Mensis or menstruation?

I recently stumbled upon this rather charming rant by Anglo-Danish comedian, writer, broadcaster and feminist Sandi Toksvig.

Women's Calendar

 

Now I’m a very big fan of Ms Toksvig and was very sad when she retired as presenter of BBC Radio 4’s excellent News Quiz, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trying to put her down, but if she had know a little bit more about the early history of the calendar then she might not have jumped to the conclusion that this supposed bone calendar must have been made by a woman.

Before I start to explain why Ms Toksvig might be mistaken in her assumption that this purported primitive calendar came from the hands of a woman I would like to waste a few words on all such artefacts. There are a number of bone and stone objects of great antiquity bearing some number of scratches, incisions, notches, indentations or other forms of apparent marking and someone almost always comes along and declares them to be purposely created mathematical artefacts with one or other function. I must say that being highly sceptical by nature I treat all such claims with more than a modicum of wariness. Even assuming that the markings were made by a human hand might they not have been made in an idle moment by a Neolithic teenager trying out his newly acquired flint knife or in the case of our incised bone by an early musician making himself scraper to accompany the evening camp fire sing-a-long? What I’m am saying is that there are often multiple possible explanations for the existence of such marked artefacts and regarding them as signs of some sort of mathematical activity is only one of those possibilities.

However, back to Ms Toksvig and her revelation. She is of course assuming that the twenty-eight incisions are the result of a women counting off the days between her periods, the menstrual cycle being roughly twenty-eight days for most women. Now if Ms Toksvig had taken her thoughts a little further she might have realised that the word menstruation derives from the Latin word for month, which is mensis: a month being originally a lunar month which, depending on how you measure it, has approximately twenty-eight days. In fact much human thought has been expended over the centuries over the fact that a lunar month and the menstrual circle have the same length.

What we have here with this incised bone could well be not a menstrual record, as Ms Toksvig seems to assume, but a mensis record or part of a lunar calendar. This supposition is lent credence by the fact that, with the very notable exception of the ancient Egyptian calendar, all early cultures and civilisations had lunar and not solar calendars including the ancient Romans before Gaius Julius Caesar borrowed the Egyptian solar calendar, the forerunner of our own Gregorian one.

Assuming that the archaeologist or anthropologist who decided that said bone was a primitive calendar was right and it is not the idle whittling of some bored stone-age teenager, we of course still have no idea whether it was the work of a man or a woman.

5 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

5 responses to “Mensis or menstruation?

  1. I’ve seen this passed around my social media sources about every two days for the past month myself. While it does seem to be drawing too much from the evidence to suppose that it’s an attempt at tracking menstruation, the question does seem worthwhile as a way of breaking the male-as-default assumption when speaking about unknown persons. To that extent it’s worth thinking about.

  2. It is, surely, Sandi Toksvig making a joke; she is a comedian (I won’t use sexist language and call her a comedienne) after all. Her professor using the spoken word would have had no way of distinguishing between man (gender) and Man (homo sapiens).

  3. I’ve got no opinion on this topic, but I am reminded of a grad-school one act musical, OK skit, I was part of back in the 60s when Levi-Strauss’ structuralism was a fad. I don’t remember many lines from the show, but some tribesman—all the characters were neolithic—complains about how nobody knows what day it is because the calendar’s pregnant again.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: year 2, Vol. #23 | Whewell's Ghost

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