In the ancient world of nomads, two of the life’s most important regular activities were hunting and gathering. Males would go for a big kill which will sustain a group for days, while females and children would be foraging for fruits, roots and herbs. For survival, a group will live together as a community. In a group, like all other mammals, the mother of a child is obviously identifiable at birth, but not the father. Thus, pre-historic settlements are assumed to be more matriarchal than patriarchal where women orchestrated a group of humans, played important roles as leaders and governors, while men served their gender-specific roles for hunting and assisted in procreation.

In a society led by women, the importance of fairness to all, became a key strategy for the survival of a big group, and thus harmonious living became the key to the success of the advancement of our species in the ancient days.

Now, a game is not certain for any male member of the group. It’s a matter of luck and skill. It also depends on the number of animals roaming the land they are hunting in.

On the other hand, foraging is a lesser matter of luck, it’s a matter of applying learned concepts if one is familiar to the land. So, being successful as a male hunter was more difficult than being successful as a female gatherer in those days. This led a female to be more successful and to high ranks in the social ladder than her male counterpart.

As humans evolved, they found out that some animals can be domesticated and they can live off their milk and use the meat without requiring a chase of wild animals all year round. To farm animals, they needed to be in a fertile area to feed them. As time went by, such a situation changed their nomadic lifestyle making their continuous movement through vast lands, less and less of a necessity.

While settling in a smaller area, they perhaps started to notice more of the obvious seasonal crops ushered by the nature in the area. The gatherers, then, may have stored the grains like rice, barley, wheat and were able to consume these at a later date. This must have then turned their attention to grow those crops deliberately through farming and thus limiting the requirement of gathering fruits and roots by the females every day.

Farming crops and animals were just the beginning of the human intervention in the nature’s setting about 10,000 years ago. Today, the geography of the world is utterly changed by numerous other activities by us. But, that’s a story for another day.

Agriculture not only changed the nature’s randomness for growing plants, it also turned the table for human societies.

Males led the cultivation of the farming land and the grazing for herds of livestock. They started driving the growth and prosperity of the human kind. With agriculture, the concept of land-ownership came by. A male who toils hard on his own land, started to choose females as their helpers, and mates and the concept of a male-dominated household started to form. I believe, at this stage, polygamy on both mail and female side, got now reduced to only males being polygamous within their own households. The matriarchal communal society with female heads transformed into multiple male-centred patriarchal households, with each head of the house controlling his own land and domestic affairs while contributing to and abiding by the rules of a bigger community within a village. This is essentially the today’s social structure in most modern civilisations.

There are stories in Indian culture about married women wearing vermilion (sindur) in their head and wearing bangles. Some say that primitive men rounded up the women of their choice with force by hitting them on their head, making them bleed at the head and that gave rise to this current custom of wearing vermilion for the married women. Suddenly, with the advent of agriculture, women’s role in the society now got changed. They help in farming instead of foraging, in addition to bearing and rearing of the children of their husbands only.

With ownership of land and children from multiple wives, arose a new problem of inheritance amongst the children of early farmers.Perhaps, after years of conflict and rivalry resulting to death amongst one’s own children, during the middle ages, most societies turned to monogamy to limit such bitter complexities of life. That’s why we now have laws for inheritance.

Until recently, the patriarchal society considered women as domestic helps, bearer of the children and not humans with equal partnership and thus women were denied any inheritance on their father’s property. One’s daughters couldn’t be their heirs, but some male child with a distant relationship to the owner (say, a nephew of some sort, or uncle, etc) had the legal right on their whole life-savings. It took our societies quite a long time to recognise the rights of the female species regarding inheritance.

But, gender equality is still a long way off as our traditional gender roles for males and females go through a metamorphosis where both genders try to discover themselves, fight the gender stereotypes and come to terms with the differences between the norms of the society and the individual ambitions to assign meanings to our lives.

Transforming polygamous societies to monogamous ones was one of the biggest milestones in the journey of the human species. It was a lesson of sacrifice for the greater good. It also avoided unnecessary conflicts, wars, deaths and prioritised the well-being, security and safety of the general society, especially that of one’s descendants by sacrificing one’s primordial satisfaction by having relationships with multiple individuals.

By then, humans have learnt that every thoughtless action of theirs can have dire consequences to others, especially, their children, to say the least. Through centuries, this sentiment has been inculcated in all our societies and millions of people still prioritise the well-being of their children to their own happiness, even today. This sacrifice seems to be necessary for a smooth human experience for a new human life on this planet. A deviation from this pattern brings pain and uncertainty to them. Thus, came the rules of the society, it evolved to protect our children and their future, barring any extra-marital relationships. Obviously, that didn’t stop people from indulging into adulteries, but societies came up with mechanisms of restraints if children came to harm’s way. The laws changed gradually, from the premises of single relationship in one’s life to the concept of divorce, re-marriage, living together without sharing ownership of properties, and finally accepting sex-independent relationships.

As time goes by, we find gender stereotypes are quite revolting, although it provides easy rules to establish and maintain a society. We see that there are plenty of cases where women want a life of their own outside the realms of their household, while state looks after the children in the form of day care. Here, “state” performs the role of ancient matriarchs by looking after all children regardless of who their parents are. It almost feels like a social experiment where we are weighing in how to divide the responsibilities (a) for providing for a family’s well being with outside work, b) doing chores for one’s household, and (c) rearing children. How much of these responsibilities should be borne by a man and a woman within the jurisdiction of a relationship and how much of it can be bought by services provided by the state, need to be dealt with in next few decades. It’s important to make the social responsibilities as a responsibility for the state, and that will not only serve gender equality, but also reduce the wealth-gap between rich and poor. Our education system is an example of this, although there are still a large variation in schooling standards, based on the financial condition of the family. However, we still need to have a default system to provide care for our children. 

With the advent of feminism in the last century, women are increasingly opting for financial independence. That is all good under the roof of their parents’ until they get into a relationship and have children. Suddenly, the life becomes difficult, since with the ethos of tradition, they are also expected to bear the brunt of doing most of the chores in addition to looking after the children. With increasing availability of early education for young children, the workload reduces by a bit, but it’s only for the office hours. At home, it’s still largely women’s responsibility as mothers to orchestrate the well-being of our children, the hopes and the future of our planet.

This is hard work for the working women of modern era. We need increased participation of men in the relationships to help with chores and help raise the kids. Some already are doing much better than our ancestors, but it’s not homogeneously visible at a large scale, and probably just another milestone to wait for, through the passage of time. As someone once said, “necessity is the mother of invention”. This is true even for the societal norms.