I am trying my hand at a matriarchal society (human beings, technology similar to Earth's 13th - 16th century), and I find that for that to work they will need reasonably efficient contraceptives (and abortives as a backup, of course).

In pre-industrial Earth, that role was fulfilled by a now-extinct plant called silphium, and I am of course tempted to feature this plant as the staple contraceptive in Sara, but unhappily it seems that silphium could suffer the same fate there as in Earth, and be overharvested into extinction, as it is apparently non-domesticable.

So I am wondering, why exactly was it non-domesticable? Was it actually non-domesticable, or its domestication, like that of strawberries, just depended on some techonolgical innovation that was not available at the time it become extinct? What changes in society, or in the nature of the plant, could make it domesticable, or at least protect it from extinction?

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    $\begingroup$ So while this is absolutely fitting for World Building, I'm worried that you might not find the expertise here to answer your question. I took the liberty of reaching out to biology.stackexchange.com in their chat, and they said that this was in scope to their site. You would have to remove the World-Building reasoning and make it about the plant specifically. They also voiced the concern that it's a tad broad as is, and they'd like the scope narrowed if you do re-ask it there. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Aug 1 '16 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ According to the link in the question body, the Cyrenians could cultivate it. Without knowing much about the plant it's all speculation. $\endgroup$ – Resonating Aug 1 '16 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ @NexTerren - Thank you for your efforts. $\endgroup$ – Luís Henrique Aug 1 '16 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ A quick look around Wikipedia, and this probably isn't an answerable question. From the page: K. Parejko, writing on its possible extinction, concludes that "because we cannot even accurately identify the plant we cannot know for certain whether it is extinct." $\endgroup$ – Azuaron Aug 1 '16 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Your book could also feature the more effective method of not having unwanted children, self control. Ooh, scary. Besides, during that time period many children died before adulthood, and many children were necessary for farmers. So why would they need those things? I'm also reasonably sure that constant breeding while avoiding children is not only unrealistic but also not necessary for holding a matriarchal society together. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Aug 3 '16 at 14:00

I have a couple of ideas. These are not real world answers but attempts to make a reasonable explanation for a story.

If silphium was actually a hybrid, it might not breed true to seed. I hybrid contains genetic material from more than one species. They can form naturally, but seeds from the hybrid may not germinate, or may revert back to one of the parent types. Once the two parent types have been identified, deliberate crossing allows cultivation.

Some seeds require special treatment to germinate. Some need to be exposed to subzero temperatures, or passed through the gut of a particular type of animal or bird.

We can't say why silphium was thought to be undomesticable by at least some ancient authors. Its close relatives are relatively easy to grow from seed. But for the sake of the story, perhaps silphium needed to be soaked in seawater before germinating. Once someone has discovered this, she can set up a farm with ease (and corner the market)

I don't claim this is the reason why real silphium wasn't domesticated. Nobody knows that.


I'm a silphium Truther. I don't believe that any plant is fundamentally un-domesticatable, or that any plant that was sufficiently useful to humans could be 'lost' to cultivation. Things go out of cultivation because something better arrived. For example, the indigenous domesticates of Eastern North America were rapidly abandoned when a much better corn, beans, squash combo showed up from Mexico.

So--and keep in mind, I am not an authority on plant extinctions, just an apply-er of Occam's Razor--there are three possibilities:

  1. Silphium is still around, its just called asafoetida.
  2. Silphium wasn't that cool, so they stopped growing it as the Roman Empire fell and demand dropped. The original wild plant is still around, and called Giant Fennel (Ferula Tingitana).
  3. Silphium wasn't that cool, so they stopped growing it as the Roman Empire fell and demand dropped. The original wild plant was endemic to Cyrenica and went extinct as that region to desert.

So my conclusion is...it's your world! Silphium still exists, whatever you want to call it. If the head women in charge want Silphium, they sure as heck aren't going to let it go extinct.


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