The Tragedy of Women as Earliest Farmers

Patriarchy started in agrarian societies of West Asia around 12,000 years ago. But tragically, while farming itself was initiated by women, it was gradually taken over by men, and women lost their earlier domain of plant gathering.

Women were the first farmers. Yes, I know, when you hear the word “farmers” you think of men. But, no, men were not the first farmers. Women started the agricultural revolution, a crucial turn in the course of our evolution.

How can it be? Let me ask you this: remember that, next to hunting by men, women were the ones collecting edible plants as the large part of food supply to the group. They had the knowledge and skills to find and gather soft foods such as fruits and vegetables that could be eaten as they were.

And women brought grains, nuts, seeds, roots and pulses home to be crushed with stone tools, as you can see some animals do. Later those hard foods were roasted in camp fires. In due course, humans also learned to pound and pulverize those hard foods. They took all that trouble because hard foods, like meat, provided proteins, whereas hunting for meat was more tedious and dangerous. These food habits came up and still occur all over in the world.

Now, we’re narrowing things down. Women, as close watchers of vegetative life, noticed how plants reproduced themselves. For the purpose of future food supply they studied and respected such processes. While being familiar with the process of reproduction within themselves, they could identify with the creation of new life in the world of vegetation around them.

Their identification with reproductive processes may have made them try to cultivate the plants. Their concern with food supply made them grow the plants they liked as food. In this way, they came to settle at one place for a while and cultivate plant varieties in gardens nearby. This pattern we see at many places around the world.

For the breeding of popular cereal grasses climate and soil conditions were often not favorable, as humans found out with regret. But around 12,000 years ago climate change in West Asia made cereal grasses grow abundantly. This spurred women to use their experience with the cultivation of other plants to collect cereal seeds, plant them and harvest the fruits.

Women in the Zagros Mountains of Iran were the first ones to do this. They started what’s perhaps the biggest revolution of humanity. That’s what paleontological excavators believe at present, although tomorrow they may surprise us with new findings.

But men got increasingly involved in labor at fields and irrigation structures, while organizing the larger-scale works and taking up overall leadership. Therefore, unintentionally but -- if you want -- tragically, women who started farming facilitated male dominance over most of the food supply.

As a consequence, men came to control family life and wider social life as well, opening the roads to patriarchal kinship systems that poison interactions between women and men up to the present day. From my upcoming book Planet Inside.

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