Top 10 First Women Who May Have Started Civilization

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This list’s subject matter is not “first women” in the sense of “first ladies”, but rather females deemed to be the first human women by various scientists and/or adherents of diverse religious faiths. A common aspect of ancient civilizations is the establishment of origin myths tied into religious beliefs of peoples. More recently, however, academics have challenged these theological arguments for mankind’s origins by instead focusing on evolutionary developments in the history of humanity. Yet, even scientists have identified at least three different ancient ancestors of modern man that also have been considered “the first woman” in history, or at least the oldest identifiable one. This list presents the most well-known examples of supposed first women from both various religions and mythologies as well as according to modern scientists. The list is presented in order of familiarity and is thus not necessarily in order of which woman the author or this website declares most likely to deserve the title of “first woman”.

10. Mitochondrial Eve

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Scientists speculate that 200,000 or so years ago, probably in East Africa (in the same region of the world where early hominids Ardi and Lucy were found), the most recent matrilineal common ancestor of all living humans existed. Her real name, if she had one, is of course unknown, but she has been designated as “Eve” in reference to the believed first woman in the Christian and Jewish Biblical Book of Genesis. This hypothesis of a common ancestor for all living humans is something suggested as well in the season finale of the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica with the character Hera Agathon, also known as Isis. In that series ender, the survivors of the Galactica crash on Earth around 150,000 years ago. When Hera’s remains are discovered in modern times, she is believed to be the progenitor of humanity.

9. Ardi

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Ardi, which means “ground/floor”, refers to the 4.4 million years old fossilized skeletal remains of an Ardipithecus ramidus discovered in Ethiopia in Africa. A college student discovered Ardi’s skeleton in 1994. Subsequent work was done by a team of expert anthropologists and biologists, including Kent State University’s Owen Lovejoy and The University of California’s Tim D. White. What makes Ardi scientifically significant is the completeness of the remains, the most for any early hominid species and even more so than the earlier and better known Australopithecus afarensis known as “Lucy”. On a personal note, because I earned my Master’s degree from Kent State University and work as an adjunct on their Stark Campus, I recall quite well the buzz of this discovery. Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper, for example, had a fairly impressive and extensive article on the discovery, including drawings, a map, color photographs, and a nice timeline of Ardi versus Lucy’s place in evolutionary history. Given Ardi’s age, she does not, of course, look exactly like a modern human, but rather as a step in our direction.

8. Lucy

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After 3.2 million years, 40% of Lucy’s skeleton remains as the most famous example of an Australopithecus afarensis. Maurice Taieb (born 1935), a French geologist, discovered Lucy in Ethiopia in 1972. He subsequently formed an international research expedition to study the remains and the area in which they were found, enlisting the cooperation, for example, of the curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History named Donald Carl Johanson (born 28 June 1943) and renowned British archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996). Because the team of scientists while at camp played a tape recording of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, they named the long-deceased “woman” after the more recent song. The discovery of Lucy set the stage for the subsequent work on Ardi. Owen Lovejoy, who also worked on Ardi, helped to reconstruct Lucy. Moreover, Tim White also assisted Mary Leakey as well and in fact is best known among academics for his work with Johanson concerning Lucy. As such, despite Ardi being older and more complete than Lucy, the discovery of Lucy nevertheless set in motion the chain of events that led to Ardi’s discovery as well. The question is, however, do we consider these prehistoric hominid’s as “humans” in the sense that Ardi and Lucy should be characterized as “women”?

7. Mashyana

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In ancient Persia, the major religion was Zoroastrianism. For Zoroastrians, Mashya was the first man and Mashyana was the first woman. Allegedly, this first man and woman grew from the branches of a tree that emerged out of the corpse of a genderless primeval beast killed by a female demon. Talk about a tree of life! Ultimately, this first couple had fifteen pairs of twins who spread around the world to become the various races. Yet, for most readers of this website, as predominantly Anglophone members of “Western Civilization,” I suspect Zoroastrianism may not be as familiar as say Norse or Greek mythology and certainly not as much as Christianity. As such, familiarity with Masyana is largely limited to Iran or scholars of ancient history and theology.

6. Embla

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In Norse mythology, the first woman created by the gods is known as Embla, consort of Ask, which means “ash tree.” It is unknown what “Embla” means, although some think it may mean “elm tree” or vine. English scholar Benjamin Thorpe (1782 – 19 July 1870) has suggested a parallel between Mashya and Mashyana with Ask and Embla in the sense of both myths concerning the first man and woman being “tree-born”. According to thirteenth century writings, the famous Norse god Odin aided these first mortals with various gifts. They then, as with their Persian counterparts, become the progenitors of all races of humanity. Although Scandinavia has become predominately Christian, nevertheless, a statue of them sculpted in 1948 still stands in Sölvesborg, Sweden.

5. Líf

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According to Norse mythology, Líf is the only woman who will survive the cataclysm known as Ragnarök by hiding in a special woodland. As such, she along with her male companion will repopulate the world. In the Middle Ages, Christian missionaries hoping to convert Scandinavians, seized upon this story as a way of reconcile the old Norse religion with Medieval Christianity and suggested that Ragnarök already happened and that Líf and her male counterpart were in fact actually Adam and Eve. Thus, we have an interesting connection of the original first man and woman in Norse mythology with the first man and woman in Persian mythology and then the new first man and woman in Norse mythology with the first man and woman in Judaism and Christianity!

4. Pyrrha

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In Greek mythology, Pyrrha, whose name refers to her red hair, is considered the first woman of modern man and as such shares some parallels with Líf.  Whereas Líf survived Ragnarök, Pyrrha is the only woman to survive the great deluge brought forth by Zeus.  Yet, perhaps a more obvious parallel is of Pyrrha and her husband Deucalion with Noah and his wife of the Old Testament in that both Deucalion and Noah build arks to survive the flood, although the Greeks end up on Mount Parnassus instead of on Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark reportedly came to rest.  Yet, we also find a fascinating divergence in how Noah and his wife versus Pyrrha and Deucalion repopulate the earth.

Whereas Noah and his wife had children in the traditional way, Pyrrha and Deucalion receive rather unique instructions from an oracle to throw the bones, which they take to mean “rocks” of the mother, which they understood to be Gaia, the primordial Greek goddess of the Earth, behind their shoulders.  These rocks then transformed into humans with those thrown by Pyrrha becoming women, while those thrown by Deucalion became men.  In any case, it is always fascinating to see the many parallels and similarities among various mythologies and religious beliefs and many of the possible first women whether they be of Persian, Greek, Christian, or Norse origins do have some commonalities with others on this list.

3. Lilith

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In Medieval Jewish folklore, Lilith is sometimes regarded as Adam’s wife prior to Eve. Unlike Eve, who is allegedly created from Adam at a later time, Lilith is created at the same time as Adam and as such, she refused to be subservient to the first man. Thus, the two went their separate ways with Lilith perhaps spawning monsters rather than men. She has since become a major demonic figure in Western popular culture. For example, on such notable television programs as Supernatural, Lilith appears as one of the leading demons, while on True Blood, she is seen as the first vampire and worshipped by a group of vampire religious extremists.

2. Pandora

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The first woman of Greek mythology was reportedly created by the smith God Hephaestus on Zeus’s command to punish man after Prometheus gave men the gift of fire. She punished man by opening up a jar (commonly mistaken for a box) out of which came the various evils of the world. She later gave birth to Pyrrha and as such has a better claim to being first woman in the Greek tradition. Given the tremendous influence of Greek mythology on Western Civilization, Pandora has appeared in literature, sculptures, and paintings from ancient to modern times. Most recently, she appeared as a major character in the hit video game God of War III. A version of her “box” as depicted in the game was even recreated and released as part of the packaging for the Ultimate Edition of the game. Moreover, from at least 1968 to 1990, New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe, the Krewe of Pandora, has released tokens depicting Pandora on one side and various themes on the other on an annual basis. These tokens are readily available on such sites as eBay.

1. Eve

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We started with an “Eve” and so we come full circle and end with one! This particular Eve is arguably (really, I cannot see a reasonable case made otherwise!) the most well-known “first woman” today due to the overwhelming preponderance of adherents to either Judaism or Christianity around the world. She is also alluded to in the Qur’an, although not by name. Regardless, her importance to three major religious traditions that make up the majority of the Earth’s faithful is unquestionable. Accordingly, she must rank first in our list over all nine other famous females. After all, it is her name that inspired the naming of “Mitochondrial Eve” and it is her that Medieval Christian missionaries tried to claim as also Líf. Moreover, others have drawn parallels between her role as bringing about the fall of man via forbidden fruit with that of Pandora and her jar/box. Yet, despite her negative role as the source of original sin, Eve is also considered an Old Testament female saint. Dante’s Inferno, for example, mentions the Harrowing of Hell in which Jesus raises “first parent” Adam along with other Eve and various righteous men and women from the Old Testament from Limbo up to Heaven. Thus, there is a bit of hope in the end of what otherwise might seem like a tragic beginning to womanhood. So, which of these women do YOU consider the “first” in our history and why? Or do you consider someone else altogether?


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80 Comments

  1. Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

    Thanks for posting my list! I just wanted to let readers know that I have published a book of lists considered too controversial for advertisers and it includes one that was once posted on this site but later removed. That list is included with the permission of the site owner. If you are curious what is too hot for the web, please see http://www.amazon.com/Banned-Internet-Controversial-Top-Lists/dp/1483934721/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1364151292&sr=8-2&keywords=Banned+from+the+Internet and http://www.amazon.com/Banned-from-the-Internet-ebook/dp/B00BYUUMBW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364151292&sr=8-1&keywords=Banned+from+the+Internet

    Enjoy! 😉

    • We learned about some of this in my evolution class so it’s interesting to see it from a history point of view.

    • Casey Jones on

      Honestly surprised initially seeing Pandora on this list. Hadn’t really expected her to make an appearance, but I definitely understand why after a little thought.

  2. Lilith seems very interesting to me. I’ve seen her appearance on those two shows but I never knew the background for the character nor the folklore behind her. Honestly I never thought about her when it came to Adam and Eve. But her backstory seems very interesting and well worth researching.

    • They are predominantly theist, with lower percentages of Christians than most European countries. They are not really atheist since according to the polls most people have some belief in a higher power.

  3. Its always interesting to know the several different speculations of of how the world came upon the start of civilization for women. The entry on Pandora is pretty interesting especially with the fact that she makes a cameo in God of War, a game i have enjoyed in the past.

    • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS on

      Dear Tyler,

      Have you played God of War Ascension yet? I bought it, but have been grading midterms and so have not yet had a chance to play that or some of the other games I purchased in March. Just curious how it is?

      Best,

      MZ

  4. D Morrisnewell on

    This list was interesting to learn about the various theories of the origins of mankind; woman in particular. I took from this list not only the theories about woman’s origins, but the meaning behind, “Opening Pandora’s Box”. Very interesting indeed 🙂

  5. The article on the top 10 first women of civilization is really interesting considering I never knew there were different speculations of how the world came upon. Out of all of the women I found Lilith the most interesting because it mentions how she was created the same time as Adam from the story of Adam and Eve.

  6. Adam Lenhart on

    I find it curious that every first woman, in some way, draws back to the account of Adam and Eve or Noah, whether on purpose or on accident. It almost sounds like all these other “first women” could be made up stories based on man’s unwillingness to accept the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Of course, others would argue that we cannot really know what is “true.” I merely know that I feel a little more certain in what I know than in what other people believe.

    • Actually, some of these first-woman accounts/legends predate Eve, meaning that the “Christian” version is among the newest interpretations.

      • Adam Lenhart on

        That could possibly be true, but, since Moses wrote the book of Genesis as dictated to him by God, the question is then when did Moses live and possibly write the book of Genesis as compared to all the other legends out there?

  7. Dr. Zarzeczny,
    This article was very intriguing and gave me a whole new look on how women came about and evolved. I never really thought of it as how the first woman was actually “discovered” or arose in time. I think the part about Lilith is extremely interesting being that many view Eve as the first woman; however, the idea that Lilith actually came first throws an interesting spin on history.
    Chelsea

  8. This list defiantly gave me a new perspective on the history of women. The 3.2 million year old bones of Lucy are really interesting.

    • I love how it was a Kent State researcher (Lovejoy) who found Lucy. Also I never put any thought into how these bones pre date the Galactica crash on Earth around 150,000 years ago. I find Lucy the most interesting for the fact she is not a part of Greek mythology or Norse mythology, but real in flesh and bone, or at least bone.

  9. Jessica Purgert on

    Attendance for Fri. April 5th.

    To comment along with someone else was saying earlier, these are all very interesting examples of women evolving overtime and makes further theories I have always believed of Eve being the 1st woman. Interesting article, neat points.

  10. I definitely found Lilith to be the most interesting. I had never heard her story before and the idea that she was Adam’s wife before Eve is something that i had no notion about. Is she mentioned in the Bible or anything like that?

  11. I found the story behind Lilith interesting, I always thought she was more of a demonish figure from the beginning. But know that I know she was supposedly around for the creation of Adam is intriguing!

  12. Ahhh Not one of my favirote top tens, but intersting to know what women were presumed to be the first in our existence. Interesting to know what the truth really is!! We may never know…

  13. I am intrigued by the 3.2 million year old skeleton remains of Lucy. Such an amazing, significant discovery of human civilization! I enjoyed reading the article.

    – Lindsay

  14. After reading your article, Eve is my favorite “first woman” in history. I did find the fossilized skeletal remains of Ardi and the skeleton remains of Lucy to be interesting. These early hominids proved to be some of the first beings of history.

    -Ryan W

  15. I’ve always found the story of Lillith to be interesting. She was cast out of Eden, then she reproduced with demons. The legend goes that her children were born dead and so she went to steal the life out of other children in return. Mothers would sing a lullaby to keep her away. Sometimes she’s portrayed as a succubus instead.

  16. This is a very interesting list of women. Of course Eve is my favorite. Something that I learned in this article is how scientists named Lucy from a Beatles song.

  17. This article to me was interesting to me as to find out the scientists that found Lucy named her after a song. Also I found out that some of these women date back before they say eve was around very cool read.

  18. I love the story of Lilith. It’s one that most people have no idea about, or they do know about it but just do not realize until they hear it again.

  19. I have always believed Eve as the first woman because it is all I have ever known and been taught. Though this article is very interesting to me because I have never heard most of these view points!

  20. It’s interesting how all of mankind can be genetically traced back to a single male and female in North Africa. How far back does the story of Lilith go? From what I understand the Ancient Hebrews believed real heavy into an angelic and demonic hierarchy, and I have heard Lilith mentioned quite a bit as the first human soul corrupted. I just wonder if it’s something Emperor Constantine omitted from the final edit.

  21. It’s always interesting to trace back to how the modern day humans came to be. It’s crazy that there are so many different females who played a role in creating modern day humans.

  22. This was interesting to read about the other mothers of humankind. I had never heard of Lilith, but I appreciate her unwillingness to be subservient to a man!

  23. HS-196 Spring 16
    The fact that many cultures developed similar theories and stories of how the first humans, specifically women came about is particularly interesting to me. Embla and Lif are the two women from this article I would be interested in learning more about because I had never heard of them and do not know much about Norse mythology. I found the story of Lilith to be extremely interesting in such that because she refused to be subservient to man and was then demonized and viewed as monstrous in multiple stories showing mans early dislike/fear of strong willed women which occurs repeatedly throughout history and today across many cultures.

  24. I found it interesting that each culture has a different way women came to be. You also see throughout this article the difference between the science perspective and the religious perspective.

  25. I find it very interesting the amount of stories that exists on how the first women came to be and how we so many years later look at how these stories came to be

  26. Megan Arrendale on

    It is awesome that all of these stories about these women are told from different cultures. I find it interesting that some cultures believe Adam was married to Lilith before Eve came along.

  27. I found it interesting how the various stories had connections to the others. I found it particularly interesting that a professor from Kent State worked with Ardi and Lucy.

  28. Sarah Shaheen on

    I found it very interesting all the stories on the first women and how they all seem to connect in a way.

  29. I consider Eve to be the first woman in history because of her appearance in the book of Genesis in The Bible, and her important amongst other major religions.

  30. I found each of the stories of these first women to be extremely interesting. Each story, though as rich as the next, are so different and are filled with such interesting detail about how they are remembered and thought as. My favorite of them all was Lilith. The idea that what we have always believed to have been true within the story of Adam and Eve may not have been true according to Jewish folklore fascinates me.

  31. Emily Seiter on

    I find the stories of Lif and Embla to be extremely interesting because they both originate from Norse Mythology. It is interesting how the Lif has been related to the Christian story of Adam and Eve, because Eve herself is one of the ten mentioned. It is interesting how across cultures, times and different locations throughout the world how some of these stories of the original women have some basic similarities.

  32. Matthew Barnewall on

    Any of the first women with scientific backing could be the first in our history. My knowledge on the subject is limited, so I couldn’t even attempt at saying which one however.

  33. David Crowley on

    Eve is the definite choice for number one. She was the first women in the world and is responsible for so much. All of these women were very influential in the development of our world.

  34. I think that Eve is the best fit for explaining the first women and how she had such an impact on ancient civilization. I also find the story of Lucy to be very interesting. I think that it is cool that someone from Kent helped to find and determine the remains. Overall I think that women did were a big part of accident civilization.

  35. This article was very interesting, especially about Lucy with how much of her skeleton they were able to discover.

  36. Clayton Cassidy on

    I am most familiar with the creation story of Adam and Eve as I come from a Christian Background. It was really interesting for me to hear that there is an alternative version of Eve known as Lilith who is associated with demons! It is crazy to think that we all may have come from the same mitochondrial DNA lineage. We even may have come from the same tree as many of the myths show the women growing from trees. I am glad to see that Lucy was found by a team at Kent State!

  37. Zachary Zupancic on

    Eve is the easy choice for me. However, all this information about the other 9 is incredibly interesting.

  38. I too believe that life began with Adam and Eve but the history and stories behind the other nine are interesting as well. I do find the story of Lilith to be rather interesting considering she is not commonly mentioned in modern Jewish faith from what I understand.

  39. Andrew Orie on

    Having been through catholic school since pre-school, Eve is the easy choice for me, but I also found Pandora pretty interesting.

  40. Eve is easily number one as i have been going to catholic school since kindergarten.

    It is easy to see that Adam and Eve were the first two human beings. However, Lilith was quite interesting since I did not know much about her story.

  41. Being raised and living as a Christian there just really doesn’t seem room to disagree with Eve being first, but most of the other possibilities are really cool to hear about. I remember learning about Lucy in my 6th grade Social Studies class so I find that theory slightly more believable than others.

  42. It was really neat to learn about historical women. I find it funny that Pandora the Goddess who punished men with the evils of the world now is the huge jewelry store Pandora.

  43. mmahoney17 on

    I found the story of Lucy to be particularly interesting, but there is no doubt that Eve has been pervasive in monotheistic culture and must be considered influential as a result.

  44. Joe Kleinmann on

    As a science major, the piece looking at mitochondrial DNA really grabbed my attention. I just finished up a genetics course in which we looked at how mitochondrial DNA is a very good indicator of mapping inheritance both geographically and historically.
    Overall, this article branched into many intriguing theories of the origin of humans and women in specific. I enjoy hearing and seeing the possible evidence behind these types of ideas.

  45. Marlene Villa on

    I did not really know about the “first women” other than the ones ranked as the first three. In regards to Lif, I thought it was interesting how Christians at that time, in order to convert Scandinavians, related Lif to Eve. It was a really impressive way to connect the two and gain believers.

  46. Jonathan Beard on

    It made sense to me that Eve was number one after many years in PSR and going to church. I found it interesting to learn about Lilith who I did not know is regarded as Adam’s wife prior to Eve in Medieval Jewish folklore.

  47. Frankie Alvarez on

    Its pretty crazy to think we will never be able to identify the true origin of our species. Obviously Eve is the most well known of the 10, but each carries a pretty intriguing history.

  48. Liam Flaherty on

    I found it interesting to analyze the parallels present in several of the “first woman” stories. Notably, it is interesting that both the Ancient Greek story of Pandora and the Bible story of Eve depict women as the manufacturer of human suffering: Eve by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and Pandora from opening her pithos.

  49. It was genius of the Medieval Christian missionaries (in #5) to equate Lif with Eve. Sycretisms such as this have been used throughout history.

  50. I had only heard of Eve and Lucy before reading this. It was very educational and I really enjoyed learning about the different women. Lif was one of the most interesting to me.

  51. I find it interesting that for as far back that can be revealed it seems to me that the human race began with a man and a woman created by a god. Not apes that one day stood up and started a new trend by walking on two legs and then part of that group then turned female and the other half malef.

  52. kayla connelly on

    I find it very intriguing that women are such a great part of our history and how their involvement all connects in a way!!

  53. A very interesting compilation, it’s nice to see a trace of our lineage as a species, through our finding in history, such as females who contributed to our species.

  54. It was interesting to read about all of the ancient women in this article. In the past I had only really learned about Lucy, Pandora, and of course Eve.

  55. Going into the article I only had background knowledge of Eve, Pandora, and Lucy. It was pretty interesting to see all of these different cultures with a “first woman” belief/mythology. The idea of Eve being Adam’s second wife with Lilith as the first is interesting, though I don’t subscribe to it. I am a huge Supernatural fan though, and I remember her appearance on the show, so that was pretty cool.

  56. kayla connelly on

    women are so much more powerful than people ever presumed. I am for woman power and these ancient woman have set standards for all woman in the futuure.

  57. M.williams on

    I have always been impressed with Pandora and her box and eve. Never underestimate these 2 women.

  58. Marynette Holmes on

    I believe that eve was the first woman and that the other women are all different interpretations of her. I was however interested when I read about lilliath i Had never heard of that story! That Adam may have had a first wife in myth.

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