WHAT DID THE ANCIENT BRONZE AGE CULTURES KNOW OF FATHERHOOD
Some readers of The Making of Bhishma think the following assertion incredible: that the ancient cultures of the world did not understand the connection between sexual intercourse and fatherhood; did not understand how a baby developed during pregnancy; did not know how the child inherited the genetic traits of its father; did not know which male was the father of a child, and so on. All known pre-Iron Age cultures three thousand or more years ago, were equally ignorant, including South Asia’s Sarasvati-Sindhu Culture (also called the Indus Valley Civilization).
The evidence for my claim can be found in scriptures and other ancient documents that pre-date the Iron Age. These documents contain “mythical” stories as well as rules of behavior that indicate a lack of knowledge aout “Fatherhood”. An example of such a story is Jacob tricking his father-in-law in the Torah. An example of such a rule is Manu’s rule, “Any child born in the ‘field’ owned by a man is his.”
People find it incredible and their belief can be condensed into the following thesis: We have “always known” five propositions, namely:
- A single act of intercourse, about nine months earlier, makes the woman pregnant
- That a child has exactly one father and cannot have zero or multiple fathers
- One and only one of the sole father’s sperm cells fertilized a single egg/ovum of the mother
- That the child inherits characteristics from the mother through the egg
- The child inherits characteristics of the sole father from the single sperm cell.
Multiple births are a bit more complex and raise other possibilities than single births – we still do not know all the different possibilities that can occur. Therefore, these observations are limited to single births.
My assertion is that these five propositions were NOT known, and were discovered well after the end of the Bronze Age.
To many people it is incomprehensible that five propositions listed above are not innate knowledge, known to humans “naturally”, i.e., without any kind of experimental or other verification, or for that matter, without being told. People want to believe, apparently, that we are all born with this knowledge and that fathers know who their children are by some non-conscious and non-deliberate chemical or alchemical process.
Note that there is no equivalent lack of knowledge about the mother – everybody who witnessed it does know, innately, who the mother is. They know from repeated experience what the mother’s role is, how the mother performs it, and what price the mother pays.
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with my books, The Last Kaurava (and The Making of Bhishma). There are a few places where the plot relies on incorrect, possibly naïve, beliefs about conception, birth, and inheritance of traits. They are: (SPOILER ALERT)
- Satyavati refuses to accept Yudhishthira as the son of Pandu. She believes that all her descendants would inherit the “pout” that she inherited from her parents. Her brother Shukla has it, and her son Krishna Dvaipaayana does too. Chitrangada and Vicitravirya, her children by Shantanu, have it. Based on this belief, she is convinced that Yudhishthira, the oldest Pandava, is not her descendant. Bhima is the second Pandava and the same age as their cousin Suyodhana – Suyodhana has the pout and Bhima doesn’t. Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva have the pout, but they would not be considered ahead of their older brothers.
- When Vicitravirya, Satyavati’s son, dies without children, Satyavati knows that a man is needed for conception. The Queens, Ambika and Ambalika, have not become pregnant. Satyavati asks her son, Krishna to impregnate her daughters-in-law. That tells us that she knew that the sex act was needed. The queens have been spending time with their husband for many years and had not conceived – either Vicitravirya’s semen had not done the job or both queens were infertile. Her son, being dead, she cannot test his fertility with other women, so she could only attempt with the queens. She asks her son to impregnate the queens so that the children would be her own descendants. He had to do it in secret and immediately, so that no questions would arise when the babies were claimed to be Vicitravirya’s children.
- After the queens get pregnant, Satyavati face the problem that these children were not descendants of Shantanu. She was concerned that it might become obvious after birth. Whether she believed it or not, she wanted to have a story. The naïve thesis that the father could influence the child during pregnancy by being in the company of the mother for long enough was provided by the doctor (notice that we have women doctors in a largely matrilineal culture).
- Satyavati knew that gestation would last nine months and that was generally known. The tale that the babies were Vicitravirya’s would not be sustainable. The babies, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, had to be born before the ninth month. Satyavati decides to force an early birth using a relative of the carrot (native to South Asia) to create an abortifacient. She knew that the children could be born as early as the seventh month but would need special care. She takes a risk and forces termination of the pregnancies late in the eighth month. The babies are kept in a heated room and fed with milk from a wet-nurse. The knowledge of abortifacients and of the care to be given to slightly premature babies would be common knowledge in a matriarchal culture by women doctors.
HOW COULD HUMANS HAVE DISCOVERED THESE FACTS?
Let me speculate on how these facts could have been discovered.
#1: A single act of intercourse, about nine months earlier, makes the woman pregnant
This observation must have been discovered by extensive empirical observations. There are multiple subordinate clauses:
- that sex leads to the start of gestation;
- that gestation for women is nine months; and,
- that every pregnancy is associated to one specific sex act.
The first two could have been discovered without advanced technology, but the discovery of the third clause requires the development of a microscope!
First, the act of sex must be associated to the pregnancy and birth. It can be three or more months before pregnancy is apparent to the external observer. Morning sickness can feel like many other fevers or illnesses and it is only in experienced hindsight that it is associated with the preceding sexual act and the following gestation period. Experienced mothers could recognize the advent of pregnancy from internal feelings as well as by the occurrence of morning sickness. But even experienced mothers may not relate the morning sickness or the internal sensations to the preceding sex act.
Connecting sex to pregnancy becomes much more possible when humans domesticated animals. Even so, it is only with the domestication of the dog (with its short gestation period of sixty days that follows the female dog entering “heat”) that the sex act can be linked to pregnancy. The other domesticated animals like the goat or the cow have much longer gestation periods – it would have been more difficult to make the discovery from their behavior. But, once recognized in the dog, it is easily extended to goats and cows and also to humans. (Incidentally, tying it to the domestication of the dog provides an intriguing way to date the acquisition of this information).
During human sex, the man ejaculates seminal fluid into the woman. It is not possible to know what happens when dogs have sex, but the mechanical similarity suggests that the male dog ejaculates dog seminal fluid into the female dog. Similarly, bull ejaculates into the cow, and the male goat into the female goat. The generalized assumption is that seminal fluid triggers pregnancy.
Female dogs and goats and cows enter into “heat” during which they seek out sexual partners. When not in heat they cannot engage in sex. Unfortunately humans do not have an equivalent period – the human female enters a short period of fertility but is capable of being sexually aroused at almost all times – in fact, it seems that humans can get aroused by deliberate conscious choice rather than hormonal drives.
If an animal enters into heat but does not have intercourse, it will not give birth – that establishes sexual intercourse as necessary for pregnancy.
Sometimes, an animal enters heat and has sexual intercourse but does not conceive. This is a problem as it makes it difficult to separate causality from chance.
There is no general way to associate pregnancy to one specific sexual intercourse – the best guess should be that the pregnancy is caused by the collective acts of intercourse, rather than a specific one. Some animals are capable of only one intercourse, during which the lining of the vagina is damaged and a second act of sex becomes very difficult and painful (the hyena is an example). I don’t believe this applies to any domesticated animal, though the dog is a likely candidate. That says that once is enough, but it does not establish that the rest did not also contribute.
The bottom line is that even if ancient nomadic cultures could have determined that some set of sexual acts at least nine months before the birth of a child were responsible for that birth, they could not have determined that only one of many acts was the cause and the rest could be ignored. Since every sex act results in the delivery of semen, they could not even have restricted the cause to sex acts nine months before birth. Since sex acts can continue even up to the eighth month or later, the seminal fluid from virtually any intercourse could be responsible for the conception.
One restriction – no matter how much sex a woman may have had before the birth of her child, she will need at least one more sexual intercourse to have another child. The act of giving birth seems to clean out any store of seminal fluid that the woman may have accumulated.
In any case, it is not obvious that for humans ONE specific sexual intercourse in the month before morning sickness is the cause of conception. The simplest assumption is that all the sex acts between the birth of one child and the birth of the next contribute to the conception.
Once we know that seminal fluid is necessary for conception, we can consider the question how it works. That brings us to proposition #2.
#2: A child has exactly one father and cannot have zero or multiple fathers.
How could we have discovered this?
We know that children sometimes share features with one or more of the men that a woman has sexual relations with before they were born.
Why do I say “and more”? In the social conditions that prevailed before humans settled into agricultural communities (and many centuries after) the men that a woman might have sex with were probably related. A trait that appeared in one partner may have been absent in another because some other trait was dominant. So even if it appeared that the trait was inherited from the man displaying the trait, it could have come from the man who was not displaying the trait.
Given this, it is very easy to conclude that a child inherited traits from some, possibly more than one, of the mother’s sexual partners.
How does this hypothesis fit with the observation that some sexual partners do not seem to contribute any traits to the child. One possible explanation is that the man (or men) who are most present during the pregnancy would have provided the environment for the development of the child. Is presence would influence the child in the womb.
We are left with the possibility that a child could have multiple fathers.
How did we discover that a child could only have one father?
A partial answer lies in the belief in breeding projects, like the ones that dogs and other animals were subjected to for most of human civilization. A professional breeder might be 95% or 99% convinced that only one male parent contributed to each puppy or to a horse’s foal, but we know from the care they took that they were not 100% certain.
As we continue to propositions #3, #4, and #5, we enter the world of discoveries made AFTER the invention of the microscope. Consider proposition #3.
#3: One and only one of the sole father’s sperm cells fertilized a single egg/ovum of the mother.
The microscope made possible the discovery of the sperm cell, and much later, the ovum. Before that, the existence of an “egg” would have been hypothesized by analogy to birds.
The historical record of the discovery of sperm cells and ova by European scientists is available [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1439-0531.2012.02105.x/pdf]. A flurry of research in the mid-17th century established that the female “testicles” produced “eggs” that implanted themselves in the uterus. Since no seminal fluid was found in the uterus, the assumption was that the fluid created a “seminal environment” that made the implanted eggs fertile. This was necessary because the wombs of virgins also showed signs of eggs implanted in the uterus, but no signs that these eggs became fetuses.
In the last quarter of the 17th century, Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope, enabled the discovery of sperm cells.
The sperm cell became the holder of a homunculus of the father, carrying all the father’s traits to the child. The dominant hypothesis about the woman’s influence on the child would have stayed the same – the mother influenced the child during pregnancy through the egg and through the environment provided by the womb.
That changes when the ovum was discovered.
The last two assertions, #4 and #5, have been an article of faith through most of the 20th century, but is acquiring nuances as we understand cellular reproduction and fetal development. We now know that the uterine environment can vary quite a bit depending on the health of the mother during pregnancy – this may seem obvious, but it isn’t so simple. We also know that the grandmother’s health (!) when she was pregnant with the mother can affect fetal development. We know that the father’s health during the period prior to conception, in particular the testicular environment seventy or more (!) days earlier may influence the development of the sperm cells delivered to the mother.
With this new understanding, the knowledge embodied in #4 and #5, of which we were once so certain, turns out to have untested gray areas that need to be improved. The task of understanding childbirth and inheritance/development of traits is STILL unfinished.
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