Issue 4: totes, tools, and other relics

Future history, lost history, and some other stories with a historical twist.

I laughed out loud to myself the other day. It was after the second time in the space of a few weeks that I’d backed a crowdfunding campaign and selected a tote bag as my reward.

(Shout out to Hymag, the world’s largest collection of magazines, and the East End Women’s Museum, which is building England's only museum dedicated to histories of women and girls.)

I laughed because days before I had finished a massive decluttering exercise, which included discarding several items from an unnecessarily large collection of tote bags.

And then I laughed some more, because it reminded me of a November 2020 episode of the ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ podcast. In this episode, the hosts – Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman – talked about Ann’s pandemic “closet cull” and their own habit of accumulating tote bags.

Ann explained how she had “stuff(ed) the totes I want to get rid of with other stuff I want to get rid of” and that “one of the totes in my giveaway zone of stuffed totes is stuffed with totes”.

The following (abridged) exchange followed:

Aminatou: I'm someone who lives in a one-bedroom apartment who has some very, very, very organised drawers... But one of my very organised drawers is just filled with tote bags... Even if every single day I wore a new tote bag, I would never get through this pile of tote bags. Why am I collecting tote bags?

Ann: When our society is excavated (anthropologists will be asking) "What is this evidence that we seem to be finding everywhere? Why did everyone have so many of these? They must've been really important".

Aminatou: Right, they're going to find your mummy with a tote bag and be like “this was a really important artifact for people of that era”.

And then that got me thinking a bit more seriously about artifacts left behind by women – or the lack of them.

I recalled a chapter from the book, ‘Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story’, by Angela Saini.

The chapter is called ‘Women’s Work’, and part of it is dedicated to the underestimated role of women in hunter-gatherer societies.

While it’s widely acknowledged that men were traditionally the hunters of large animals, what’s less well known is that women were responsible for gathering every other kind of food – from plants to small animals and fish. What’s more, often that gathering was the more reliable source of food, and in turn, the more important source of calories.

In a 1979 study, anthropologist Richard Lee discovered that among the !Kung hunter-gatherers of the northern Kalahari Desert in Botswana, women’s gathering accounted for as much as two-thirds of food in the group’s diet.

Other studies found:

  • Aché men in eastern Paraguay brought home about 60%

  • Hadza men in northern Tanzania brought home a large animal about one in every 30 hunting days

As well as providing the majority of food for their families, women were also often responsible for cooking, setting up shelter, and helping with hunts. And they did all this even when pregnant and raising children.

A seven-months pregnant !Kung woman carries her three-year-old child on her shoulder. The food she has gathered that day is in a bag on her back, and she's holding a digging stick in her right hand. Image by Richard Lee.

Another misconception about hunter-gatherer gender roles – according to anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman – is that males were always the main inventors and tool-users in our past.

You see, it was gatherers who needed something to hold and transport the food they were collecting, as well as slings to carry their babies while they gathered. Zihlman says these artifacts are likely to have been among the first human inventions, and would have been used by women.

Zihlman believes one of the earliest tools used by hunter-gatherers would have been a ‘digging stick’. To this day, female gatherers use digging sticks to prise plants from the earth and to kill small animals.

But – for scientists, at least – the problem with digging sticks, slings, and food bags is that they’re made from wood, and skin or fibre, and break down over time. They don’t leave a trace in the fossil record; unlike the hard-wearing stone tools we associate with hunting.

This, Zihlman says, is one of the reasons why women’s roles, inventions – and consequently, women themselves – have been so neglected by evolutionary research.

Stories I've enjoyed recently (history edition)

  • Jeweller Melanie Bilenker is reviving the arcane Victorian tradition of hair art. She creates miniature artworks and accessories featuring everyday scenes, using her own hair.

  • In 1927, the Spiegelhalter brothers refused to bow to the grand architectural plans of Wickhams Department Store, which had ambitions to become the Selfridges of East London. The legacy of the little guys lives on to this day. (Read a fuller account of the story.)

  • Food historian and chef Paul Couchman was gifted a hand-written 18th Century cookbook, full of culinary as well as medicinal recipes (or receipts, as they were known then). Now he’s recreating the dishes in a restored Regency town house by the sea.

  • Artist and 'maker in wood' Eleanor Lakelin has created a vase from the timber of a chestnut tree that would have shaded the jail in Reading, England where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in 1895. The vase, titled 'Oh Beautiful World!', was commissioned by the Reading Museum.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit reply to share your thoughts or feedback.

Til next time,

Amy @ Born Free Press

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