In the year 1872, a French archaeological team led by Emile Rivière made a groundbreaking discovery in the Caviglione cave: a skeleton donned with a cap made of seashells and deer teeth, surrounded by weaponry and horse bones.
This remarkable find, initially dubbed the 'Man of Menton', caused quite a stir and was transported to the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine in Paris for further investigation.
Decades later, this ancient resident's identity was reevaluated, leading to a striking revelation that has entirely upturned previous knowledge. As it turns out, the 'Man of Menton' was, in reality, a woman."
In a fitting turn of events, it was a woman (Marie-Antoinette de Lumley, the wife of Professor Henry de Lumley), who first questioned the assumed gender of the Man of Menton, suggesting to her husband that the skeleton's pelvic structure appeared feminine.
Her observation was correct. Acting on her insight, Professor Lumley reevaluated the bones and the skeleton was duly renamed as the Lady of Cavillon.
Gravettian Women: Rewriting the history books
In a testament to the frequently overlooked and misunderstood history of women in prehistoric times, the skeleton of the Lady of Cavillon had been buried with considerable ceremonial respect.
The careful placement of her body amidst a ring of artefacts and its meticulous coverage with red ochre - a pigment linked to ritualistic practices of the era - was compelling evidence that she held an esteemed status within her community - and pointed towards the possibility of her roles as a priestess, healer, or even a tribal leader.
The insights derived from the Lady of Cavillon have significantly updated prehistoric feminine history, which had for centuries underscored the invaluable contributions of women during the earliest chapters of our societal evolution.
Unveiling the Role of Women in Prehistoric Societies
Modern archaeologists are reshaping our understanding of our past, suggesting that women may have held equal, if not more influential roles in their societies.
These pioneering women were multifaceted powerhouses—mothers, healers, craftswomen, and hunters.
Victorian archaeologists, conditioned by their own era's norms, may have misread the signs, assuming that male-led social structures were a universal truth. However, it's now thought that ancient societies may have been more gender-balanced than previously believed.
In the eye-opening book "Lady Sapiens," authors Thomas Cirotteau, Jennifer Kerner, and Eric Pincas dive deep into a multitude of Paleolithic sites. Their research offers an intriguing look at the varied and substantial roles of women in the Paleolithic era, challenging centuries-old stereotypes by proving that prehistoric women were much more influential than we've been led to believe.
Professor Henry de Lumley wrote of the Lady of Cavillon:
“This woman certainly occupied an important role in society. When she died at the age of thirty-seven, she was buried magnificently — not everyone was buried so royally. At the entrance to the Cavillon Cave, this lady was given a very elaborate funeral rite involving horses. An awl made of horse bone had been placed in front of her face; above the burial site, a pendant carved from a horse’s metapode (foot bone) was found; 1.60 metres above the ground, a magnificent horse had been engraved on the cave wall.”
Her burial bears striking resemblances to two other women, one discovered in Ostuni, Puglia, and another unearthed in the Cueva del Mirón in Spain:
Donna di Ostuni
Recognized as one of the most important archaeological findings of the 20th century, the Donna di Ostuni was approximately 25–30 years old at the time of her death and is also believed to have held a prominent position within her community.
Found on her left side with hands close to her face and lower limbs slightly bent, she was buried with her unborn child.
Affectionately named Delia by archaeologists, she was found clutching her belly, covered in red ochre and like the Lady of Cavillon, she was wearing a headdress made from deer teeth and shells, surrounded by horse bones.
La Donna de Cueva Del Miròn
A cave in Spain unveiled another significant archaeological find in the shape of a woman who passed away 18,700 years ago.
The remains were discovered in a fetal position, with her head tilted to one side, arms crossed over her chest and directed towards a stone block marking her grave. Numerous slit engravings from the time of her death are present on the adjacent limestone block, some of which form a distinctive "V" shape, thought to represent a woman's pubic triangle.
There are also engravings of a horse on the cave wall, with red ochre applied to the body and the block's inner side. However, in this case, the woman's skull and some bones had been disturbed and carried away, likely by a large canine, making it impossible to determine whether she wore a headdress.
Continued habitation of the same cave after her burial and the careful treatment of her body and grave offerings suggest she too held a special significance within her community.
Horses in prehistoric rituals
Certain scholars propose that prehistoric people may have attributed symbolic or spiritual significance to horses, with beliefs about their significance in the afterlife or role transitioning from life to death.
Historian Pierre-François Puech et Bernard wrote in his paper ‘Can we still hear the Cro-Magnon Man’, that the outline of the horse found in the Cavillon cave ‘was a concrete symbol and primitive lower form of abstraction, that was necessary; for otherwise most people would not have understood the message.’
According to et Bernard, the engraving of the horse represents a form of early language with a magical quality that adds another level of interpretation to what we ourselves can see with our untrained eyes. He likened the symbolism to hieroglyphics on Egyptian temple walls, which are readable but have magical, obscure meanings that only priests and shamans can understand.
Another theory is that horses were sacred animals connected to specific sites or landscapes - or capable of crossing physical and spiritual realms.
Horses may instead have been totemic animals associated with the reincarnation process, viewed as symbols of rebirth, renewal, or regeneration, and their connection to burials might be linked to beliefs about the life and death cycle. The conception of horses as sacred spirits accompanying souls in and out of the world mirrors that of Celtic deities connected to horses, such as Rhiannon, Epona, and Macha.
In cave art, horses often accompany feminine figures or reproductive symbols, indicating a strong connection. For instance, in the Fontainebleau forest in France, a cave features a depiction of a woman's pubis with horses, hinting at a connection between horses and female fertility.
Three slits were carved into one of the Fontainebleau caves to highlight the naturally triangular shape of the rock.
On each side of what seems to be a pubis, there are two raised blocks representing human thighs with horses galloping on them.
The ceiling of this cave has a rounded shape suggesting a plump pregnant belly and in heavy rain, water flows naturally along the central slit, indicative of how a pregnant woman’s waters break shortly before birth. The water does not gather in a pool either, which makes the cave especially magical. Archaeologists believe the artwork represents a Paleolithic interpretation of how the world (humanity) was created.
Boris Valentin, a Professor at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris and a member of the prehistoric ethnology team studying the site, believes the artwork which was created at the end of a narrow stone passageway, is symbolic of the journey a baby makes when it is born.
In another ancient artwork found in France, at Pech-Merle, horses were drawn with large coloured spots inside and around the outline of their bodies on a cave wall. A team of archaeologists studying the area believe “…they were probably put there in the belief that they increased fertility.” (Lommel, 1966).
A carved fragment of a larger piece of stone from Étiolles, France shows an animal-headed woman with human breasts and a pregnant belly standing behind a horse that is “exhaling ” markings that might be interpreted as breath, sounds or blood. The animal-woman is emitting the same noises as the horse from her own mouth.
Duncan Caldwell in his paper ‘Supernatural Pregnancies’ believes that the animal-woman depicted “is crying out during labour as she transforms into her totem animal (the horse). She may have accessed the supernatural world as a result of taking plant-based hallucinogenic medicine in childbirth, and the artwork is a depiction of this experience.”
History books have for far too long depicted prehistoric societies as male-dominated.
While early historians and archaeologists touted their patriarchal vision of Gravettian society, in which men hunted and explored and women stayed home with the children doing domestic chores — this was really just how they ‘imagined’ society, since that was how their own Victorian world functioned.
Rewriting the history books about our prehistoric ancestors
A 2012 study found that 75% of the cave art found in Europe had been left by women, not men, as was earlier theorised.
It was thought that because many of the hand prints were surrounded by images of wild animals or female genitalia, they could only have been created by men (depicting their hunts or sexual desires).
Now we know that a woman’s value lay not only in her biological function but also in her intellectual and creative capacities to craft tools, heal people, assist with spiritual work and hunt.
We may never fully uncover the true identity of the Lady of Cavillon, yet with time, we may learn more about her life.
For now, at least, we can ascertain her gender – she was a woman.
That important discovery has served to rewrite the collective's historical understanding of women's role in ancient society and broaden our knowledge of the past.
Lady Sapiens by Thomas Cirotteau, Jennifer Kerner, and Eric Pincas
National Geographic: “In France, Prehistoric Women Had Equal or Higher Status Than Men, Study Finds” (July 2020)
Smithsonian Magazine: “Why Archaeologists Are Suddenly Finding Rituals and Human Burials at Sea” (March 2021)
Ancient Origins: “The Lady of Cavillon: A 27,000-Year-Old Gravettian Burial in France” (May 2016)
ScienceDirect: “The Menton burial: A new radiographic and morphometric study of the Gravettian burial from the “grotte du Prince” (French Riviera)” (December 2011)
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