The book I remember so fondly is almost as tangible as when I read it over and over and over. It was a small hardcover; well-worn by the time I was allowed to put it on my little bookshelf as my very own book. It had yellowish-tan paper pasted over the very thick cardboard that made the book “hard-cover”. Pasted on the cover was a colored picture of a young girl scattering seeds over an area of dirt. 60 years later I can’t tell you the name of the author or the book. I don’t remember where or how I came to acquire that particular book – only that it was one of my favorites. That book started a budding interest in the history of mankind. I still haven’t stopped learning and enjoying that fascinating subject.
The book was about a small group of people living in the days before there were such things as farms. The writing was simple and easy to understand, just right for someone my age. I was just a kid, probably about 12 years old and barely out of the orphanage. The book described what I now know was a ‘hunting and gathering’ clan or tribe. It detailed the way the men would go off to hunt while the women were in charge of ‘gathering’. The group would make annual migrations to follow the game the men would hunt and along the way women would use ‘digging sticks’ to dig out root vegetables, their bags tied to their waist to hold other grains and food while the children would pick fruit.
Slowly the women began to make sure the men would, in their annual wanderings, return to the same areas year after year. The women had noticed that certain plants not only produced the food they needed to live but that the plants kept growing in the same places every year at specific times. It wasn’t a big step for this group of people to realize that these plants were growing in same place because the food that the plants gave to the people also contained some magic that they could use.
Sometimes the food was, in fact, the entire plant. This little band of nomadic people quickly learned that if they saved some of the actual food and put it back into the ground it would grow into even more food. I was thrilled when I realized that the kind of food the people were eating and trying to grow would have been cereals or other grains. Other times, the people would eat the food that was on the outside of the plant. That would have been other fruits and certain vegetables. Then the part they couldn’t eat could be pushed into ground. When they returned the plants would be grown and ready to eat.
Within a few years the women were beginning to ‘find’ more and more food where they had left the seeds to work their ‘magic’. Of course, by this time the people knew it wasn’t magic as much as it was knowing what to do to produce more food. In due course the nomadic group had a lot more food than they could use in the usual short period of time while the men stayed near the game they wanted to hunt. At first the women would tie the extra food in skins and other types of carrying containers to carry this extra food to their next location as they followed the game. Eventually even that didn’t work and the people took to burying the food until they could return.
The wonderful thing about the book was that it never really spelled things out. It just told the story of how things worked for this nomadic group. I don’t recall a single explanation of how the group had to use trial and error for burying food so it wouldn’t rot or get stolen. I do recall how it became a burden for the people to bury the food. They began to stay in one place and build permanent homes and places to store the food. The men learned how to keep some of the game they had hunted. They learned which animals would stay in groups and how to keep them confined. Then the small group began to grow larger and larger because they had food to spare.
The agricultural revolution had begun.
And I began to look for explainations of humankind before and after that time. I still can't get enough information about our species!
Filed under: Anthropology