Women Led The Move To Farming

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Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

In Chapter 6 of The Dawn Of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the gradual move of Neolithic people to farming, and explore its relation to egalitarianism. The usual story is that our ancestors were roughly egalitarian from the beginning to the Neolithic era 10 to 12,000 years ago. Then we discovered farming, took it up wholesale in what is called the Agricultural Revolution, and almost immediately men took over and excluded women from significant participation in governance. The story has a ring of the Garden of Eden story, in which the sudden possession of knowledge is the end of a golden age.

This story is wrong in almost every detail. Obviously it’s wrong because we have practically no information about social organization among people before the Neolithic. The authors think it’s likely that there were many different forms of social organization, including those which operated differently in different seasons and for specific purposes.

Another issue lies in the definition of farming. We have a single word for this, but all the evidence is that there are gradations of cultivation of plants and animals for human purposes. Foragers certainly observed the plants that kept them alive. It’s easy to imagine that they protected plants that produced fruits and vegetables they liked, and took steps to help them grow. They may have cleared out space for them, pruned them back, and maybe even carried water to them in dry periods. Simple observation and a bit of work would improve the yield and made their lives easier.

In the early Neolithic, beginning perhaps 10-12000 years ago a more organized way of farming developed in the Fertile Crescent. Here’s a useful map identifying some of the sites mentioned by the authors. The authors divide this area into the lowlands towards the South and the uplands and high steppes towards the North and East.

By GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Lowlands

The Lowlands include a lot of marshy muddy areas near rivers and lakes and artesian springs. Lowlands People used mud and clay for building. This created a use for straw, which comes from the stalks of various wild grasses, including wheat, barley and rye. These grew wild in the Uplands. The Lowlands peoples traded shells and other goods from the South for the wild grasses. This gave them both straw and a new source of food, from the seeds.

Lowlands people foraged and hunted, and kept domesticated sheep and goats. They were adept at flood retreat farming. In the spring the rivers, lakes and marshes overflow, and lay down layers of fertile and wet alluvial soil. People just threw seeds on the new soils and crops would grow quickly with minimal labor. There’s no need to till, weed, or water.

Flood retreat farming doesn’t rely on ownership of property, because the fertile areas change from year to year. It also doesn’t require a lot of centralized organization, merely some rules for sharing the crops. Then, over time, people gradually figured out how to domesticate the grasses to produce more of the edible seeds.

The authors point out the gendered assumptions behind the standard story: the idea that it was men who led the move to farming, because farming is hard work, too hard for the ladies. There are other weird reasons based on Genesis and endemic patriarchy.

Consciously or not, it is the contributions of women that get written out of such accounts. Harvesting wild plants and turning them into food, medicine and complex structures like baskets or clothing is almost everywhere a female activity, and may be gendered female even when practised by men. This is not quite an anthropological universal, but it’s about as close to one as you are ever likely to get. P. 237.

In the Lowlands, women were deeply involved with flood retreat farming and other aspects of economic life, and these contributions were recognized in the artifiacts discovered in recent escavation. One example is Çatalhöyük, a town on the above map. It was founded around 7400 BCE and was occupied for about 1500 years, with a population of about 5000. There are no monumental structures or other buildings typical of hierarchical societies. There are a whole lot of small clay figurines of women. These used to be interpreted as goddesses, but that was mostly because of weird projections of Victorian scientists. The authors think they honor the role of women, including old women, in the society.

The authors think that Lowlands men hunted wild beasts particularly in the colder months, and the women ran the forager/planting economy which ran most of the year. This is similar to other societies in which seasonal changes brought social change. The visual arts support the idea that women played a central, if separate, role in economic matters as well as leadership. The authors call it as ‘gynarchy’, or ‘gynaecocracy’. P. 218.

The Uplands

The people of the Uplands, mostly in what is now Central and Southeastern Turkey, relied on foraging and some management of wild crops, and the same domesticated animals as the Lowlands people. But the overall culture was very different. They used stone, not mud and clay, and built monumental structures with violent images carved in relief. Here is a description of the imagery at Göbekli Tepe, which is on the map.

Carved on these stone pillars is an imagery dominated by wild and venomous animals; scavengers and predators, almost exclusively sexed male. On a limestone pillar a lion rears up in high relief, teeth gnashing, claws outstretched, penis and scrotum on show. Elsewhere lurks a malevolent boar, its male sex also displayed. The most often repeated images depict raptors taking human heads. One remarkable sculpture, resembling a totem pole, comprises superimposed pairings of victims and predators: disembodied skulls and sharp-eyed birds of prey. Elsewhere, flesh-eating birds and other carnivores are shown grasping, tossing about or otherwise playing with their catch of human crania …. P. 242.

There is a lengthy discussion of the treatment of human skulls, a practice followed in the Lowlands as well, but very differently. This site shows some of the materials excavated in this region, including the characteristic T-shaped carved megaliths. Wikipedia has several interesting pics here.

There is no reason to think Uplands women did any less work, including foraging, farming, textile-weaving and basketry, than Lowlands women. But the visual culture ignores them almost completely, and the authors seem to think Uplands women were excluded from governance entirely.


The people of these two regions, Uplands and Lowlands, were trading partners, so they knew about each other’s cultures. They had roughly the same kinds of foraging, cultivation, and herding techniques. But their visual culture shows vast difference. The Uplands were as the authors put it “predatory male” and the Lowlands were roughly egalitarian, treating women’s concerns equivalent to men’s. The authors think these cultural differences are the result of schismatogenesis, discussed in the previous post.

The differences between Uplands and Lowlands cultures show that the rise of farming didn’t lead to creation of gender differences, or hierarchical structures. This is another way the the traditional story is wrong.

Marija Gimbutas

This brings us to the work of Marija Gimbutas, an expert on the pre-history of Eastern Europe starting in the 1960s.

Gimbutas was largely concerned with trying to understand the broad contours of a cultural tradition she referred to as ‘Old Europe’, a world of settled Neolithic villages centring on the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean (but also extending further north), in which, as Gimbutas saw it, men and women were equally valued, and differences of wealth and status were sharply circumscribed. Old Europe, by her estimation, endured from roughly 7000 BC to 3500 BC – which is, again, quite a respectable period of time. She believed these societies to be essentially peaceful, and argued that they shared a common pantheon under the tutelage of a supreme goddess, whose cult is attested in many hundreds of female figurines – some depicted with masks – found in Neolithic settlements, from the Middle East to the Balkans. P. 216, fn omitted.

Old Europe was destroyed by cattle-herding invaders from the East. By the 1990s Gimbutas’ ideas had fallen into disrepute because they were adopted by Wiccans, pagans and other disfavored groups. The criticism came from men, not from women anthropologists or feminist scholars. Recent studies in population genetic supports Gimbutas’ theory. The treatment of Gimbutas parallels the erasure of the work done by Neolithic farming women.

A Slight Change of Subject

I’ll be taking up a side reading for this series, an essay by Michel Foucault, The Subject and Power, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Summer, 1982), pp. 777-795. It’s 20 pages long, not too difficult, but it will help flesh out some of Graeber and Wengrow’s ideas about group decision-making by our ancestors. There’s a discussion of the key ideas in a series of short podcasts by Greg Sadler on Apple Podcasts .

34 replies
  1. Dr. Pablito says:

    Missing “:” in the link to the Tepe Telegrams.
    I’m also reading “Dawn” and find it really engaging.

  2. Belyn says:

    OT: Ed I read somewhere on this site that you are reading John Dewey. So am I. Are you interests general or specific or otherwise?

  3. Badger Robert says:

    I always thought the rise of specialized stone artisans around 18,000 y.a, as shown by the beautiful blades left behind in Europe and North America had something to do with it. Exterminating most of large mammals, especially mastodons and mammoths had to make farming much more productive.
    It wouldn’t be too weird to think that once the hunters had killed off the mammals, with their traps, snares, deadfalls and poisons, the men turned their attention to killing each other.
    That’s when the three specialists of early societies arise, the commanders, the time keepers and the tool and weapons makers.

    • Yorkville Kangaroo says:

      And some, such as the indigenous Australians, don’t believe the land can be owned by anyone at all.

    • Ed Walker says:

      As the book shows, most of the stories and many of the dates taught for decades are proving to be wrong, and most of the ideas about early societies are wrong or misleading. As new techniques are continuing to emerge, so we can expect a lot more change to what we thought.

  4. notjonathon says:

    I think that war had a major place in redefining/suppressing the place of women in society. The Cheyenne were a semi-nomadic people living on the north shores of the Great Lakes and who hunted, foraged/farmed until tribes pushed out of the east by European encroachment drove them onto the plains. In less than two generations, they were transformed into a heavily male-dominated warrior society dependent on buffalo hunting.

    • Lika2know says:

      Among plains Indians who adopted Teepees, the women owned the Teepee and could refuse entrance to a man, such as fir not delivering enough meat. Did anyone ever tell you that? Or that the choices of seasonal camps was made by women on the basis of access to favored gathering areas?

      Please keep learning; it can be hard to break old thought patterns. Reading “The Dawn of Everything” is a really great place to start.

  5. notjonathon says:

    Not to make exact comparison, I’ve lived many years in Japan. Japan’s prehistory and history have complexities that would require a lot more explanation, but for millennia (perhaps as many as 10), the neolithic culture hunted and fished for protein, but the mainstay of their diet was the chestnut, which they farmed. Their villages would be surrounded by the chestnut orchards they tended. This required a lot of cooperation among villagers and between men and women.
    The wet rice farming people who conquered them were dominated by a warrior culture. Similarities at the village level (as paddy culture also needed cooperative effort to work) allowed the new culture to take hold, but rice was far more conducive to being treated as a commodity than chestnut flour.
    Thus, rice farming permitted domination by overlords and subsequent replacement of matriarchal/egalitarian systems.
    This is a simplification, I know, for another factor in the introduction of paddy culture was the fact that this type of farming produces a lot more calories per unit of land, increasing population density, leading to the rise of urban culture.
    There’s a lot more left untreated here, such as the ties between the invading people and their relatives still living on the Korean peninsula, and their ties to Chinese culture (where cities and specialized artisanship, artistry and pedantry already had a long history).

    • Ed Walker says:

      From your description it doesn’t seem that there is a connection between wet-rice farming and chestnut tree farming in terms of social structure. It sounds like the warrior culture could have been grafted onto the rice-farming, or the more egalitarian culture could have been grafted onto it. That seems like what we see in the Uplands/Lowlands cultures.

  6. Traveller says:

    Interestingly, I was just describing to my brother who lives back East how my later education seems to be non-book but entirely through the internet and related comments. This post by Mr Walker is an excellent example of what I am doing…so I think I’ll share the link.

    Of course, the downside to being wedded to this form of transmission of information…is that one could follow the dark path to Trump.ism where there is no truth at all except for what is being said in this exact moment.

    Regardless, Thanks, Traveller

  7. Peacerme says:

    If you have not read Ishmael, I highly recommend. Obviously power and control did not occur overnight, but harvesting and hunting food creates wealth. By stock piling farmed foods land owner ship becomes power over the food source. Allows for stockpiling, wealth and control of the food source. And perhaps began the first threat to hunters.

    I could see that as the beginning to patriarchy. Fear of not enough food. The more you grow and stock up or harvest, the more need for power. Hunting is day to day. Total different paradigm. Not power over but cooperation with. It’s hard for me to see agriculture outside of a fear reaction to food scarcity that required the need to stay in one place with the stock pile and the land, hence requiring a need to control. Who controls the harvest when suddenly it’s more food than can be eaten in a short time. It requires ownership in a way that hunter gatherers do not.

    Looking forward to the read. The mechanism for power and control paradigm is fascinating to me.

    • Greg Hunter says:

      Ishmael was the book that helped me “crack” some of the interpretations fed to me about the Bible, especially the stories I was told.

      For example Cain was denied the strength of the earth which biblical interpreters intuited as being poor at agriculture, yet Cain was the founder of great cities. No great cities are founded if one is poor at farming, so Ishmael got me to look at the Genesis stories as misinterpreted oral traditions that had far better explanations if observation was applied. I even wonder if the ole serpent beguiling Eve was describing the encounter of Neanderthals with their eventual conqueror.

      I also wondered about the Israelite famines which were a result of grain storage. Seemingly grain storage was not a problem for other cultures as it appears storing grain as alcohol kept the 4 legged rats out but probably not the 2 legged kind. I wonder how much alcohol played in Alexander the Great’s conquest of the known world. He seemed to make the move when food production in each conquered areas was sufficient to support the invaders as well as the captured populace?

      I am still trying to wrestle with how society evolved from gatherer/hunter one to sedentary nesting one is lost to history. One theory came to me when I was doing some work at the Grand Canyon village waste water treatment plant. The sand filter looked like a tomato plant factory as the “volunteers” sprang from the human passed seeds. So I began wondering if some of the observant gatherers noted differences in plant growth patterns as they traversed over the same paths through the years. These gatherers probably ate seeded fruits and has these gatherers probably stayed in the same areas at the same time of year began to notice that their fertilized night soil areas were filled with robust plant growth and abundant fruits. Who made the leap to transform this observation into a farming method is seemingly unknowable but it did happen. I know this transformation was probably reasoned out somewhere in some paper, but this is just my own thought sequence about the dawn of agriculture.

      Due to studying lead in gasoline and its impacts on society, I am still wondering if evidence will be found that violence associated humans will be traced to mining and metal manufacturing with the more war like cultures arising from those that plied this trade early? To put more simply is smelting tied to violence due to metal toxicity exposure and what role did that play in societal warfare?

      Thanks for the mental break from the politics even though this paradigm was brought to me by agriculture.

    • Marshall says:

      Storing food, even in quantity to feed one household for one year, is extremely non-trivial technology. Let alone feeding a community for, say, seven lean years. Maybe it wasn’t that Joseph had the idea, but that he knew/figured out how to do it.

  8. John Paul Jones says:

    Not sure when, where, or who, but years ago I recall reading an anthropologist who argued we should call the earliest societies not hunter-gatherers, but gatherer-hunters, given that the gatherers, the woman, provided something like 80% of the food needs for such bands – including proteins. Again, not sure of the provenance of this (I want to say Marvin Harris, who always had a lot to say about proteins and their impact on social structures, except I’m pretty sure it’s not him), but one of the things it speaks to is the male anthropologists assuming that whatever the males in a given culture were up to was the most important thing for the group. I’m reading the series with interest, even when I don’t totally agree with all the ideas.

    • BrokenPromises says:

      Perhaps you read it here. It’s been many years since I read it and I don’t recall that specific of 80% but McElvaine certainly presented the premise of matriarchy or egalitarianism prior to what he describes as women discovering ‘farming’. He went on to posit that men felt threatened by recognition that their hunting skills were not necessary to survival and transitioned to dominance… In any case perhaps your reference was found in Eve’s Seed:

      Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History is a 2001 book by noted American historian and writer Robert S. McElvaine that introduced the new field of “biohistory” and presents a major reinterpretation of the human experience.

  9. Christopher Rocco says:

    I wonder if a parallel exists between the practice of flood retreat farming in the Lowlands, which fostered a more egalitarian distribution of power, and Bronze Age Egypt, which practiced the same kind of agriculture along the Nile. True, Egypt developed a very hierarchical, indeed hieratic, society, but Bronze Age wills show that women could divorce, own and transfer property. attest to legal documents, etc. Their power probably diminished over the centuries (millenia?), but could these legal and social examples of limited equality be artifacts or residues of the more egalitarian structure of pre-dynastic Egypt rooted in this practice of flood retreat farming. I am not an expert on ancient Egypt, but the possible connection seemed intriguing. One big difference between the two, however, is the unpredictability of the flooding in Mesopotamia and the almost clockwork predictability of the rise and retreat of the Nile. I also believe that difference is reflected in the respective portrayals of snakes in each culture: the river god represented by the serpent in Mesopotamia is capricious, unpredictable and a spoiler/trickster (see Genesis, Gilgamesh epic), while Egyptian snakes are helpful rescuers (see “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”), though both can talk. Again, not sure if there is a connection here, but it’s certainly thought provoking. Thanks for the stimulating post!

    • John Paul Jones says:

      Egypt also had very sharp eco-boundaries, which made it harder for peasants to simply pick up and move on to a less oppressed place. I first read about this in Jonathan Haas, many years ago, but the argument would be that the early states typically arose in regions where some sort of ecological boundary could be “used” to keep subject populations nailed in place. So the same type of agriculture, in differently bounded ecological zones, can have widely different political consequences.

  10. Kmlisle says:

    This source rang a bell when I read Ed’s post. Here’s a native American gardening book I read many years ago as a market gardener on the Minnesota western plains. Agriculture and economics from the perspective of a Native American woman who lived in the early 1900s. Women were the farmers of the plains Indians and held considerable power over housing. They did much hard work to earn that control. But as a gardener, I know that hard work has many rewards.

  11. Ed Walker says:

    As I said above, the authors believe that much of what we think about our ancient history is flawed. Our new techniques and recent studies show that our history is much more complicated and interesting. The example of Marija Gimbutas reminds us that many of the overarching stories we tell about our history are just wrong. There is no reason to think history progresses in some linear fashion towards some goal. Evolution doesn’t work like that, and neither does the changing form of human society.

    We should probably assume that many of the stories we grew up with were intended to reinforce the then existing social structure, regardless of when the story was told. There is no reason to accept them in the face of new evidence, and it would be wrong to try to make the new data support the old stories or any new ones we might prefer.

    • Lika2know says:

      Ed, I’m so glad you are sharing info/insights from The Dawn of Everything. A major “ah-ha” for me was to learn that cultures could reject farming (as evidence from some of the Northern California tribes seems to show) in favor of other modes such as fishing+acorns+foraging.

      In my mind, that awareness is critical, perhaps even necessary, to leaving behind the “stages” approach.

      Similarly, the idea that farming produced more calories than other approaches should be challenged. If you can live quite well doing gathering-hunting/fishing while doing it only 4 hours a day, it is questionable to suggest that agriculture was necessarily higher in caloric value.

      BTW, one thing the authors of “Dawn” don’t do is address some relatively recent insights into things like how the presence of grandmothers significantly increased the chances of babies surviving. Thinking about this, you must realize that regardless of how much or what kinds of agriculture were happening, that foraging/gathering remained critical to the health of families, particularly the very young.

  12. atriana smith says:

    Why do they automatically think that visuals of male animals equated to a patriarchal society?! That’s absolutely ridiculous.

    Perhaps they understood wild animal husbandry so well that those were pics were there to teach which animals to kill, leaving the females alone to repopulate.

    Are we even sure ancient men knew of their own contribution to the gene pool?

    • Ed Walker says:

      Take a look at the pictures in the links above. This isn’t animal husbandry. And yes, people understood the role of men in reproduction. Remember, they were domesticating animals.

  13. pseudo42 says:

    > Recent studies in population genetic supports Gimbutas’ theory. The treatment of Gimbutas parallels
    > the erasure of the work done by Neolithic farming women.

    Thank you for posting that. I am not sure that Gimbutas expressed a specific view on the origin of agriculture itself. The evidence for women inventing it is not exactly strong. I think it rests on anthropological and ethnographic studies of primitive agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies that survived into the modern era; and on traditions such as Athena’s invention of the plow and the yoke.

    > The story has a ring of the Garden of Eden story, in which the sudden possession of knowledge is the end of a golden
    > age…This story is wrong in almost every detail.

    I think we ought to be especially careful about imagining any pre-modern golden age at all. There were child sacrifices, too. One of your earlier postings remarked about slave ownership in the PNW that existed up to the modern age. (I read elsewhere that an elite PNW class monopolized ownership.)

    > There are a whole lot of small clay figurines of women. These used to be interpreted as goddesses,
    > but that was mostly because of weird projections of Victorian scientists. The authors think they
    > honor the role of women, including old women, in the society.

    Gimbutas believed the figurines were the product of neolithic religion and she based her opinion on archaeological evidence. While IMO there is room for doubt, the weird projections of some contemporary archaeologists include the view that the figurines might have been prehistoric Barbie dolls (D. Bailey). Fine with me to open up the field of possibility, but the religion hypothesis is alive and well. The figurines were buried with the dead. Evidence of neolithic ritual in general, as opposed to an abundance of toys, includes for example megalithic monuments and remains of sacrifices.

    Quoting the book authors,
    > Gimbutas…believed these societies to be essentially peaceful, and argued that they shared a common
    > pantheon under the tutelage of a supreme goddess, whose cult is attested in many hundreds of female
    > figurines – some depicted with masks – found in Neolithic settlements, from the Middle East to the Balkans.

    As archaeologists and geneticists have rehabilitated Gimbutas’ reputation regarding the population dynamics of those regions, I would not be surprised if academic consensus eventually concludes that the figurines indeed represented goddesses, and that is is no “weird projection”.

    Regarding the fact that many figures are obviously depicted as wearing masks, Gimbutas proposed that essentially theatrical rituals re-enacted creation and other myths, that the stone versions commemorate these performances, and that the masked faces and figurines had their own roles in household and community rituals.

    My personal take: It’s imaginable that neolithic people had diverse attitudes, some seeing the ritual and the artifacts as sublime, others as part of a Bacchanal, still others perhaps even as art for art’s sake.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Generally the authors downplay the role of religion as opposed to ritual. This may help explain their idea that the figurines were intended to honor the role of women in economic life. The authors think there was too much emphasis on religious significance among 19th and early 20th CE anthropologists.

      I don’t know enough to have an opinion, and haven’t read Gimbutas’ work. But generally I think the origins of organized religion are more recent than this perios. Maybe we can see it first in some of the high Egyptian cultures?

  14. Olav Kvern says:

    Great piece, Ed! This is the part of “The Dawn of Everything” that draws most heavily on Scott’s “Against the Grain”–I’m hoping you’ve had a chance to pick that up.

    Regarding religion–it’s always useful to keep the phrase “infrastructure determines superstructure” in mind. Real things come before made-up things. One should always look at the material circumstances of a population group to understand its culture. It isn’t just beamed into their heads from outer space.:-)



  15. Tom-1812 says:

    I’ve been thinking about the differing native American and European concepts of freedom and property ever since we discussed Kandiaronk and Baron Lahontan back in February of this year. It seems to me that one concept of freedom that Europeans possessed but native Americans lacked was the idea of personal privacy, of periods of time to have to oneself and a separate place to enjoy that time. Likely this was the consequence of the Indians’ communal manner of living.

    Jesuits in New France in the 17th century found that one of the most onerous aspects of their missionary work among the First Nations was the lack of privacy and the expectation on the part of the natives that any Europeans among them would live their lives on the public stage in the same manner as their aboriginal hosts. Any attempt by a Jesuit to build a hut or shelter as a refuge in which to perform their private devotions or simply rest and reflect was viewed with hostility by the Indians, who suspected the priest was trying to cast spells and raise evil spirits in secret.

    When Lahontan returned to Europe after serving in New France for ten years, he was able to complete his writings and see to the publication of his books. He eventually settled in Hanover and became friends with Leibniz, though the Dictionary of Canadian Biography states, “Little is known of Lahontan’s last years.” Even the year of his death was long uncertain and usually thought to be 1715 based on a comment by Leibniz, though recent research seems to have determined April 21, 1716 as the date of Lahontan’s passing. In any case, by accident or design the Frenchman had the luxury of ending his days in obscurity.

    Kandiaronk, on the other hand, lived his whole life on the public stage. He never had the option of retiring to private life in any way because there doesn’t seem to have been such a thing in aboriginal society—no country estate, no hermit’s cave, no cabin on Walden Pond. Kandiaronk died in harness while on a diplomatic mission to the French and so, unlike Lahontan, we know exactly when and where he passed way: it was in the hospital at Montreal on August 2, 1701 at two o’clock in the morning. The next day he was given a funeral service combining French and First Nations religious ceremonies and interred in the local Catholic Church.

  16. Marshall says:

    If I could choose to be an aculturated member of any society anywhen, the Neolithic of Greece would be my choice.

  17. skua says:

    The current crop of religions on the globe are mostly misunderstood if Christianity , that yoga of belief, is used as the template for “religion”.
    It is group practice, not beliefs, that define most religions.
    And practice and repeated ritual seem indistinguishable.

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