John Phipps: The First Planter

What do you get when you cross the intellect of an engineer, the heart of a farmer and the charm of a TV commentator? The ever-witty John Phipps. ( Lindsey Benne )

In this issue we highlight amazing advances in seed improvement — and why you should buy them immediately. But it is also a good time to reflect on how the idea of putting parts of plants into the dirt and waiting for them to make more of themselves came about.

Almost certainly the first planter was a girl. We know this because women were in charge of gathering while the men were supposedly out “hunting” when field work was possible.

We can surmise she was young, at least by our standards, because nobody got to be old. Lifespans trickled out in people’s 30s, not just lifestyles. Besides, older women were too busy surviving childbirth to dabble in high science.

One common mistake is to assume early humans were unintelligent.

However, they were smart enough to cooperate for the good of the community. They also had prodigious memories and could pass information on accurately to their younger generations. Raise your hand if you still see that happening today.

So, take your mind back to around 10,000 BCE at any number of locations, because we now know farming was “invented” independently in several places, much like grain bin extensions late last century. I picture a girl scratching in the dirt, with an older relative, perhaps a grandmother offering unwanted advice — a pattern that persists today.

Girl Remembers An Event

Girl: Hey, remember when we were here last year? I tripped over this big root and spilled a bunch of those little bumps we strip off the top of those grasses to eat.

Woman: So?

G: There’s a whole bunch of that grass growing where they dropped.

W: Your point being?

G: I think there is a causal connection between the bumps and the new grass.

W: Eh, probably a spurious correlation.

G: I’m doing a random control test to prove the hypothesis that bumps can produce more bumps via grass plants.

W: I like it. If this works, we’ll need the men to help gather the bumps at the right time. How will you manage that?

G: I’ll invent a beverage they’ll love made from rotten bumps.

W: We may regret that.

A Legacy Endures

Of course, it would take a couple of millennia to perfect a soup that passed for beer, so women advanced farming single-handedly for some time, learning to choose better food plants with test plots, yield maps and appeals to various deities, much like today.
That stunning leap of logic by The Mother of Agriculture to recognize the potential of seeds is clearly visible in her enduring legacy. Where there are grain farms and men, there is beer.