Old times, new life

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.

Cave painting

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.

Venus von Willendorf

The woman of Wil­len­dorf (Pic­ture from Wiki Com­mons User:MatthiasKabel, deriv­a­tive work: Jbar­ta; back­ground pub­lic domain)

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.

Foto cred­its woman of Wil­len­dorf: By Venus_von_Willendorf_01.jpg: User:MatthiasKabel deriv­a­tive work: Jbar­ta (talk) — Venus_von_Willendorf_01.jpg, CC BY 2.5, Link