden), Enlightenment renderings of the "noble savage" and romantic views of the natural man. Images are recycled and remodeled: Hercules with his club and skin, early man as toolmaker, early woman as Madonna with Child or "drudge on a hide" (evoking the Victorian scullery maid scrubbing the floor), humans as shadowed through the origins of myths of Lucretius or the men of the Golden Race in the Five Ages of Hesiod, all of which tell tales of motherhood, heroism and the relation of humans to other animals.

Clive Gamble's foreword gives an excellent overview of how cultural preconceptions inform human-origins artwork. Author of Timewalkers: The Global Prehistory of Colonization (1993) and several articles on visual representation in science, Gamble asks why baldness is so rarely portrayed in images of early humans and why men appear far more often (and with much greater vigor) than women. He asks us to reflect on how hairiness has been imagined (without fossil evidence one way or another) and why caves and trees are so often depicted as the homes of early humans. He points out that conventional images of the savage, the primitive, man before the Fall, the wild man in the woods play a far greater role in early reconstructions than does actual fossil evidence.

The resulting images are often morally charged. The Neanderthal, for example, was often early on shown to be stooped and shambling but very strong, a "slouching beast of great physical strength" (as Aristotle described the "natural slave"). The more modern Cro-Magnon was pictured as upright, intelligent and farsighted, with a "finely chiseled head poised on a well balanced vertebral column," as archaeologist Sir Grahame Clark characterized the creature.

This is altogether a fine volume, breathing visual life into this too-often-neglected aspect of scientific communication. Like Martin Rudwick's Scenes from Deep Time (1992), Ancestral Images should help make illustrators and museum exhibitors more aware of the preconceptions that inexorably seep into ancestral images. The book is not without its faults. For example, there are striking omissions—no mention of Misia Landau's Landmark Narratives of Human Evolution (1991) or Donna Haraway's Primate Visions (1989) or Londa Schiebinger's Nature's Body (1993). But no book captures the iconography of human origins better; Moser and Gamble have written a wonderful book that will both instruct and delight anyone who finds the time to pick it up.—Robert N. Proctor, History, Pennsylvania State University


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