Note: This short story is based on the research ideas of Professors Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott, but everything else is fictional.
* * *
At all American universities there is a panel of people called the Instructional Review Board, or IRB. Their job is to examine faculty and student research proposals in order to determine whether or not they follow accepted professional and legal guidelines for research on human subjects. The IRB at Jupiter State University thought they had seen everything until they received Professor Dubois’s proposal.
“Let me get this straight,” said Dr. Angelo, a hard-nosed accounting instructor. “You wanna take photos of naked undergrads in order to study the Paleo-whosey-whut’s-it? And what exactly does that have to do with teaching art history here at JSU?”
“Women, specifically,” Dubois said, in his defense, although the panel stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “Pregnant women. And the word is Paleolithic. It means ‘Old Stone Age’ – it’s a period of prehistory that ended about 10,000 years ago, when humanity began the long transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture… and eventually accounting.”
It was not easy, but Dubois persuaded the IRB to grant him permission to conduct his study, with appropriate safeguards and oversight built into the research process. An advertisement was posted around campus: Art History Professor seeks Healthy Pregnant Women, Ages 20-26, for Perspective Study, compensation provided.
Sandra stared at the poster, ripping it down from the bulletin board. Life was crazy, what with the baby on the way and her manager at Beer-‘n’-Bikini deciding to fire her. Sandra was sick of being told to “get a job” by the same type of people who wouldn’t let her keep one, now, because she was pregnant. These same people also said, “Get married.” Married? To the two-timing loser who got her into this mess? OK, she hadn’t been very bright herself, but no, thanks. Tom was an idiot who could use his head to drive in nails if he ever went to work without his hammer. Different people had told her to go to college, but made it seem like it would be a lot easier to juggle work and school – and a baby – than it was. The university’s brochures were fake. They hired models – happy, good-looking people who went to other schools – to come in over the summer and walk around in L. L. Bean and J. Crew outfits, pretending to be JSU students. The world was a sick place, so she gripped the poster desperately, opened her cell phone, and made the call.
“How much compensation?” she asked, as soon as Dubois answered.
“There will be several sessions. There’s not much time involved….” He already sounded dubious – she could sense that.
“I need to make money – fast,” Sandra said, impatiently.
“It’s not that kind of job. You get $100 per session, but only after you complete all six sessions. Still interested?”
“Yeah,” Sandra said. “What’s the job?”
“Are you on campus? Come over to my office.”
When Sandra met Dubois, she was perplexed. The guy didn’t look or act like a pervert, but he wanted to take nude photos of her from the top down – perspective shots, he called them, taken from above her head, while she stood in a specially constructed cylindrical photography tent. The camera would be automated, activated by a button outside the tent.
“No one will even see your face.”
“Just everything else,” Sandra replied. “Are you serious?” It sounded creepy. “What’s this for?”
“I have an idea – a hypothesis,” the professor said, but he could tell she didn’t really know what the word meant. “It’s a kind of educated hunch: I need you – and other pregnant women, too – to help me test it. I also need an assistant to schedule appointments, even take the photos. It would be better if a woman does everything – the subjects will be more relaxed and anonymous to the researcher.”
“We’ve got to start somewhere.” Dubois didn’t know Sandra’s story, but he had seen people like her before. He could fit the puzzle-pieces together. “Look, it’s steady work. You’ll make $15 an hour, part-time, plus the stipends paid for each photo session. It’s not much of a life raft, but it’s something.”
Posing for Polaroid shots with chubby nerds, boozy business wonks, and frat boys at Beer ‘n’ Bikini, she thought, was more demeaning than what happened inside the photography tent, with the curtains drawn. Flash, flash… and now what? She had signed documents, and was sure that if she ended up all over the Internet she could at least sue someone.
When the photographs were ready, Dubois sat her down in his office and said, “Now you can see what we’re doing. You’ll understand if you see it. It’s visual, that’s why it took an art guy like me to see it. And that’s why we need photos for the journal article.” He first showed her a statue, a strange little thing, like a goblin, orange-yellow. She scowled, then frowned. “D’you know what this is?”
“Ugly?” she laughed. “I mean, seriously, she doesn’t have a face.”
“I know, that’s part of the problem.”
“Why would someone carve a statue of Miss Cheeseburger, here, with no face? She’d weigh, like, three hundred pounds if she was real. Who do they think would want that?”
“Someone like you,” Dubois replied, quite serious. “Everyone who has ever looked at this lady has had the same thoughts.” He sighed, a wry smile twisting his lips, and handed the statue to her. “She was carved during the Ice Age, in Europe – in central Austria, to be precise. They call her the Willendorf Venus.”
“I thought Venus was supposed to be hot,” Sandra muttered, looking skeptically at the statue in her hand. “Hey….” A thought occurred to her. “The Ice Age was a long time ago – how old is this thing?”
“Between twenty and twenty-two thousand years old, but there are others just like this one that are much older.”
“Whoa!” Sandra stared. “I’d better not drop it – here….”
“No, it’s OK,” Dubois laughed. “It’s only a replica made by a student in the Art Department. The real Venus is in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, but they’re the same size, weight, everything.” He scratched his head. “They’ve come up with all sorts of ideas and theories about her. Fertility Goddess, Ice Age porn, some matriarchal queen, an example of someone with peculiar health issues… on account of the alleged obesity, you see. She’s a feminist icon, in some circles. But I think they’re all wrong.”
“So, what’s your take?”
“Have you heard of Occam’s Razor? It’s the idea that the simplest solution is the most likely one. All these other possibilities presuppose something terribly complex, like the existence of religion during a very early stage of human social development, or else they fail to account for the actual form of the statue… the missing face, for instance, or why the sexual characteristics are so pronounced….”
Sandra listened carefully. Professors, she thought, liked to talk about sex a lot, in a weird, academic way. They used words all the time, in their lectures, that people in Sandra’s family only ever whispered, even though they all swore like sailors during football games.
“So, you got a better idea?”
“Here’s you,” Dubois said, sliding a manila envelope across his desk. “Compare your photos with what you see when you look at Venus, here, top-down, from the same angle we used in the photographs.”
Sandra shook the photos – black-and-white and strange-looking – from the folder. At first, she couldn’t even tell they were photographs of a woman, let alone images of her own body. But then it began to make sense. She held the Venus against the photo, looking down at the top of its head.
Dubois smiled. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“Oh, my God – do I really look like this? Jesus, that sucks.” Sandra grimaced, holding the Venus at arm’s length.
“No – not at all. The Venus is only obese if she’s looked at from the side, but that’s not how she was meant to be perceived. That’s why she doesn’t have a face. No one does, not when they’re looking down.”
“So… she’s looking at herself?”
“And she’s pregnant. I think the statuette is a pendant; it would have had a string.”
“So it is a fertility thing? Some people do that kind ‘a’ stuff, right? Like, they worship her, rub her belly, have lots of babies, and the crops grow.”
“No – this comes from a period long before writing. We can’t assume anything about what they were thinking. We only know what it physically represents: from the correct perspective, it’s a statuette of a healthy, pregnant young woman – someone like you. It means the pregnancy is going smoothly. The workmanship is amazing, really. It’s almost perfect.”
“That’s trippy. It’s like we’re playing Pictionary with people who lived way back then.”
“Exactly. Anthropologists presume Ice Age marriages were exogamous – outside the immediate community, for the most part, to avoid in-breeding. Genetically, they had to be.”
“So, they were smarter than the folks here in Hillbilly Central?” she laughed, thinking of how everyone always said the apples didn’t fall very far from the trees at JSU.
“When young women were sent away to live with their new husband’s clan, they might have been given these statuettes as a guide for getting through pregnancies safely. It’s probably a teaching device, a visual aid used to pass on medical lore from mothers to daughters, ensuring the continuation of the line through successful pregnancies.”
“So, there’s more than one ‘a’ these?”
“Hundreds – they’ve been found all over Europe, Russia, parts of the Near East, even as far away as India. With the Ice Age coming on, people were up against a wall. The conditions were unimaginably harsh. Most of Europe was like the Arctic Circle: literally every birth mattered if our prehistoric ancestors were going to survive that. The number of births and deaths was probably nearly equal. Back then, if a mother lost a baby, she usually died, too, due to complications. These statuettes may have helped women avoid complications.”
“Huh,” Sandra said, seeing the Venus in a new light as she turned it around, examining its odd shapes from different angles. “I didn’t think cave women had hairdos?” Indeed, the stylized pattern of the statue’s hair looked surprisingly modern.
“Not ‘cave women’, really – Paleolithic people used caves for ceremonial purposes, but they didn’t live in them. They preferred open rock shelters, tents, teepees. Actually, most of the sites we’ve excavated show that Europeans, during the Ice Age, lived like Native Americans or Eskimos in the 19th century – the same kinds of clothes, even similar technologies. But the hair is important. It’s a clue to their thinking; it tells us they had time on their hands, and even a sense of style. They weren’t savages at all. There’s a professor, even, who thinks it may be a knitted cap, not hair, which would mean that thread and perhaps even weaving existed tens of thousands of years earlier than we ever imagined.”
Sandra worked as Dubois’s research assistant for the rest of the term, recruiting pregnant women for the project. Dozens of women of various shapes and sizes were photographed, at different stages of pregnancy, the proportions of the various Venus statuettes used in the study always approximating the different parts of the process. Everyone was fascinated by the idea, but especially Sandra. She reflected that having a baby was still difficult, only in new ways. Then, one night, it occurred to her that by posing for these bizarre photos, she had helped identify what was – possibly – the earliest evidence of women’s medical knowledge. One idea sparked another: Sandra realized she needed to become a nurse. It wouldn’t be easy, but she could find work; there was always a shortage of nurses, everywhere, Dr. Dubois said. Nurses earned good money, more than professors – the work was hard, but she would be able to afford a house, pay for college, take care of her kid, maybe meet a guy who wasn’t a jerk… marry outside the clan, so-to-speak.
“The little statue’s still working,” she thought, smiling.
Word Count: 2,200
Copyright, William Lailey 2012.