Why did the collapse of old Europe bring a shift from female to male power?

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The exhibition "The Lost World of Old Europe," in New York, has raised some very interesting questions about prehistoric societies and how they changed. David Anthony, guest curator of the exhibition and a leading anthropologist specializing in prehistoric Europe, Eurasia, and North America, raised a particularly powerful issue - why did the collapse of a highly sophisticated, matriarchal culture in what is now Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova, lead to a shift of power to men?



Women, after all, are naturally capable of running households, and should surely be running countries too. Think of our powerful, natural capabilities. We women tend to make the social arrangements, shop for food, raise children, keep the home in order, and generally deal with the practicalities of day-to-day life. We’re also good at taking organization and decision-making a step up; arranging events, getting active in the local community, and networking. But when it comes to wielding political power, which is arguably simply another step or two up from managing the annual bake sale or housing co-operative, we fall down, spectacularly. Catalyst Inc., a not-for-profit organization that tracks such things recently reported that only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In the United States, arguably the country most pressured to act with a feminist bent, women make up a dismal 17% of Congress and the Senate. The maddening question is: why?



Some clues might come from the recent finds in Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova that show a sophisticated society flourished there between 5,000BC and 3,500BC, most likely with women in charge. These matriarchal Old Europe communities, which grew into some of the biggest cities then in existence (some had 2,000 buildings), show signs of hierarchy, but had no large municipal buildings such as palaces or places of worship.



Archaeological digs there have found thousands upon thousands of clay female figures, apparently a sign that the female was worshipped, pretty much exclusively. Furthermore, experts such as David Anthony, Professor of Anthropology at Hartwick College, argue that women potters, in making vessels for domestic use, discovered copper, and brought the Copper Age into being.



So, it seems, women were at the top in one of the oldest civilizations in the world. What happened?



The Old Europe communities show signs of dramatic, sudden collapse, in the Southern regions around 4,300BC and in the North around 3,500BC. There is evidence of intrusion from the East by a nomadic culture from the Steppes of Eurasia. It’s not entirely clear whether this was a violent invasion or a more subtle VHS-is-better-than-Betamax cultural shift, but it does seem to coincide, notably, with the invention of the wheel-and-axle combination that made it feasible to build load-bearing vehicles such as carts, and the domestication of horses to pull them. Basically what that meant, according to Anthony, is that you no longer needed a whole village of people to bring in the harvest, hand-carrying every armful to the grain store. You could do it with a cart, a horse, and family labour.



This, it seems, tempted people into spreading out from their cramped, dirty, conurbations and gave them the freedom to look with a pioneer’s longing at the huge expanses of grassland to the East. “The wheel meant you could kiss your village goodbye,” said Anthony, at a lecture delivered at New York University’s Institute for Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York, in December 2009.



What is certain is that the hugely concentrated urban settlements were abandoned, over a relatively short period of time, and the people went wandering off into the vastness of Eurasia to begin a whole new period of human history. And, now, men were the masters. Was there something about the huddling together of homes that gave women the upper hand? Were women the ones who brokered a sufficient peace between neighbours that made gathering the harvest, pre-axle, possible? Is there a correspondingly male advantage to grabbing your horse and your family and making it on your own, remote from others? If women were still in charge, would we have no castles or cathedrals, just row upon row of houses? I like to think that the men simply felt it was time someone else got a shot at running things, and used the changes in lifestyle to grab power. Let’s face it, true power is almost never given: it is taken. Who knows what happened out there on the steppes.



“That’s what I love about Old Europe,” says Jennifer Chi, curator of the "Lost World of Old Europe" exhibition at ISAW. As long as you stay respectful of the undisputed facts turned up by archaeological artefacts, “you can interpret it any way you want.”

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