Of ‘Prehistoric Boobs, and Megalithic Dicks’…

… I’d say there’s already been just a little too much ‘speculation’ on this particular subject as it is, wouldn’t you?

As a general rule, I try to avoid using this column to ‘answer’ articles by other columnists: if nothing else, because I am a firm believer in Free Speech, as defined by Italian comic genius Antonio de Curtis (aka Toto): ‘La democrazia significa che ognuno puo’ dire tutte le fesserie che vuole!’ [Loose translation: ‘Democracy means that everyone is free to say just as much bullshit as they like!’]

And having myself exemplified that sacrosanct principle, on so many past occasions – I mean: just look at all the ‘fesserie’ I’ve written over the years, for crying out loud! – I feel it would be a little inappropriate, on my part, to suddenly ‘object to the bullshit of others’.

But then again, I will very shortly be breaking that little rule of mine: specifically, to counter to a recent op-ed article by Kristina Chetcuti, entitled ‘Inbreeding is our undoing’ (Times, 29 May).

Partly because I feel that some of the ‘fesserie’ it contains are just too utterly outrageous, to realistically go unanswered…

… but partly also because – and this may come as a small surprise – I happen to share Kristina’s fascination with the culture that flourished on these islands, in the Neolithic period; and from my own (admittedly amateur) investigations into the same questions… it looks to me as though Kristina Chetcuti is not entirely WRONG, in at least some of her basic assumptions.

It’s more that she departs from a premise that is ‘possibly correct’ – and I stress ‘possibly’, because the simple truth is that we don’t really know very much at all, about the ‘social norms of Neolithic Malta’ – but then, reaches conclusions that not only belong firmly to the fantastical… but to a fantasy that tells us infinitely more about Maltese social life today (and, more specifically, about the author’s own prejudices in that regard).

But with all that out of the way: let’s dive right into it, shall we? And we may as well start from the beginning, where Kristina argues that: “[Around 3,600BC] the island was inhabited by the most open-minded people ever to grace our lands. They were tall, handsome, healthy and supremely intelligent until… they were replaced by shorter, uglier and unhealthy versions of themselves.”

And there, right off the bat, you can already see traces of that same pattern. For on one level, the factual assertions in that paragraph are broadly correct. There is a wealth of evidence to confirm that this island’s inhabitants, some 6,000 years ago, were not only ‘taller’ and ‘much healthier’ than their descendants around a millennium later… but also, than most other contemporary societies in other parts of the Mediterranean (the ones we know about, anyway).

Here, of course, we must close an eye at the ‘Great Civilisations’ that were concurrently emerging in places like Egypt and (even earlier) the Fertile Crescent… but there can be no doubt that the Maltese temple-builders did indeed enjoy a much higher standard of living (and certainly, lived much longer lives) than other small agrarian communities that existed on the European mainland at the time.

And yes: even before the latest scientific study that inspired this article – you know: the one that “found out that the Maltese people had shrunk in stature, were suffering from food scarcity, […] and there was a lot of inbreeding”, etc. – we already knew that this remarkable culture, which had flourished for the better part of almost 2,000 years, had fallen into decline by the end of the second millennium BC.

Which is not to say, of course, that this latest study doesn’t actually ‘reveal anything new’: if nothing else, we now have a much clearer picture of what this gradual deterioration would have ‘looked’ and ‘felt’ like, so to speak…

… but the one thing it certainly doesn’t do (nor even CAN do, for that matter) is shed any light whatsoever, on what might have actually ‘gone on in those people’s minds’: at any point at all, throughout their entire 2,000-year existence.

Nor does it even answer any of the more (theoretically) ‘answerable’ questions, either: such as, how was their society structured?

What sort of social behaviour was considered ‘permissible’, or not? And, least of all, what sort of ‘social prejudices’ – or ‘gender stereotypes’ – did these people develop, over the course of the millennia?

To answer those questions, I’m afraid you really do have to invent a time-machine, and travel back 6,000 years into the past. And as Kristina Chetcuti already informed us that she HASN’T actually done that, yet… perhaps she may wish to explain exactly how she can assert (and with such authority, too!) that these people were: ‘open-minded’; ‘egalitarian’; and – even more bizarrely - that ‘no one cared about appearances. It was irrelevant whether you had a pair of boobs or a dick…”

Hmm. Let’s close an eye, for now, at the minor detail that Kristina herself goes on to shatter this illusion, just a few lines further on (where she explains how these people – who didn’t ‘care about appearances’, remember? – also “took pride in grooming, plaited their hair in different styles, and wore different kinds of jewellery…”)

But before we even get there: how the heck does she even KNOW any of this, anyway? And what sort of ‘evidence’ is she basing these assumptions on?

Certainly, it cannot be ‘the contents of the National Museum of Archaeology’: which – when it comes to the Neolithic section, at any rate – could almost be mistaken for an unadulterated cache of ‘Prehistoric Porn’.

Seriously, though: if it’s not ‘fat ladies with unfeasibly large breasts’ – which, by the way, also tells us something about how aesthetic biases have likewise evolved, in the meantime – it’s ‘upright monoliths with more than a passing resemblance to erect phalli’…

Odd, isn’t it, how a culture which considered ‘boobs and dicks’ to be so utterly ‘irrelevant’, would also bequeath to us an artistic legacy consisting chiefly (if not exclusively) of… um… ‘Prehistoric Boobs, and Megalithic Dicks’?

Oh well, I guess it’s just another ‘ancient mystery’, to add to all the rest...

But the real problem is another. Like I said before, Kristina and I share a common interest in this matter. And my own research led me to ask an expert – osteo-archaeologist Dr Bernadette Mercieca-Spiteri – more or less the same question, back in 2019.

This was her reply: “What I can tell you from the bones – and even more so, from the burial sites – is that both men and women were buried in the same way at the Xaghra Circle, and even in other tombs of the same period. That is to say, curled up in foetal position, on one’s side. So we can safely say that men and women were treated equally… in death. But in life? It’s very difficult to say, unfortunately…”

Now: to be fair, none of that adds up to an outright contradiction of Kristina’s ‘egalitarian’ vision. All it means is that there is simply not enough material evidence, for anyone - not even the most seasoned experts in the field – to confidently supply any answers. (And still less, to make such astonishingly bald affirmations, as: “No one pointed at women and said: ‘Your job is to do housework and raise the children, if not, you’re a waste of space on earth…’)

But this only brings me to the truly infuriating part (indeed, the only reason I’m even bothering to reply in the first place): because again, the issue here is not so much that Kristina Chetcuti’s reconstruction of Neolithic Malta is clearly ‘fanciful’ (and therefore, by definition, also ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’…)

… quite the contrary, in fact: it’s that, at a certain level – that is to say: long before we get to the part where she is clearly ‘manipulating prehistory’, to make sardonic comments about contemporary society – some of those assumptions of hers may indeed be closer to the truth, than most would probably imagine.

For instance: to argue that: ‘It was irrelevant whether you had a pair of boobs or a dick’, is patently ridiculous… when talking about a small, pre-civilised community that evidently subscribed to some form of ‘Fertility Cult’ (centred, as it undeniably was, on a particularly ‘large-boobed’ – sometimes, ‘multiple-boobed’ – ‘Earth Goddess Mother’-figure...)

But then, I would consider it entirely reasonable to speculate (though not exactly to ‘affirm’) that the same people’s entire concept of gender – and all the associated roles and stereotypes – would indeed have most likely been very different from ours.

And for the same reason, please note: because we are, after all, talking about ‘pre-civilised’ society here. So even we know very little about ‘how Neolithic Maltese society was structured’… we know enough about how it certainly was NOT structured, to safely conclude that it is extremely unlikely to have adopted the same cultural ‘prejudices’, that broadly came about as a result of the civilisation-process itself.

In other words: their precepts of ‘gender stereotypes’ – howsoever they may have unfolded, in practice – would almost certainly have arisen from the same, ancestral power-structures that governed their entire community for almost two-thousand years (and all hunter-gatherer societies, long before that): i.e., the ‘extended family unit’.

And we also know, from anthropological studies into other (ancient and modern) family-based societies, that… yes, actually.

Pre-literate, pre-civilised communities did often tend to have very different (and altogether less ‘discriminatory’) notions of such as things as ‘gender’, and ‘gender-relations’… than the major civilisations that would eventually replace them. [Note: at the risk of a small anachronism… they were, after all, ‘spared’ around 4,000 years’ worth of cultural baggage, that we now collectively refer to as: ‘The Patriarchy’.)

But that’s as far as I’ll go with speculation, myself: for one thing, because it is quite frankly impossible – on the basis of the available evidence, anyway – to draw any more detailed conclusions, than that;

And for another, because – with Kristina Chetcuti also attributing the ‘Decline and Fall’ of this remarkable culture to (and here I quote): “Some bright bulb [who] must have convinced the community that they ‘had to wake up and smell the coffee’ and stop letting those foreign seafarers land on our shores and, shock horror, settle here…”

… I’d say there’s already been just a little too much ‘speculation’ on this particular subject as it is, wouldn’t you?