Biologically, fertility is the ability to reproduce and bear children. The term also refers to the fertility of land, animals, and plants. Culturally, the concept of fertility is conceptualized and articulated in various ways. Fertility has been the subject of both anthropological and historical studies.
Anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethnologists have long been interested in the fertility of preindustrial societies. Methodologically, such studies have often been conducted as distinct from demographical and reproductive biology studies.
Anthropologically, studies have produced conflicting results on the relationship between agriculture and fertility. A study by Sellen and Mace used various statistical methods to establish whether there is a relationship between the level of fertility in human populations and the form of economic subsistence within a society. Such a study goes beyond the nature-culture dichotomy, and results point to an increase in fertility in agricultural societies. However, they admit that the mechanisms for this remain unknown.
One problem with studying fertility anthropologically is that of ethnographic time. An anthropologist will need to spend a long time with a given population if he or she wants to obtain a picture of biological fertility, its nature, and implications.
How fertility is conceptualized is tied to the nature/culture debate. If nature and culture are considered dichotomous, fertility will be interpreted in terms of ecological determinism. On the other hand, the postmodern critique of the nature-culture dichotomy has made it clear that such a dichotomy is fallacious. Combined with the recognition that even sex is a cultural construction, fertility cannot be considered simply in terms of nature.
Archaeologists have traditionally placed a strong emphasis on fertility, usually vis-à-vis Neolithic culture. While Paleolithic people possessed many of the cultural capabilities of modern humans, they have been explained mostly through an ecological framework. At most, fertility is applied to “fat” figurines.
However, the Neolithic is often interpreted within a social rather than an ecological framework. One of the assumptions that has characterized Neolithic studies is that people were dependent on agriculture and thus needed a belief system to protect, strengthen, and promulgate fertility.
The concept has been widely applied to the interpretation of various female and seemingly female Neolithic figurines. This, in turn, is tied to a wider set of assumptions encompassing birth, sexual union, nurturing, and the cycle of growth. These attributes are mostly associated with motherhood, which, being one of the universal human realities, has often been conceptualized in terms of growth and nurturing.
While the universality of motherhood is undeniable, it is fairly simplistic to think in circular terms involving women, fertility, agriculture, and procreation. While the Neolithic reached various parts of the world, this phenomenon was by no means homogenous. There is no reason to assume, therefore, that the gradual spread of agriculture led to a universal, homogenized belief system with fertility at its core.
The evidence touted for celebrations of fertility, goddesses, and female-led rituals is open to various interpretations. The Neolithic body of statuary is immensely varied, and, while there are representations of pregnancy and birth, there are also many representations that are not. This does not mean that as a concept, fertility was not important in past societies. The consciousness that women carried unborn children and gave birth was an essential part of humanity’s development. The fertility of animals would have been known to hunters, and when agriculture gained prominence, observation would have yielded information on the fertility of both land and domesticated animals.
- Bentley, G. R., Jasienska, G., & Goldberg, T. (1993). Is the fertility of agriculturalists higher than that of nonagriculturalists? Current Anthropology, 34, 778-785.
- Laqueur, T. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sellen, D. W., & Mace, R. (1997). Fertility and mode of subsistence: A phylogenetic analysis. Current Anthropology, 38, 878-889.