The main goal of sex is to make babies, right? That’s what we see everywhere in nature. Seen in that way, I have now used sex properly for the first time in my life. Still, when we look at the history of mankind, it turns out that it is not that simple.
In the age before the agricultural revolution (until about 10,000 years ago) people lived together in groups. As hunter-gatherers they led a precarious existence, and the best way to survive was as a community. This meant that everything was shared, including sexual contacts. Children were brought up in the group.
The function of sex in these groups was primarily to strengthen the social ties between the members of the community. We shared this behavior with the bonobo and the chimpanzee, who also have a lot of sex relative to the number of births. This is an interesting TED talk about that. The knowledge that we lived in this way can give us a new perspective on sexuality and also makes it clear that sex is not limited to intercourse between a man and a woman.
To the early hunter-gatherers in their groups, it was probably not at all obvious that men had a role to play in reproduction. Today there are still traditional societies with a culture that doesn’t make the link between sex and pregnancy. There is a good chance that people only learned about this when they started to breed animals.
Because of this, the miracle of new life long remained an exclusively female mystery. In an interesting article by Katharina Rebay-Salisbury on this subject, she mentions a 25,000-year-old statue of a woman excavated in Willendorf (Austria). I can sympathize with this woman myself — see the picture above — now that I am slowly but surely being blown up to the proportions of a fertility goddess.
We can only speculate about the exact function of this figurine. That is also what Amanda Foreman says in the BBC documentary The Ascent of Woman, when she talks about a similar figurine found in Çatalhöyük, a prehistoric settlement in Turkey:
Although we’ll never know what she meant to the people of Çatalhöyük, what she does reveal is that in a precarious, pre-agricultural world, where survival was closely tied to the vagaries of nature, a woman’s ability to produce new life took on a special, perhaps even sacred symbolism.
What stands out for me is that there was so much respect for women in these early times. It may have been based on their ability to get pregnant, but I think it was also broader. Women as healers and counselors were just as respected as men.
This changed radically with the development of agriculture, which made humans less vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. The egalitarian hunter-gather communities gave way to a society in which men came to control property and power, and thereby also controlled the sexuality of women (for the production of heirs, for example). Throughout history and to this day, women have often been no more than property.
The art that was left to us by the earliest human inhabitants of Europe, is an exuberant celebration of the strength and independence of women. Something that we can use more of in these times of #MeToo.