As hunter-gatherers moved into non-tropical environments, women had to give up food gathering, this kind of food procurement being untenable during winter. So women shifted to food processing, such as butchery and carcass transport, or to activities unrelated to food, such as shelter building, garment making, leather working, transport of material goods, etc. (Waguespack, 2005).
This was a key advance in cultural evolution. Among tropical hunter-gatherers, everyone is primarily dedicated to food procurement. All other activities are secondary. Among temperate and arctic hunter-gatherers, women no longer procure food during much or most of the year. They can thus dedicate themselves to a broader range of activities beyond those of hunting and gathering.
Paleoanthropologists usually attribute this cultural advance to a chain of events initiated by the advent of agriculture: 1) farmers were able to produce a food surplus that could be stored for future use; 2) this food surplus fell under the control of high-status individuals; 3) these individuals bolstered their power and prestige by giving food to underlings in exchange for various services (waging war, keeping written records, creating works of art, building roads, temples, monuments, aqueducts, etc.); 4) the recipients were thus freed from the daily quest for food and could fully dedicate themselves to other tasks; 5) these tasks were developed to a degree that would have been impossible in an economy devoted primarily to food procurement (Testart, 1982).
Except, except … even before agriculture, some of these tasks were already being developed far beyond the immediate needs of food procurement. We see this especially with the construction of large structures, the so-called megaliths. In eastern Turkey (Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe), large circular ceremonial complexes have been dated to 11,000 BP, when agriculture was at most incipient. In Ireland (Carrowmore), some megaliths have been dated to 7400 BP. This would have been in the Mesolithic and long before agriculture (Megaliths – Wikipedia; Rowley-Conwy, 1995).
The advent of agriculture is often portrayed as the key moment when humans set out on the path to civilization. Could this interpretation be mistaken? Could we be looking at just another consequence of a cause that lies earlier in time? Perhaps both agriculture and civilization originated in a technological revolution that began once women had moved out of food gathering and into a much wider range of tasks. Perhaps women were the ones who acquired the skills that eventually took humans beyond a subsistence level of existence.
Rowley-Conwy, P. (1995). Making first farmers younger: The West European evidence. Current Anthropology, 36, 346-353.
Testart, A. (1982). The significance of food storage among hunter-gatherers: residence patterns, population densities and social inequalities. Current Anthropology, 23, 523-537.
Waguespack, N.M. (2005). The organization of male and female labor in foraging societies: Implications for early Paleoindian archaeology. American Anthropologist, 107, 666-676.