by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 1, 2011 · Comments Off
March is Women’s History Month, and here on the EVE blog we’ll be celebrating with posts about famous and not-so-famous women in history. But I’d like to start off with a nod to a group of very important women whose names we’ll never know, but to whom we owe everything: the foremothers who invented the very foundations of human civilization.
When I was a kid, it was commonplace to hear boys say silly things like, “Women have never invented anything!” It’s still pretty common, in fact, if a cursory glance at various internet forums is any indication. Even adults who really, really ought to know better can fall into the trap: as recently as 2007, a remarkably ill-informed psychologist gave a talk at the APA convention asserting that men have invented virtually everything in the entire history of human existence (technology, art, science, religion, medicine, trade, etc.), while women’s contribution has consisted of…giving birth.
So let’s set the record straight. Modern anthropologists and prehistorians believe that it was women who invented most of the foundational technologies of human civilization. The evidence for this comes from multiple lines of inquiry: archaeology (what do bones and artifacts tell us?), history (what was the situation when the first records were made?), ethnography (how have people in various farming and foraging cultures organized their lives?), mythology (what do stories and legends say about who invented what?), and even primatology (what can we learn from our primate cousins about how archaic hominids may have behaved?). The striking thing is that all of the evidence from all these directions points to the same conclusion: that it was women who were at the cutting edge of the earliest human technologies. It was women who invented agriculture, women who domesticated plants, women who invented the hoe and irrigation and the first plow. Women are also widely credited with the invention of the fiber arts (spinning, weaving, basketry), pottery, and the vast number of technologies associated with food preparation and cooking. And that’s not all: strong arguments have been made placing women at the forefront of medicine (plant-based!), art, construction techniques, the development of the wheel, and even—in deep, deep prehistory—the taming of fire.
So while we’re thinking about women’s history this month, let’s bear in mind that the story didn’t just start a couple of centuries ago. Women were, in every sense, the mothers of civilization. Their ingenuity made our world possible.
- The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page
- Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, by Autumn Stanley
- Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
- Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige, by Sarah Milledge Nelson