Is That Really How Our Ancestors Lived?

By | December 19, 2010

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, W. W. Norton, New York, 1994.

One key player in our transition from the Paleolithic (hunter-gatherer) age to the Neolithic (sedentary farming) age is hardly mentioned by writers and researchers. Shortly after we settled down to became horticulturalists, we discovered that our newly domesticated animals could be harnessed to increase production many fold. Men, formerly hunters and herders, were now needed to handle the draft animals. This put women, formerly the gardeners, out of work.

Or so it seemed to most writers and researchers. Agriculture—men’s work—is commonly singled out as the root cause of our planetary crisis. So what were women doing that made them busier than ever while the men toiled with their teams? In Women’s Work, Barber shows the prominent and unique role women played in what has long been mislabeled “the agricultural revolution.” Barber is the first author I’ve come across to give a fully developed picture of the most profound and far-reaching upheaval in the history of our species. Her depiction is based not on cultural bias, speculation, or romantic notions, as with so many other writers, but on solid archaeological and linguistic research. I believe you’ll find Barber’s portrayal of our Paleolithic ancestors’ life to be far more entertaining than any fictional conjecture.

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