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This academic argument that inequality between the sexes is not historically the “natural” state of things is compelling but dry.

In Rosemary Joyce’s capable hands, artifacts as small as pottery shards and bone remnants become concrete evidence that inequality between the sexes is not historically the “natural” state of things. As she reveals in this slim academic volume, archeologists have begun to dismantle their assumptions about sex and gender, and the result is a more nuanced notion of what it may have meant to be a woman or a man in ancient times. For instance, some Native American societies understood gender to be a sexuality-related performance that could metamorphose throughout an individual’s life. Similarly, a woman’s social status may not have been driven primarily by her sex but by her skills. Despite Joyce’s efforts “to communicate the actual excitement of this research,” the book’s tone remains dry, which makes it an unlikely choice for non-scholars. Nevertheless, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives reflects a critical shift in the way we understand gender, in the past and present.