Epitaph for a mammoth

… and the ferocity of gatherers. In the heat of the moment, it all came down to:


The Sunday (and so landscape rather than portrait, also Piraro-only) Bizarro from 2/26, posted here for International Women’s Day, 3/8:

(#1) Mammoths, hunter-gatherers, and the power of women (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are, omigod, 13 in this strip — see this Page.)

Apparently, she took the mammoth down with a sharp stick, something she was perhaps gathering as firewood. Wow.  Don’t mess with Bess.

Mammoths. Thanks to this Sam Gross cartoon, published in the 3/7/94 New Yorker, the woolly mammoth is my primary totem animal, the creature I identify with (my older, now secondary, totem animal, the penguin, is both fascinating and, in its pop-cultural manifestations, entertaining, but it became associated with me by a series of accidents):

(#2) It was the message of acceptance that appealed to me so viscerally

Mammoths are  not infrequent objects of cartooning, almost always in conjunction with hunter-gatherers, as in #1 and in this Sam Gross cartoon (published in the New Yorker on 3/28/11):


In #2, however, the mammoth appears with agriculturalist figures, a pair of shepherds (who now, thanks to Brokeback Mountain — in which two young men working at herding sheep become lovers — lend, to my queer eyes, an edge of pleasing secret carnality to the scene).

(There is a Page on this blog about my woolly mammoth postings.)

On the actual species Mammuthus primigenius, from Wikipedia:

The woolly mammoth began to diverge from the steppe mammoth about 800,000 years ago in East Asia. Its closest extant relative is the Asian elephant.

… The woolly mammoth was well adapted to the cold environment during the last ice age [c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago].

… The woolly mammoth coexisted with early humans, who used its bones and tusks for making art, tools, and dwellings, and hunted the species for food. The population of woolly mammoths declined at the end of the Pleistocene, disappearing on mainland Siberia [about 4] thousand years ago

That, of course, is the real-life woolly mammoth. The cartoon creature is essentially a huge furry elephant with curved tusks. Rampant in a setting vastly different from the frozen steppes of Siberia — in this case, with a number of plants that look to come from a geological age long before any mammoths roamed the earth.

Hunter-gatherers. The cartoon woolly mammoth coexists with hunter-gatherer humans, from the Stone Age (embracing everything from the Paleolitic to the Neolithic); or more specifically Cro-Magnons (now called EEMHs, European early modern humans) — but in the cartoons those Stone Age hunter-gatherers are cavemen types, primitive humans concocted from Neanderthal features, spiky masculine hairiness, and brutish fantasy. The mammoths and the cavefolk live together on grasslands, or sometimes in forests or even jungles — in any case, places where people can go about their lives wearing minimal clothing.

In the real world, from NOAD:

noun hunter-gatherer: a member of a [AZ: typically] nomadic people who live chiefly by hunting and fishing, and harvesting wild food. [that is, they live by both hunting and gathering]

The hunter-gatherer way of life is contrasted with the agriculturalist way of life (which has succeeded it in most parts of the world), in which people live in (relatively) fixed places and get their food by raising domesticated animals (like sheep) and cultivating crops. The agriculturalists invented tools for this life — plows and wagons, for instance, in addition to older tools for hunting, fishing, and waging war. But Stone Age humans used fire for warmth and for cooking food, and they began gathering plant materials that could be made into fabric for clothing, and then cultivating plants for this purpose, in Neolithic times.

An artist’s reconstruction of a Cro-Magnon man — looking very much like a current human in his facial features, with longish wild hair but trimmed mustache and beard, and a sumptuous fur coat (apparently over some woven foundation garment):

(#4) Cover drawing for Otte’s book on EEMHs (from my 7/15/20 posting “At the Paleo Cafe”)

Cartoon cavefolk are, of course mixtures of cartoonish fantasy (all those over-the-shoulder animal skins, crude cudgels, and simple spears, not to mention their inclination to take advantage of natural caves as shelters rather than constructing them) and intrusions from modern life (the over-the-shoulder dress on the woman in #1, which is pretty clearly not an animal skin, but a woven fabric). But cavefolk are cartoon staples: the Caveman cartoon meme.

[A digression on N + N compounds in English, building on a very silly Bizarro from 2/7/15. From my 1/27/19 posting “hunter gatherers”:

(#5) Illustrating the subsective (and forestressed) N + N compound ˈhunter-ˌgatherer ‘a gatherer of hunters, someone who gathers hunters’ — an absurd interpretation of hunter-gatherer

[In contrast, hunter-gatherer as in the NOAD definition above and in #1] is a [copulative] N + N compound, along with (for instance) the language name Serbo-Croatian, the nation name Austria-Hungary, and the modifier U.S.-Canada in the U.S.-Canada border ‘the border between the U.S. and Canada’. The semantic contributions of the two elements of [such a] compound are roughly equal; when they are distinguished in significance, it’s the first element that’s likely to be the more (socioculturally) significant (on the general grounds that when you mention two things together, you’re inclined to put the thing that’s most important to you first). But the default accent pattern for copulative compounds like hunter-gatherer is afterstress: ˌhunter-ˈgatherer.

Since this is Bizarro, the gathered hunters are sportsmen from ordinary life, while the men gathering them (and stacking them like cordwood in a wagon) appear to be Polynesian aboriginals. When worlds collide.]

Gender roles and the power of women. In the hunter-gatherer way of life, the hunting role is primarily assigned to males and the gathering role to females; this literal division of labor has some basis in anatomical and physiological differences between the sexes on average, but the divisions are also highly conventionalized (and culture-specific in their details).

In cartoons, of course, every binary contrast is wildly exaggerated. So the man in #1 appears to be offended by the woman’s violation of the principle Him Hunter, Her Gatherer — despite the fact that she has, by whatever means and for whatever reasons, brought home a hell of a lot of bacon, almost every part of a mammoth’s body being eminently useful. (I mean, you can even build a shelter from its bones. People actually did that.)

Yes, don’t mess with Bess. Because, like Rosie the Riveter, Bess can do it:

(#6) During wartime, it turns out that women are entirely capable of filling any number of roles traditionally filled by men — which means, of course, that they could have done it all along

That is, They Can Do It. Bess, faced with a woolly mammoth interfering with her gathering routine, dispatches the creature with a sharp stick. In the real world, four women friends studying philosophy at Oxford during World War II, with most of the men away at war, found themselves able to pursue their own visions of ethics, free of the dominant views, and changed the direction of the field of moral philosophy — a story told especially well in Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb’s 2022 book The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics.

Philippa and I were friends 40 years ago, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, though she was a full generation older than me; she was whip-smart, judicious, elegant, and very funny. From my 12/27/10 posting “Some deaths of 2010”:

From James Ryerson’s piece on her in the NYT Magazine‘s “The Lives They Lived” issue:

Looking back, she seemed to appreciate the connection between her distinctive talents and the long arc of her career.”I’m a dreadfully slow thinker, really,” she said. “But I do have a good nose for what’s important.”

(Well, the issues were there, they were significant, and they needed to be taken care of, so: on with the task!)

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