Forget Berries, Ancient Women Moved Civilization Forward
Examining the Status and Influence Women Held in Ancient Cultures
It can be difficult for most of us to imagine a world without modern conveniences like internet and light-bulbs, let alone more lofty ideas such as organized religion or activities like art. A world without these things seems primitive. In a way, I suppose it makes sense then that people often view civilizations before Greece, Rome, India and ancient Egypt as primitive, not to mention more masculine and brutish.
More often than not, when parsing through the pages of older history books (both real and metaphorical), images of men are shown in leadership positions as the ones who made great discoveries that moved society forward. In regards to ancient cultures, the ones before Rome, Greece, India and Egypt, most people have been taught that the men went out hunting while the women stayed behind to pick berries and care for kids. Sure, there are occasional stories of women rulers, from Hatshepsut’s reign in ancient Egypt, Enheduanna as the first known author with attributed works or Wu Zetian’s rise to power in ancient China, but most scholars who’ve written history, and many who participated in archaeological digs have assumed that men were the rulers and warriors throughout history.
However, thanks to modern advancements in technology, as well as deeper understandings of the art and iconography from certain ancient cultures, archaeologists, anthropologists and other scholars are learning more about the out-sized role women played in these ancient times. As it turns out, women may well be responsible for pushing society forward during a transitional period of time from a hunter-gatherer to agrarian lifestyle.
In her book Mysteries of the Dark Moon, author Demetra George points out
“Scholars of prehistory (or her/story) are now beginning to credit women with the discovery of agriculture and invention of cooking. It was women who planted the seed; tended, harvested, husked and ground the grain; and baked it into bread… and it was women who learned to spin the fibers from flax and cotton, incorporating hair and wool from their farm animals, weaving threads into cloth.”
While this premise may seem contradictory from the main idea I’m trying to make that women did more than just “gather berries” or “work the land,” it’s also important not to undercut their potential contribution to the development of societies most basic activities, like cooking or making clothes.
But there’s more to it than that, at least for me. I think we modern people can learn from some of the earliest people who, in addition to potentially inventing cooking, began practicing art as well as religion and/or ceremony. I say this because of the research that shows several ancient civilizations were seemingly unencumbered by gender.
Personally, I find myself fascinated by these ancient cultures because it appears as though they gave women positions of power, or at the very least held women in high regard in their art and worship. I believe these ancient civilizations hold a certain key to understanding some of our basic religious and spiritual understandings of the world, before the dogma of politics, class systems and in many cases, the patriarchy becoming widely utilized to control major swaths of people.
But before we examine some of the ancient carvings and other expressions that clearly celebrate femininity and the feminine form, it’s important to know something about these ancient cultures. The cultures I am speaking of span centuries, from The Ice Age to the Bronze Age, but they all have one thing in common; women had a hand (sometimes literally) in shaping how these cultures functioned.
The reason I think we need to look back to these ancient peoples is due to a study by Dean Snow that essentially upends years of assumptions about women and their roles during this time. Snow’s study of hand prints and stencils from eight caves in France and Spain, made approximately 12,000–40,000 years ago, concluded that roughly “…three-quarters of hand-prints in ancient cave art were left by women… that women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings.”
While this study is groundbreaking in and of itself, the implications are especially massive given what cave art potentially represents and who it was made by. Granted, a shorter article from Smithsonian Magazine warns that the mystery behind ancient cave art is “far from definitively solved,” explaining that other researchers are skeptical of Snow’s discovery. However, a growing number are becoming convinced by it.
Archaeologists have different theories as to why ancient people created cave art in the first place. Most theorize cave art was used for some sort of ceremonial/religious purpose, while others say maybe ancient people were just trying to share how they viewed their world. Regardless of meaning, there is still the implication that cave art was a major part of these ancient people’s lives, and not just any regular person was allowed to do it. Instead, many researchers theorize that the shaman played a crucial role in creating (or at least organizing) these cave paintings, potentially for some type of ritual.
For those unaware, a shaman, according to Oxford Languages, is ”a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some peoples of northern Asia and North America. Typically such people enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing.” Shamen often held an important role in ancient life, perhaps even acting as a second in command to the leader who guided the tribe. These shamen were usually the only person who could do what they do for their tribes, meaning sometimes even the leader or leaders of the tribe potentially had to go to them for advice.
Some archaeologists and scientists (along with a few podcast hosts) have also theorized that shamen were responsible for utilizing psychedelic entheogens during rituals, either by ingesting it themselves and/or giving it to others in their tribe as well. In a sense, women may in fact be responsible for discovering psychedelic plants and creating rituals, maybe even religion itself. Again, it cannot be stressed enough how much of an out-sized role the shaman or shamen played in guiding or even motivating their tribes while also attempting to explain, what at the time, would have been a plethora of life’s mysteries, from childbirth to death in addition to seasons and stars.
Knowing this then makes it easier to fathom how the oldest shamanic burial site discovered (so far) contains the body of a woman. Granted, as an article in history.com explains that the burial site “[contains] the remains of at least 28 individuals.” But the article also notes that this one women’s grave stood out because of “…the array of animal bones surrounding the woman’s body, and the elaborate nature of her burial, [convincing] the researchers that she was likely a shaman or other important figure in the community… in addition to being extremely short and elderly (she was around 45 years old when she died, an advanced age for the time period),the woman also apparently suffered from a number of diseases, all of which would have made her stand out in her community for her unusual appearance.”
Regardless of the ancient woman’s position, there is no denying this grave was for someone in a position of power/leadership from the Late Natufian period (10,800 B.C.-9,500 B.C.). And because this is the oldest shamanic burial site discovered (so far), the fact that it is a woman illustrates the prominent role women potentially played in the development of early civilizations, or at the very least the Natufians. What makes this culture interesting is that the Natufians may have been one of the first ancient cultures to become sedentary hunter-gatherers, meaning while they still traveled to hunt and gather food, they were among the first groups of people to create permanent settlements to bring back said food. Several small stone sculptures or figurines have also been found throughout different sites of what used to be Natufian culture, including one that many researchers consider to be the oldest depiction of a couple having sex.
It’s important to note that Natufian’s were not the first society to create small stone sculptures and figurines of the feminine form and/or erogenous zones. Many figurines have been made before them, but only now are scholars beginning to reexamine what these ancient stone sculptures mean.
While the cave paintings in Spain and France, in addition to the burial practices of Natufian culture, potentially point to women playing major roles in those ancient societies, there is another culture that may be considered among one of the first organized societies to celebrate the feminine form through iconography.
For the former residents of Çatalhöyük, one of the first cities ever created (from 7100–5700 BCE), the feminine form appears to have played a major role in their culture and religion. And while it should be noted that within certain rooms of the pueblo-esque city there are painted images of erect men and hunting scenes, as well as male figurines found in limited areas of the city, female figurines appear to be much more prevalent throughout the entirety of the city’s existence. One female figurine in particular, the seated goddess flanked by two lionesses has created much speculation as to whether or not one of the earliest cultures known in history practiced some sort of mother-goddess worship. Some have gone so far as to ponder whether this civilization was under matriarchal rule.
However, it should also be noted that not everyone agrees with this mother-goddess theory. In fact, one of the main archaeologists excavating Çatalhöyük, Professor Ian Hodder, explained his findings in an article for the Hurriyet Daily News, saying “Thanks to modern scientific techniques, we have seen that women and men were eating very similar foods, lived similar lives and worked in similar works. The same social stature was given to both men and women. We have learned that men and women were equally approached. People lived with the principle of equality in Çatalhöyük, especially considering the hierarchy that appeared in other settlements in the Middle East. This makes Çatalhöyük different. There was no leader, government or administrative building; men and women were equal.”
Aside from the people of Çatalhöyük, there were two later cultures that also dedicated large efforts to creating many female figurines. These two cultures are known as the the temple-building people of Malta and the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture of southeastern Europe. Please be aware, it’s important to note that the history of both cultures are long, spanning centuries, though in a similar time period. The Cucuteni–Trypillia culture spanned from roughly 5500–2750 BCE, while the temple building culture of Malta existed from around 5200–2500 BCE.
The southeastern European Cucuteni–Trypillia culture created many depictions of the feminine form, from female figurines to paintings on pottery and even a few earrings designed into goddess like shapes. While much has been speculated about whether these designs represent some sort of goddess worship, it’s important to note that researchers aren’t so sure this was a unified cultural effort. Nonetheless, the feminine form is extremely prevalent throughout this culture, implying there was at least some reverence, or intrigue, when it came to the feminine form by this southeastern European culture. It’s also important to note that it appears as though Cucuteni–Trypillia culture were also egalitarian, without a social hierarchy, just as the people of Çatalhöyük.
As mentioned earlier, the temple building culture of Malta lasted over many years, but for the purposes of this story I am specifically looking at one of the earliest parts of Maltese history, or maybe it should be changed to “her-story.”
You see, between approximately 3600–2500 BCE, the ancient people of Malta went through 3 distinct periods of megalithic temple building, with one temple in particular considered to be one of the oldest freestanding buildings in the world (older than the pyramids of Egypt), not to mention the world’s second oldest man-made religious structure still in existence. But what’s more interesting about this culture is the amount of figurines and statues built depicting the feminine form. From the small female figurines found in pots of grain and “sleeping lady” figurines found in graves, as well as some truly large, buxom statues in several temples, the female form is abundant throughout this culture. While it’s important to note that not much is known about the role or status of women in the culture itself, the fact that a majority of the figurines found depict women, not to mention several statues of females are scattered throughout the area during this time period, shows a certain exaltation was potentially given to a mother-like deity.
Just to recap, some of the earliest known organized civilizations that were transitioning from purely hunter-gather cultures to more sedentary cultures held a certain reverence for the female form, as evidenced by the figurines they made. Some of these ancient cultures reveal the elevated status of women in their grave sites. On top of this, if Snow’s theory about most cave art made by women is correct, then that potentially means women may have had a massive role in creating the very concept of art, in addition to some of the first religious ceremonies of any kind.
Author Demetra George surmises how potentially progressive these Neolithic civilizations might have been, explaining that
“In all of the archaeological finds of the Neolithic era, there exists no evidence of war, violence or cruelty in any of the ancient cities. There are no images of warriors, no scenes of battle, no lethal weapons such as spears or swords, and no depictions of captives or slaves. There is an absence of military fortifications. We can therefore surmise that these peoples, who for 35,000 years revered the cyclically renewing goddess, were peaceful and egalitarian.”
However, one ancient culture stands in contrast to the other aforementioned civilizations. The ancient Minoans, an island culture created in modern day Crete and other Aegean islands appear to have amassed a great deal of power and wealth during a similar time frame to the Malta temple-builders. While much of their culture remains a mystery, several crowning achievements of this culture remain: the five palaces built throughout this civilization’s tenure on the planet, and the art that adorned the walls of the palaces. What’s important to know about the palaces is that four of them are not nearly as large or grand as the main palace of Knossos, but still relatively huge compared to the living arrangements of average citizens at the time.
What sets the Minoan civilization apart from the other early civilizations mentioned thus far is the fact that evidence may actually point to this civilization being under some sort of matriarchal rule. While there are familiar clues left at this site just as there were from the previous cultures mentioned, like the many female figurines (several in this area found holding snakes) and the artistic depictions of women, it is the nuanced details of the art that University of Kansas Professor John Younger says are evidence of a potential matriarchy. In a 2017 article on KU News Service, Younger explains that
“In this culture, at this time, we have an awful lot of representations of what are obviously powerful women, single seated women flanked by a bunch of guys. We don’t have a single representation of a seated man.”
The representations of the ‘obviously powerful women’ are scattered throughout the island, notably in frescoes on the palace walls. Researchers have noticed the disproportionate amount of feminine depictions, not to mention many seem to show women in positions of power as well as servitude, while other frescoes artistically make women much larger than men.
What also sets the Minoan culture apart from the previously mentioned civilizations is that there very much appears to be some sort of social hierarchy present in this culture, as evidenced by the fact that, according to the book Women of Antiquity by Stephanie Lynn Budin, described reconstructed fragments of early Minoan writing “…spouses and children are not all listed together, in one section, fathers were listed with their sons, while mothers were listed with their daughter in a completely different section apart from the men who lived in the same household. This signifies the vast gender divide that was present within all aspects of society.” In addition to this gender divide in families, according to more research by Prof. Younger, there also appears to be several “menstruation pits” in the middle of several palaces and larger meeting halls. While this is nothing new found in other ancient cultures, the Minoan civilization is different due to how most other ancient cultures built such pits away from their villages or segregating menstruating women in special houses, as opposed to being found in the middle of a palace. Keep in mind that the Minoan Civilization existed just before the rise of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures that have come to dominate much of ancient history’s oeuvre today. In fact some have speculated that the Greek poet Homer was writing about the Minoan Civilization when sharing tales of King Minos in The Odyssey.
While the Minoan Civilization might be the most prominent potential example of female leadership, it is still far from the last.
A case could be made that women celebrated an elevated status during parts of the Harappan (also known as the Indus Valley) civilization, as evidenced from certain statues or figurines, one being what some researchers have dubbed “a dancing woman” while another notably depicts a woman riding two bulls. The Harappan civilization was also prominent during a similar time frame as the Minoans and Maltese temple-building culture. But it should be noted that there are disputes about the hierarchy of women in this civilization due to lack of evidence, lack of major temples or even any sort of documented hierarchy. Also, statues were made depicting dancing men, as well as one statue dubbed “Priest-King.”
While there are still some questions surrounding the status of women in Harappan civilization, new evidence has emerged that women may have enjoyed an elevated status in another, more well known ancient area in Spain.
Around the same time period as the previous three civilizations, a recent discovery in Southeastern Spain in La Almoloya area are creating new ideas about the role of women in an ancient civilization that existed roughly between 2200–1500 BCE. According to a newly discovered grave site, it appears as though that women of the Argar ancient civilization may have held a higher status than originally thought. According to an article in National Geographic, the burial of several females of this society, one dubbed the “Princess of La Almoloya” by researchers, shows that “Argarian grave goods show women were considered adults at much younger age than boys — girls as young as six were buried with knives and tools, but boys only in their teens. The graves of some El Argar women were re-opened generations later to inter other men and women, an unusual practice that likely conferred a great honor. And research published by [archaeologist Roberto Risch of the Autonomous University of Barcelona] and his colleagues in 2020 showed that elite women in Argarian graves ate more meat than other women, which suggested they had real political power.”
The article also mentions how although the burial sites of several women were buried with great wealth, which included many pieces of silver fashioned into bracelets, rings, and hair bands as well as several gold earlobe plugs, “men were were never buried with such riches.” But the grave site of the “Princess of La Almoloya,” according to the National Geographic article, suggests that “…the woman had a political role. Many of the dead in El Argar communities were buried beneath the floors of buildings, and her grave was found beneath a room set with benches for up to 50 people, nicknamed the “parliament” by the researchers. The room itself was part of an elaborate building that may be the earliest-known palace in continental western European, Risch says — a place where rulers both lived and carried out their duties.”
Notice I haven’t even had to time mention the fact how it’s recently been discovered that women held higher statues in viking culture than originally thought, not to mention the vicious viking warrioress Freydis Eriksdottir (sister of Erik the Red) and her exploits. Sure, Viking mythology has long mentioned women as being female warriors, but this most recent discovery confirms the myths. I also don’t have time to go into detail about the ancient Nabateans of Petra, a civilization that existed around the time of Christ, whose scrolls and documents show women had agency. In addition, for centuries the Nabateans worshiped three powerful female deities, which suggests the women of this ancient culture had far more rights than surrounding areas like Rome or Europe at the time.
These ancient cultures continue to fascinate me not only because of the prominent role women played in them, but also because many of these cultures were somewhat of a precursor to more prominent, patriarchal civilizations and religions that came after. What is also interesting about a majority of these cultures is that they came about during a time when hunter-gatherers were transitioning into more agrarian societies. This was a major transition, and the fact that these ancient cultures spent a great deal of time creating monuments, figurines and other jewelry depicting women in greater numbers than their masculine counterparts, I believe shows how women played a major role during this time period.
New research continues to surface about these cultures, some of which causes more debate than definitive answers. But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that most of these ancient cultures appear to have venerated the female form through iconography, Many may have even allowed women to hold higher statuses than originally thought, due to a certain amount of potential sexism in much of the research on ancient cultures. Either way, it seems clear that many of today’s modern cultures would not potentially exist were it not for women influencing, or inspiring many of these ancient civilizations forward during a transitional time period, which essentially set the basis for how a society forms cities, as well as the creation of ritual and/or art, not to mention the creation or refinement of farming techniques and culinary preparation. And if those ideas aren’t major contributions women have made for the betterment and evolution of humanity as a whole, then I don’t know what is.
The Brycical is not a sociologist or even an archaeologist, nor does he hold a degree in ancient history. But Brycical, like others, isn’t immune to noticing certain patterns about how certain people perceive the world. So Brycical writes about it, hoping more will notice these patterns, get inspired and perhaps feel inclined to speak up as well. Feel free to read more of the patterns Brycical notices on here or check out his website to learn more about him.