Are women the inventors of the calendar?

Are women the inventors of the calendar?

Women have been tracking their ovulation and menstruation for millennia. Indeed, the period tracking may be considered by some younger women as a recent and technological based phenomenon. The truth is, every woman for as long as recorded history can reveal, has been doing this. You may remember a time when you relied on an analogue system to alert you to your cycle commencing long before the introduction of app trackers, phone notifications or AI predictors. A little symbol, like a  star or a heart, on the first day placed discreetly in your diary, a discreet symbol completely hidden in plain sight from onlookers or passing glances. A red circle around a particular date each month, or a note to self, Aunt Flo coming, as if a beloved aunt were arriving from out of time.  For millennia, we managed without technology to prepare for our "guest" each month.

In fact, it may be that the concept of a month or even the calendar post-dates women's menstrual tracking. Language gives us indication of this. The terms menstruation and menses are derived from the Latin mensis ('month'), which in turn is cognate with the Greek mene ('moon') and the roots of the English words month and moon. The Latin word for measurement, mensura, has a clear etymological relationship to menstruation. The word "masa" means both month and menstruation in Indian Sanskrit. Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, had a connection between "mánaðr" (month) and "mennska" (menstruation). In Nigeria, two major languages - Yoruba and Igno, use the same word for month and menstruation; "osù" and "ọnwa" respectively. In Shona, a language spoken in Zimbabwe, the word "gumi" can mean both month and menstruation. 

And so we see, across the world, a consistent understanding that the language reveals that menstruation and period of a month, or our "period" for short, are synonymous. Our language reveals so much of our hidden herstory in plain sight. It is time for us to see it, understand it and reclaim it as our own, and not the rewritten history version that has prevailed the last 5,000 years.

And logically this makes sense. The first calendars are based on the 28 day cycle, which in time shifted slightly to the lunar cycle of 29.5 days. Why else would humanity need to create a month on this length of cycle if it weren't for the women who were keeping track of it?

It is not a new theory that women were the first avid keepers of time and the ones who had arguably the most incentive and requirement to measure the passing of time each month. The fact that the first calendar was based on the moon has been a commonly held belief. Why were people so interested in tracking the 28 day moon cycle? Well, when history is written from a gendered perspective, you can argue that fisherman or farmers or the like needed to track the tides. For any woman anywhere, she has always been tracking her menstrual cycle to know and track her fertility window, ovulation and menstrual week. It is a natural and completely necessary part of having XX chromosomes, whether you live in the year 1400 BC or  2024.

In 1981, social philosopher William Irwin Thompson published a book entitled “The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light”, in which he took up the idea of Paleolithic people recording a lunar cycle in this way, and proposed that women had invented this calendar in order to track their menstrual cycle. In Thompson’s words,  "This association of women and the moon would suggest that women were the first observers of the basic periodicity of nature, the periodicity upon which all later scientific observations were made. Woman was the first to note a correspondence between an internal process she was going through and an external process in nature.", William Irwin Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 1981), p97.

In 1991 in an article by feminist author Dena Taylor, entitled “The Power of Menstruation”, in which she wrote “Lunar markings found on prehistoric bone fragments show how early women marked their cycles and thus began to mark time”.  (Mothering, Winter 1991)

In 1992, Claudia Zaslavsky wrote and published her “Women as the First Mathematicians,” International Study Group On Ethnomathematics 7.1 where she discussed the now famously quoted Ishango bone.

in 1956, a Belgian geologist called Jean de Heinzelin made a fascinating discovery on the shore of a lake in northeastern Zaire (what was Belgian Congo). He had stumbled upon a 10cm-long baboon fibula, later estimated to be around 20,000 years old, come to be known as the Ishango bone. Carved on its surface are three rows of notch groupings, understood to indicate 9, 19, 21, 11; 19, 12, 13, 11; and 7, 5, 5, 10, 8, 4, 6, 3. It was determined that the notches represent a six-month lunar calendar. Ethno-mathematician Claudia Zaslavsky claims the Ishango Bone served as a menstrual tracker. 

“The Ishango notched bone and similar artifacts originated with a woman’s need for a lunar calendar to keep track of her monthly cycles. It is generally conceded that women were the first agriculturalists, and in that capacity they may have needed a lunar calendar,” Zaslavsky wrote

“Who but a woman keeping track of her cycles would need a lunar calendar? Zaslavsky quipped. “When I raised this question with a colleague having similar mathematical interests, he suggested that early agriculturalists might have kept such records. However, he was quick to add that women were probably the first agriculturalists. They discovered cultivation while the men were out hunting, So, whichever way you look at it, women were undoubtedly the first mathematicians!”

In this line of questioning, it is prudent to keep asking ourselves on a daily basis, where is it that I am accepting the version of history that denigrates the role of women, their contributions, their intelligence and sophistication? Where in my life do I accept a version of truth doesn't assume women's ingenuity?

Excavations at various archaeological sites have unearthed items like cloth pads, tampons, or even rudimentary sanitary products crafted from natural materials. These findings suggest that women in ancient cultures were managing their menstrual cycles using available resources, demonstrating a practical awareness of their reproductive biology.

Depictions in ancient art and symbolism offer another avenue for understanding how women might have perceived and tracked their menstrual cycles. For instance, ancient cave paintings, pottery, or sculptures may include representations of female figures engaged in activities or rituals that could be linked to menstrual cycles. The symbolic use of lunar motifs is another common theme, hinting at the perceived connection between the menstrual cycle and the lunar cycle in various cultures.

In some instances, ancient medical texts or writings may contain references to women's reproductive health and the tracking of menstrual cycles. These documents can provide valuable insights into the knowledge and practices related to menstruation in specific ancient cultures.

For example,  Soranus, a Greek physician who practiced in the Roman Empire, wrote "Gynecology," a comprehensive work on women's health. This text covers topics such as menstruation, conception, and contraception, providing insights into ancient medical knowledge and practices.

The Trotula (12th Century) is a collection of medieval Latin texts on women's medicine attributed to a female physician named Trotula. These texts provide insights into medieval European medical practices related to women's health, including discussions on menstruation and fertility.

The Shennong Ben Cao Jing is one of the earliest works on traditional Chinese medicine, it contains information on herbal remedies and their applications, including those related to gynecological issues.

The average menstrual cycle is the same as the lunation cycle 28 days. The Moon is associated with the mother and with feminine energy in general. The Moon is both our inner child and our inner mother. It is responsive, receptive, and reflective. The Moon is our spontaneous and instinctive reactions. The Moon shows how we protect ourselves, as well as make ourselves feel secure, comfortable, and safe.

Some have questions about why a community would need a single ovulation or menstruation tracker and have wondered why only 1 or 2 artefacts have been found, making it easier for scholars to dismiss these as early menstrual trackers.

It is so important to understand how nature works and how much it has been interrupted by our modern world. Today we live in separate houses, sleeping, living and eating separately. We have little community engagement on a daily basis. Ie we are not all hunting and gathering, cooking, eating and bathing together. We are not sitting and relaxing together around a fire at night. We are not singing or creating or carving together. Before this modern world and electricity and separation of families, women lived in close communities and their lives and cycles were synced. They ovulated when the moon was full, and bled when the moon was dark. The pineal gland in our brain sends messages to our ovaries, by hormones, to release an egg based on the amount of light our brain senses in the night when we are asleep. At the point of most light in the night, the full moon, we are programmed to ovulate. Women who live in the country are more likely to be in sync with the moon, as are women living in more primitive cultures, closer to nature's systems. Ovulating at the full moon means we bleed at the dark of the moon, the time when the energy is more inwardly focussed. 

In ancient times, when the women would bleed together at the dark moon, sometimes travelling away from home/their cities to do so, and sometimes gathering in a tent or designated hut to bleed, they would bond, share wisdom and spend women’s time together, it was a time to be internal, quiet and reflective. This may sound like an archaic practice, but it was a cherished reverent time to sit together as women and undertake women’s business together in a safe and sacred place without the interference of men. It was a period of time once per month where the women could gather together, be in closed community and call in their intuition and share together.

Bleeding at the new moon is an ideal time to be synced with the overall lower, quieter energy of the moon. It is a good time to reflect inwardly on the month that has passed and waning. It is a good time to set intentions of what to let go of and identify what needs to be released through the blood. 

Modern life with artificial light and constantly bright nights has disrupted our natural inclination to be in synchrony with the moon. The biological blueprint for our fertility cycle is very different to how it happens now. Imagine the disruption this creates. Not only are we meant to be synchronised with the moon phases, we are also meant to be synchronised with each other. Like we are sometimes.


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