Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gender Roles In Pre-History as Reflected in Food

Recently, I started to read History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. It's an anthropological look at the development of food from pre-history to the modern day, and how each aspect of our food production was added and then adapted into our society. For those of you who are interested in culinary anthropology, this book is definitely for you. I will be writing a full review once I finish the book.

The section I just finished covered hunting and gathering, and it focused on the gender roles of each. It seems that men had what modern society may consider the "exciting" jobs, and the women had a more safe and sheltered (comparatively) life. Was this because of some gender discrimination? Were women being oppressed?

The explanation was surprising, but not really unexpected if you are familiar with anthropology in general. If you haven't, let me break down how I understood it:

Women in Pre-History
Women in pre-history were not treated as objects or weaklings, but rather practically worshipped. This is because of their creative power, the ability to deliver children. As such, they were highly prized and protected from the dangerous elements of life in general. Men would guard them zealously, walking before them at all times. Why? Because if an animal were to attack, it would attack the first person that it can identify.

But women were not placed on the proverbial pedestal either. They worked, and worked hard. Women gathered the safer forms of food (i.e., vegetation and grains), providing the majority of the caloric and nutritional intake for the family. Because of the natural progression of things, women also began to sow these seeds close by, and began gardens. Gardens became farms, which then lead to a need for organization and societies. So, in a way, women were responsible for civilizing the world.

Men in Pre-History
So what did the men do? Well, because they didn't birth and suckle the children while they were young, they needed to be protectors. They began with hunting as a form of high-fat food stuffs, and gathered honey (with the exception of South America, where women would gather honey from sting-less bees). Because of the danger of both these endeavors, men were the natural choice. Their survival didn't effect the survival of their children at near the level of the survival of the mother.

Because hunting required organization at a surface level (no personal connections are really needed), men had a surface and superficial nature. They made and broke relationships freely, made alliances when it suited them, and dismissed them just as freely. This placed them in the perfect location for politics once woman had created the society.

An interesting side note is that religion was often credited for forcing men to hold more depth to their relationships and values, where they naturally would avoid. The concepts of honesty, honor, dedication, etc. are all value systems that women had naturally with their need for social child rearing, and men didn't have because it wasn't flexible enough to work well on the hunt.

Modern Days
The modern day has complicated the basic "pre-history" statement I have made, because the roles for men and women have changed substantially since pre-history. Societies have experimented with various systems of rights for both men and women, moral and religious systems, etc., and it seems that we are determined to keep the experiment going. But I find it fascinating that women were behind the agrarian revolution that allowed for societies and eventually civilization (greek version: i.e. city dwellers).

It's always intriguing to see the history of anything, because you get a more rich understanding of the current development of a society. One thing that my Anthropology professor would always say is that you can't ignore your past. Once something has developed, it can be changed or altered, but never removed completely.

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