College of LAS « Illinois

Discovering The Upscale Cavewoman

According to this anthropologist, a woman's passion for fashion is prehistoric.

Photo of Olga Soffer

Discoveries by Soffer and Adovasio have changed perceptions about Stone Age people, showing anthropologists and the public that these were not ignorant people dressed in furs, but rather intelligent people making complicated textiles.

The bulletin board outside Olga Soffer's cramped, two-room office at Davenport Hall illustrates her dilemma. Hanging near her eclectic collection of magazine and newspaper articles about prehistoric archaeology is a Far Side® cartoon humorously depicting three cavemen fighting off a woolly mammoth while three cavewomen cheer them to victory with a pompon routine.

"I want to get the public past the image of caveman cartoons," says Soffer, an LAS professor of anthropology who studies the lifeways of people of the Upper and Middle Paleolithic in Europe. "I want to try to understand the past, to get a fuller picture of the past 25,000 years."

And her research is doing just that.

Soffer recently made a startling find at a dig in Moravia, part of the Czech Republic, when she discovered the earliest evidence of textiles, pushing their emergence back more than 7,000 years. Collaborating with Jim Adovasio, a textile specialist and archaeology professor from Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Pennsylvania, Soffer found impressions of Paleolithic textiles on ceramic pots, proving prehistoric people were making finer textiles than previously thought.

"Although we don't know the style of clothes, like whether we're looking at a belt or a shawl, we do believe these were likely wearable items," says Soffer.

Discoveries by Soffer and Adovasio have changed perceptions about Stone Age people, showing anthropologists and the public that these were not ignorant people dressed in furs, but rather intelligent people making complicated textiles. Before Soffer's find, the oldest textiles were associated with an agrarian society about 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Soffer has found small amounts of cordage dating from 14,500 to 15,000 years ago.

Fellow professor Stanley Ambrose believes Soffer has better informed the public with her bold and innovative research of the Paleolithic.

Discoveries by Soffer and Adovasio have changed perceptions about Stone Age people, showing anthropologists and the public that these were not ignorant people dressed in furs, but rather intelligent people making complicated textiles.

"She's one of the leaders in the field of understanding the social behaviors of people in Ice Age Europe," Ambrose says.

Adovasio agrees. "Olga is a highly experienced and knowledgeable scholar," he says. "She is one of the most focused individuals I have ever met, and I have known very few, if any, with a drive and determination like hers."

Photo of Olga Soffer

It's a determination she learned as a child. After Soffer's parents were banished from Russia shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, they moved to Yugoslavia, where Soffer was born in 1942. Nine years later, Soffer and her family were exiled from Yugoslavia when the country's leader feared Stalin might use the deported Russian population as an excuse to take over the country.

"We had two weeks to get out," Soffer says. "We packed up a few suitcases and went."

The family fled to a refugee camp in Trieste, Italy, where they spent the next five years, until the United States granted the family admittance in 1955.

Life in New York City was drastically different from Belgrade or Trieste, yet Soffer adjusted well, adopting the language and culture quickly. After graduating from Hunter College in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in political science, she worked as a fashion promoter for 10 years, "persuading Americans they needed blue socks this year," Soffer says.

Tiring of the fashion industry, Soffer began taking art classes at a local university, which led her to Paleolithic archaeology.

"I discovered the roots of cubism lay in African art. African art led me to primitive art (and) prehistoric art," Soffer says. "One step sideways led me to prehistoric lifeways, and here we are."

During the year she shares this expertise with students in her archaeology classes at Illinois. When she's not teaching or digging, Soffer enjoys reading, cooking, and visiting museums. Unable to sever all ties with the fashion industry, she still attends fashion shows and wanders through the garment district whenever she's in Paris.

In 1975, Soffer received her master's degree in archaeology from the City University of New York (CUNY). After learning to excavate in France, she chose to work in Eastern Europe because no one from the West was working there and France had too many archaeologists.

While working on her doctoral dissertation at CUNY, Soffer worked at Mezhirich, Ukraine, studying a Paleolithic village with four houses made of woolly mammoth bones. She completed her Ph.D. in 1984 and began digging in Moravia in 1986, trying to solve questions raised from her previous mammoth dig. At the same time, Soffer began to concentrate on ceramics, attempting to reveal how they were made and used.

Prehistoric ceramics inadvertently led Soffer to textiles, which have allowed her to study women's typically ignored role in the Paleolithic.

"I'm just trying to diversify the past," says Soffer. "I want to see how much of a reconstruction I can make about past life—what Stone Age culture was like."

By Sarah Anderson, a senior in journalism at UI.
Photos by Bill Wiegand and S. Holland

Summer 2002