New and disheartening evidence that domestic abuse is prehistory

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Out Front, Fall 1998

O.J., B.C.
New and disheartening evidence that domestic abuse is prehistory
By Cristina Opdahl

It wasn't So Fred Flintstone flirted with waitresses in Rockapulco. And frittered away too much time at the lodge. But anthropologists are accumulating evidence that what Wilma endured barely scratched the surface of domestic crimes against cavewomen. Wife-beaters, in fact, most likely existed ages before Stanley Kowalski. Brenda Baker, a bioarchaeologist at Arizona State University, noticed suspicious fractures in a 4,000-year-old Egyptian woman's skeletal ribs and wrists this spring. And Shannon A. Novak, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Utah, is working on a method to prove that spousal abuse is as old as the wheel. "We really shouldn't be surprised," says Novak. "This is a long-term pattern. Humans are humans, especially when it comes to relationships."

Novak first smelled offense five years ago while studying skeletons from a northeastern Utah dig. All of the female skulls recovered — belonging to members of the Fremont civilization, who lived there 1,300 years ago — had circuits of healed cracks and dents, while the male skulls were intact. Looking for modern evidence to corroborate her theory, Novak then planted herself in an English hospital's emergency department for a year to study female-abuse trauma cases. Her discovery: The wounds matched those of the Fremont skulls. It seems that bad beaux of all millennia tend to go for the head.

The weapon of choice hasn't changed much, either: Whatever's handy. "You'd be surprised how often cans of corn and telephones come into play," Novak says. Likely prehistoric quick-grabs were walking staffs and clay bowls. Looks like the writing is on the cave walls.

Illustration by Gary Baseman

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