We crawled naked from the caves, staggered in from the hunts, to find someone had planted a seed.
Our hands, stained with charcoal, ocher. Bodies spent, but swirling with beasts we’d beckoned, then painted as they emerged. From another realm. Into ours. I mean, we took them in. From the earth’s innards to our bellies—one creative cache to another. These two sources, the same, our origins. The art was never better. This speaks fathoms to a flourishing that endured an ice age, that lasted for more than 2 million years.
Our hands bloodied and bodies bent beneath the weight of an animal ten times our size, a thing we stalked and killed together because together there was nothing we couldn’t do. Things were fairer. We were fed. This is not some romantic revision of our beginnings; it’s in bones and relics and rock art. The earliest shamans were female. Many of the handprints stenciled into the walls of Europe’s famous painted caves are female. The remains of an early big game hunter just unearthed in the Americas are also female. Or maybe the ancient ones thought of these bodies in a less binary way. Maybe the binary is to blame as much as the seed.
The fossil record reveals that, a half million years ago, the brain size of both our African and Eurasian human ancestors burgeoned. This is the longest and arguably most successful era, the time of hunter-gatherers. A time when there was materially more energy for females and their offspring—not only is more food available but females also have equal part in the acquisition and distribution of nutrients and calories. In such a society, maternal and child health are valued and, in turn, the species thrives—so calorie-demanding brains grow bigger. But the stauncher the patriarchy, the higher the death rates of mothers and children. When men hold all the power, we are dumbed down; we die.
In dozens of samplings of mitochondria and genetic markers, hunter-gatherer societies are matrilocal—women who were related stayed together and were a collective force that balanced the community’s more individualistic, competitive, and violent males. Agrarian societies are often patrilocal, which means related males stuck together and dominated.
When men hold all the power, we are dumbed down; we die.
Which brings us back to the seed.
While we were making art or hunting, the seed sprouted. When we returned, you didn’t bow to the life taken. Nor did you bow to the hunters that took it—even those who took back children from grandmothers and aunties, weary women who fed the children from their breasts before feeding themselves. In fact, you no longer had to value us at all. Instead, you stood grinning wildly with your own sense of fecundity, of power. You marveled at how the land could bend to your will, how water could be diverted to your liking. That mastery of plants, soil, streams—it was dope, and you wanted more. You sought it in certain animals that you could reduce to beasts of burden.
In the sitting, staying, guarding, we grew roots. We no longer moved with weather, with herds. From this fixed place, we took up the center of a world never meant to revolve around us; we sat on our asses and prayed for rain, for fruition. If the crops failed to yield, wars were begun; land, water, food was stolen; other people, enslaved. Said the priests who replaced the shamans, human sacrifice was required.
This new life of claiming and possessing the land and defending resources, it made you more obsessed with progeny, lineage. And in this way, you also took control of women. Which seeds were sprung from your stock? How could you ensure they were yours? Were there enough to help with the workload—the only thing by which days were now measured? Because brains were diminished, brawn would have to do—were those offspring strong enough to protect everything you took, controlled? And were they loyal to the cause—not the earth and its wild tangle of species but to the father, who governed all? Yes, maybe, but sedentary life was hard, so bribery was required. Somehow that delicious orange miracle of a carrot on the stick would not be enough currency, so vast had appetites grown. You’d have to entice your sons with inheritance, something they would come to believe they deserved.
Understand why this privilege of yours doesn’t satisfy. Throughout the world, men are three to four times more likely to kill themselves than women. White men are twice as likely to kill themselves as Black or brown-skinned men. Also more likely to die by suicide are those who live in rural areas—that is, those who live in an agrarian context.
The creative was no longer sacred. It was eclipsed by capital; things had to yield a profit. The art in the caves faded. So did our ability to wander, and with it, our capacity to wonder. Not that things weren’t hard. Not that things didn’t terrify. But we weren’t in constant fight or flight. Understand, that although we can’t all become hunter-gatherers again, your brain is begging you to go back to another way of being in the world and with one another, that its functions are incongruous with these end times.
Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.