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Life Before the Machines
The human career divides in two: everything before the Neolithic Revolution and everything after it.
—Ronald Wright, 20041
To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
We don’t know much about how our ancient ancestors lived and loved. Perhaps their romantic lives were as tumultuous as ours, filled with unrequited yearnings and torrid affairs. Perhaps they loved their offspring with the same ardor, cooing over their newborns and mourning a child’s untimely death. We just can’t say.
What we can at least surmise, however, is that it was tools that laid the foundation for what we now call civilization. For hundreds of thousands of years, stretching from roughly 500,000 B.C. until around 8000 B.C., our prehistoric ancestors lived in small, nomadic tribes, clustered around the world’s most fertile regions.2 Their family lives were porous, their children were raised by bands of female relatives, and marriage as we know it did not exist. Food—seeds, stems, nuts and fruit, shellfish and small mammals—was foraged for and occasionally killed, and home was wherever the band settled for the evening. Perhaps life on this distant savanna was, as some anthropologists have argued, a slow-moving idyll: free love; free food; no pollution, guns, or traffic jams. Or maybe it was just nasty, brutish, and short. Again, we just don’t know.
In either case, though, we know that life began to change—gradually at first, and then with an earth-shifting momentum—roughly ten thousand years ago, when bands of settlers around the Nile River and in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates launched what would much later be known as the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution—one of humankind’s first and most far-reaching technological revolutions. Through accident or accumulated wisdom, small groups of what were once nomadic people learned to cultivate the land, rather than just living off its natural bounty. They learned to farm and to harvest, and to build the villages that could protect both themselves and their crops. In the process, as Marx pointed out, they also developed both an early form of private property and the need to protect it.
In particular, those who developed land and the tools to farm it wanted to keep that land and make it theirs. They no longer wanted to share the fruits of their labor with an entire band of comrades, but only with those closest to them: those who helped in the fields, and who would remain tied and committed to the land after their own deaths. In other words, they wanted to give their hard-won rewards to their children—which meant that they needed to know just who those children were. And thus, without much romance, the institutions of marriage were very likely formed. Men with tools and property married virginal women and demanded their fidelity for life. The children born of these unions were then presumed to be the tool wielder’s rightful heirs—the descendants who would work his land and inherit his property.
What we think of, then, as love—or at least mating and till-death-do-us-part marriage—is actually the probable by-product of technological change. For millennia, men and women lived mostly in groups, spending and sharing their lives with fellow travelers rather than a single mate. Then along came the plow, and everything changed.
Love Among the Cavemen
One way of obtaining this labor, as many historians have ruefully noted, was by capturing other people and forcing them to work. This is why the earliest powers of the Neolithic Age relied heavily on slaves. They taxed the farmers within their borders and captured surrounding peoples to build walls, dig canals, and shoulder some of the physical drudgery that increasingly large-scale agriculture demanded.24 The other way of generating labor, though, was through birth. Specifically, by prizing and prioritizing reproduction, early agricultural societies could generate the labor pool upon which they now depended; they could create what was arguably their most important resource.25 But doing so meant shifting women’s roles, prodding them away from the shared work of production that had been their fate until this point and into the more cloistered and confined work of reproduction. And thus women’s worth during the Neolithic Revolution—and for millennia to follow—became deeply and inextricably intertwined with their ability to breed. As James C. Scott concludes in his history of the earliest agricultural states: “A combination of property in land, the patriarchal family, the division of labor within the domus [residence], and the state’s overriding interest in maximizing its population has the effect of domesticating women’s reproduction.”26
What made this differentiation even starker was the inevitable coupling of sex, property, and progeny. Because once children had real value as both labor and heirs, and once men had invested time and energy in cultivating what was now their own land, it became critical for them to know which children were theirs. And long before genetic testing, the only way to ensure paternity was to control fertility, binding an individual woman to “her” man, and preventing her from having sex with any other.
Copyright © 2020 by Debora L. Spar
Copyright © 1980 Bruce Springsteen (Global Music Rights)
Copyright © 1992 Bruce Springsteen (Global Music Rights)