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Débora Zurro: “The protagonist of history is Gladiator, and not Danny DeVito”

Studies in archaeology have usually considered hunter-gatherer societies as the paradigm of equalitarian societies versus other social systems. Specifically, researchers have regarded hunter-gatherer as egalitarian in comparison to the new social systems that develop along with agriculture. Débora Zurro, archaeologist at the Institución Milà i Fontanals, takes up this idea and questions the knowledge produced in the field about these hunter-gatherer communities.

The researcher explains that the knowledge we have about hunter-gatherer societies comes from ethnographic studies that stem from the XVII century, during the exploration and colonization of certain societies.

“Hunter-gatherer societies are considered egalitarian because it is assumed that there are no differences among men, but these studies disregard the fact that women do not have the same access to resources and the decision-making process”, she notes in an interview. Zurro (IMF-CSIC) asserts that this generalization is the consequence of a “directed gaze”, or predefined perspective. This gaze “is the result of historical inertia”, and makes researchers to project back the patterns of our current society into the societies that are under study.

The films "Spartacus" (1960), "Robin Hood" (1938), "Tarzan" (1932) and "Gladiator" (2000), with lead characters that respond to the "virile archetype".

The virile archetype, protagonist of history

A second paradigm that Zurro problematizes is the supremacy of hunting as the essential activity for humankind. Although some theories point out that “humans were scavengers before they started hunting”, this activity does not match the “epic discourse” associated to the evolution of the human race. To illustrate this idea, the researcher brings up examples of scavengers from popular culture, such as hyenas and vultures, “the bad guys in The Lion King”, she jokes. “The perception of scavenging practices is neither positive nor compatible with the discourse of what Amparo Moreno called ‘the virile archetype’, she asserts. “The virile archetype is not a common man: he is a hunter in hunter-gatherer societies, a knight in the Middle Ages, he is a revolutionary during the workers’ struggles… He is not a ‘nobody’ whose role in society is irrelevant”, she adds.

“The protagonist of the history told so far about humanity is this virile archetype”, she argues. However, not all men are included in this idealized model. “The protagonist of history is Gladiator, and not Danny DeVito”, Zurro jokingly adds, hinting at the image of the protagonist of the film Gladiator (2000) -Russell Crowe-, as opposed to the less attractive actor DeVito. As a consequence of this biased understanding of Prehistory that advances hunting as the essential activity for humankind, archaeological research has often left aside the study of vegetable remains.

In opposition to lithic materials, archaeobotanical remains are considered “unsexy”; a term coined by American archaeologist James Adovasio. The androcentric bias in archaeology has undervalued the productive contribution of women, associated to vegetable remains.

Vegetable fossils are more difficult to preserve than stone ones, the reason why they former are more scarce. However, Débora Zurro argues that the challenge to preserve them is not the main reason why archaeology has often disregarded the study of vegetable remains. Instead, she argues, it is due to a theoretical framework that defends that “hunting is a priority” and “recollection isn’t”, and determines the way we study the past. According to Zurro, vegetable remains are not studied because they are not considered “relevant enough”.

Zurro concludes that the implementation of an efficient methodology is necessary for the study of fossilized plants, one that allows researchers to acknowledge the important role of vegetables in hunter-gatherer societies. In order to do so, the field needs to dismantle assumptions and preconceptions stemming from normative archaeology.

Paula Talero Álvarez / Sabela Rey Cao