Débora Zurro, archaeologist: “The stories told so far about humanity are not about humankind”

Débora Zurro is an archaeologist and researcher at the Institución Milà i Fontanals of the  CSIC (IMF-CSIC). Her research is focused on vegetable remains obtained from archaeological sites, a sub-specialization within archaeology known as archaeobotany.

Débora Zurro during the interview at the Institución Milà i Fontanals (IMF-CSIC)One of the reasons why Zurro works within this field is because of its recurring association to the feminine work sphere, an area where the researcher carries out part of her job. “Archaeology of women, gender archaeology and feminist archaeology are not exact synonyms”, the archaeologist specifies, “because they stem from different theory standpoints”. However, according to Zurro, all of them share two important aspects: on the one hand, they focus on the role of women in prehistory; on the other hand, these three standpoints have problematized the methodology of the creation of knowledge. “They have revealed that a part of the population was not taken into consideration”, Zurro asserts.

The stories we have been told so far about humanity “are not about humankind”, Zurro says, “but only about men”. “I don’t think most people are aware of the fact that the creation of knowledge has an androcentric bias”, says Zurro, “and of the implications this has regarding the way we look at our world”.

She highlights that this androcentric bias exists even in the medical field. Until recently, we did not know that stroke symptoms were different in men and women, or that most mental illnesses are diagnosed in studies with men. This bias does not only disregard women and makes them invisible, but it is also scientifically wrong, since it explains the totality by only one part. “Women had to join academia for someone to say ‘this cannot be right’”, Zurro says.

Gender archaeology has shown that our views about the past are biased and full of prejudices

Gender archaeology has shown that our views about the past are biased and full of prejudices. Zurro explains that this “directed gaze”, or predefined perspective, “is the result of historical inertia”, which makes us look at things in a specific way. The researcher argues that we tend to project  our current understandings of what a man and a woman are into the past. Consequently, research is conducted to confirm or reproduce the same binary concepts without questioning them.

Rupestrian art is a representative example, where, as the archaeologist explains,  men are always represented as the painters:  that’s because it is assumed they are the ones who have the capacity to generate symbolism. “But we don’t actually know who painted the scenes”.  Zurro continues, “Why do we decide men are the painters and not teenagers, women, or older men?”. According to Zurro, this simple critique “makes us react” and contributes to the creation of more egalitarian societies.

According to Zurro, some stereotypical ideas about men and women in prehistory are still in our collective imaginary. In a context where much discussion exists over “what is innate and what is cultural in people ”, the researcher highlights the example of the virile archetype, which is sometimes used to justify certain violent male behaviours on the pretext that “every man has a hunter deep down”. It is also common to hear statements according to which “women are maternal because they used to stay in the caves taking care of the baby”, Zurro says, “but we do not know who took the role of the caregiver, although we can hypothesize about it”. In order to stay away from this directed gaze, it is important to determine what it is crucial in each research project, depending on the questions of the scientist. The latter has to consider the following questions: “what am I asking , to whom and in order to know what?”.

For general narratives regarding prehistory, Zurro says, we cannot take one part to explain the whole. “I need to have a global and holistic view of societies, and that implies many things”, the researcher continues. Gender archaeology shows that societies took and can take many forms. “The structure we have today is not definitive at all, societies change, and they can change according to what we want, too”, she argues, “and this brings up new possibilities”.

Scientific disciplines also have a very strong inertia, the researcher explains. “Fauna has been widely studied, which means there are a lot of experts in large animals. If you’re a student who wants to study, for example, fish analysis, there’s not a lot of people to learn from, there are not many reference collections”. In spite of this strong disciplinary inertia, “things have changed a lot”, Zurro asserts, as she explains that today a lot of women and men archaeologists devote their research to archeobotany and other fauna such as birds and fish. Regarding gender roles, these changes have also reached the collective imaginary and fiction, with fiction films such as ‘Brave’ that dismantle stereotypical ideas from the past. “I’m optimistic. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do this work”, she concludes.

More: Perfiles de Ciencia - Débora Zurro

Paula Talero Álvarez & Sabela Rey Cao / Delegación del CSIC en Catalunya