This month we celebrate women in history and while we know many women who have contributed much to gardening and horticulture, this week I choose to honor the unnamed women in our prehistory who gave us food and medicine.
Early women were the backbone of civilization
Most of us know the names of pioneering women who have contributed to garden design, agriculture, medicine and plant breeding. The list is long. However, we all tend to forget about that first women who roasted a root, purposely scattered seeds or brewed a tea to reduce a fever. These fore-mothers were resourceful and creative and their ideas and methods had to be handed down by word of mouth since it all happened in the ages before writing. They were the backbone of what became civilization. We have much to thank them for.
Early peoples added plants to a mostly meat diet
The first person to roast a root on a hot stone or grind ancient wheat or corn-like grains to make a bread-like substance was more than likely a woman. In hunter-gatherer society, the women were more than likely the gatherers while the men hunted. During times when the game was scarce, humans had to get creative to feed their clans and it was logical to turn to plants. They dug roots, gathered berries and nuts and harvested wild grains. The first person to notice that grains sprouted into tiny plants was probably a woman who was preparing the food. The next logical step was to scatter the seeds in a more advantageous area, or scatter them in a bigger group to cut down on work. Agriculture was born. Over the centuries, people were able to settle in fixed areas and more plants were put into use as food and flavoring. Chances are, it was a woman who noticed the aroma of mint or thyme and decided to add some to the roasting meat. Evidence of plants used as food have been discovered at archaeological sites that date back to over 170,000 years ago. Ancient flour-like substances from grains seemed to appear about 30,000 years ago. Domesticated rice appeared in the Korean peninsula about 13,000 years ago and the potato was domesticated in Peru about 10,000 years ago. Our nameless fore-mothers were probably responsible for much of this.
Early herbal medicine
Women were more than likely responsible for the first medicine as well. While the shamans shook their rattles, smoked their smoke and appealed to the appropriate deity, women were trying to soothe fevers with herbs and applying crushed leaves to wounds. Many of their experiments worked and even today, we know that there are many herbs and plants that have great medicinal properties. Willow bark reduced fever and eased pain, however the opium poppy was probably the best pain reducer for people in areas where it grew. Black elderberry, Sambucus nigra, was used to combat respiratory ailments and even today we find elderberry products on the shelves. Chamomile is proved to help insomnia and calm nerves. Yarrow has antiseptic and antifungal properties and was long known as wound wort. Feverfew's (Tanacetum parthenium) common name is a direct description of what the ancient peoples used it for. It was instrumental in reducing fevers. Sage was used to treat colds, coughs and digestive upsets. St. John's wort was a treatment for depression and science has determined that it does, in fact help. Echinacea has long been touted to ward off colds and infections and has antibacterial properties as well. Comfrey (Symphyrum officinallis) probably originated in Asia and came westward along the Silk Road. It was used to treat wounds and internal hemorrhaging. All of these herbs have been in use for millennia and chances are, a woman healer was responsible for a large portion of their uses.
Early women were innovative and creative
We honor women this month, so let's take the time to remember the nameless females who were our first farmers, our first chefs and our first medical professionals. We know the names of many in recent history and they are no less deserving of honors either, this is a different kind of recognition. The woman who was looking for anything to reduce her child's fever, or heal the wound that her mate sustained. Honor the woman who was brave enough to take the first bite of a root she dug on the river bank or grind the grain she collected, because without her experimentation, some of us might not be here. She could have been your many times great grandmother. We have flavorful and plentiful food because of her and many people survived because of her knowledge of herbs. Her skills were passed on through her daughters and later adopted and written down by men like Pliny and Hippocrates. Remember these ancient ladies by planting a few herbs this year. Even though we now have more advanced types of medicine, this healing skill is still good to know and many of these plants do make a more tasty meal. Thank your ancestors for their creativity this Month of the Woman.