THE PREHISTORIC ORIGINS OF PATRIARCHY AND SOCIAL OPPRESSION
Bruce Garrard’s book ‘The Ancient Problem with Men’ is an exploration of pre-history, in search of the time and place where the mind-set leading to violence, oppression and environmental degradation first became established. The answer he comes up with is – though a long time ago – relatively recent in the overall story of human life on the planet. The conclusion, then, is that such a mind-set is not ‘natural’ to human beings, and therefore it will not always have to be with us. This article is a brief summary of the book.
I would like to present this perspective on human pre-history: that through two million years or so of human evolution, our species (and its immediate predecessors) were defined and sustained by values that were essentially co-operative. Male and female were of equal importance and status. Violence on a scale and with the intent that could be called ‘warfare’ was unknown. The environment was sacred.
This is clearly not the case today; but before the great cultural advances of 35,000 years ago, before the technological developments which made life possible through the last ice age, before the beginnings of farming, before the Neolithic ‘revolution’, before the first towns, before the first cities, there was this one basic reality to human life. And afterwards there was the farmer and the herder, the European and the Asiatic, the ‘matrist’ and the ‘patrist’, the hunter-gatherer and modern civilisation.
The key element of this change was the emergence of patriarchy – rule by men – along with oppressive social structures, and warfare. Since then, the values noted above have gradually been eroded.
How and why this came about is a question that interests many people, yet academic historians and pre-historians have given it virtually no attention. We are still living with the myth, left over from nineteenth century apologists for European imperialism, that ‘primitive man’ was brutish, sexist and lacking in culture.
This, however, is quite untrue. Patriarchy, and the injustices and cruelties which have come with it, is not natural to human beings. It has only been a significant force in society since about 4,000 BCE. The myth has been dispelled to some extent by recent work which highlights the Goddess Culture of Neolithic Europe. Its demise at the hands of invaders from the East is well described – but with no explanation as to why this came about, or what caused such a warrior culture to come into being in Asia.
Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade gave widespread currency to the idea of an ancient European ‘Goddess culture’, eventually brought down by invasions from sword-wielding, horse-riding warrior hordes. It is a book written by a feminist and primarily intended for women; reading it as a man was what raised for me the big question: Why did this all happen? Where and when did it all begin? If human life was once quite different, what exactly happened to cause the change?
This in turn led me on an exploration of human origins, looking not only at our physical evolution, but also at the economic, cultural and psychological aspects of human development.
By chance an old copy of Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State came into my hands. I was astonished by its clarity and readability – not at all what I imagined ‘Marxist’ texts to be like – and by its freshness and relevance after well over a hundred years. It was in stark contrast to much of the ‘official’ history I had read. In particular, it helped me to the concept that the ‘twin arms of the Neolithic revolution’, herding and farming, were respectively developments from hunting and from gathering; and that humanity’s ancient way of life had effectively split two ways.
In Europe the open plains, the ancient hunting grounds, became steadily re-forested as the climate warmed after the ice age. The amount of huntable game would have dropped to about 30% of what it had been. In previous eras this had meant a reduction in the human population, but modern humans took up the practice – originating in the Middle East (where it was a response to sea-level rises which similarly reduced the availability of hunting) – of clearing the land and growing crops.
Farming was a development based the gathering side of ancient hunter-gatherer society. Indeed, so long as it remained at the level of horticulture rather than plough-based agriculture, it was in effect a more efficient means of gathering foodstuffs and was still largely carried out by women.
Growing crops, marking out land, and producing more food than was needed for peoples’ immediate requirements meant that property and wealth began to accumulate. In Europe, because this process was female-defined and the accoutrements of tilling the soil generally fell within what was traditionally regarded as the female province, and because descent and inheritance had always been reckoned through the female line anyway, changes in Neolithic society did not at first disrupt the old social order, time-honoured structures of tribe and clan, or the old religion. This was the economic basis of the Old European Goddess culture.
By contrast, Neolithic herding culture on the central Asian steppes developed from hunting. After the ice age the steppes remained open, and the domestication of the horse enabled people to follow the herds across the landscape. Gradually it became possible to control the herds, to own them, and cattle became the first currency. This accrued to the former hunters, and the balance of power and social status tipped towards the men. But the old ways prevented men from passing their property on to their sons. It was here that the reckoning of descent through the female line and the matrilineal law of inheritance were first challenged – and in due course overthrown.
To explain this more fully, I shall need to provide some detail about the clan system and how it had developed. At first, people lived in groups, had children in common, and had no concepts such as ‘cousins’ or ‘nephews and nieces’. The evolution of social organisation, and ultimately the family, has been a very gradual process that has progressively reduced the likelihood of in-breeding. The earliest form of the family was one in which all members of the group from the same generation formed a group marriage.
Ancestry and lineage would always have been reckoned through the female line, since only the female line could have been certain. The clan was originally a group of sisters, brothers, cousins and their children, all descended from one ancestral mother. Parents would come together as a loose ‘Pairing Family’ of indefinite duration, the father always coming from outside the clan of the mother.
A tribe, therefore, necessarily included at least two clans. It is a common misunderstanding to confuse the two terms, but they are not synonymous. The tribe, and within it the increasingly complex clan system, remained a stronger, more basic institution than the family until at least Neolithic times. It was still an important concept of social organisation well into the period of Greek and Roman civilisation.
A tribe was generally located in a particular geographical area; it was the political unit that related to the outside world. Tribal leaders would have included men, and may have been predominantly men. The clan was a kinship network and the basis of female power within the tribe. It was not a separate or geographical subdivision of the tribe. The same clan could sometimes exist across several related tribes, and each tribe included several clans. The clan had evolved to avoid children being born to close blood relations, so marriage within the clan was not permitted.
Customs of inheritance kept any property within the clan, which was matrilineal, and the clans traced their common ancestry back to one of the tribe’s deities or totems. Clan leaders could be both men and women, though responsibility for internal and domestic matters fell to the women.
The basic way of life within which the development of clan and tribe took place can be described as ‘hunter-gatherer’ society. Amongst hunter-gatherers generally, a large proportion of the community’s food is gathered rather than hunted; however, where the hunters are responsible for most of the food collection – and this was so on the ice age steppes of central Asia – then the relative status of men is increased. There are suggestions that in central Asia this led to the clan system becoming patrilineal rather than matrilineal at an early stage, though in other respects – at least at first – it remained the same.
Archaeologist Richard Leakey presents hunting and gathering as being the hallmark of human life, the crucial difference as compared to pre-human hominids. He is convincing in his argument, based on the reconstruction of an East African campsite at least 1.5 million years old, that this was true for homo erectus, well before homo sapiens appeared. The roots of this way of life are incredibly ancient.
Over such an enormous span of time, human intelligence, human consciousness and human culture were gradually evolving. Humans (like their primate predecessors) have intelligence far greater than is needed for a simple life of gathering fruit and plants, hunting a few animals, and finding a comfortable tree or a dry cave to sleep in. The reason is the complexity of their social lives – the ‘social chess’ that is such a feature of all primate social life. Those individuals that were most proficient tended to be most successful in finding mates; and so with intelligence itself being the key to reproductive success, inevitably the species gradually became more intelligent.
The gradual ongoing process of change that followed, including the growth in brain capacity and the progressive development of language, would have come about in tandem with the evolution of consciousness. The concept of the Journey, of tracing out the ‘song lines’ and forming a relationship with the flora and fauna, is central to the evolution of human consciousness.
The human mind evolved subjective consciousness as a tool to understand the complexities of social interactions, and then used the same formula to understand the complexities of the rest of the world. People’s understanding of the world around them came through the same mental pathways as their understanding of (and empathy for) each other, which in turn had been the stimulus for the evolution of their intelligence.
The nature of hunter-gatherers’ culture makes them resistant to moving into new and unknown territory: as a rule, though their lifestyle is mobile, they remain within their ancestral hunting ranges, where they come to know every rock and every landmark by name and by tradition. The intimate relationship between people and the land that they inhabited was absolutely basic to human life. The clan system, with its totems and symbology, would have woven together more than just the people: it would have been intimately bound up in their relationship with the land that had sustained them for thousands and thousands of years.
People became people as a result of the nature of their relationship with their environment. They travelled through it, they named places, they told stories or sang songs about the spirits that inhabited those places, they passed these songs and stories on so that others could experience the same archetypal journeys.
Climate Change and Human Trauma
Climate is a dynamic process, not a fixed reality, and its shifting nature has always driven change and evolution amongst the planet’s species, including humans. At a critical time around 4,000 BCE, north Africa and much of Asia began to be subject to severe environmental trauma through lack of rainfall and resulting desiccation.
The results are described in meticulous detail by James DeMeo, in his book Saharasia. He describes an enormous area of land, the central portion of what was then the inhabited world, large enough to support millions of people through a mixture of hunting, gathering, herding and agriculture. This region, stretching from north Africa through the Middle East and central Asia, is now largely arid, much of it desert, but in Mesolithic and early Neolithic times it was ideal for human habitation.
Following the ice age, the climate had first become warm and relatively moist, optimum conditions for human habitation, before the rain belt gradually shifted north. Over time, the desertification of large parts of Saharasia became an environmental condition so severe that people were unable to adapt.
This created conditions in which the ancient ways of social organisation broke down, life for huge numbers of people was reduced to a level of barest survival, and those who did survive (particularly the children) were so traumatised by the experience that they were unable to recover fully, even if life in a physical sense returned to something like normal. The resulting patterns of ‘armored’ (emotionally inhibited) behavior, brought about through the sustained experience of drought and physical insecurity, are quite different from anything that could be described as natural.
Based on the work of Wilhelm Reich as well as a wide-ranging review of archaeological research, DeMeo shows that the earliest human societies were co-operative and egalitarian, sexually uninhibited, free from warfare, free from the domination of one sex by another, and from oppressive political regimes – and that these attitudes and modes of being are inter-related, together forming the profile of people in their ‘natural’ state. Humans, we could say, evolved so as to function well, without the need to waste energy on unnecessary conflict.
Once this desiccation had gained momentum, however, it was not merely a change in environmental conditions requiring fresh human adaptations. It was, across a vast and central region of the inhabited world, the end of continuity, of security, of the basic and intimate relationship between the human mind and its environment. In reducing life, temporarily or permanently, to a desperate process of mere survival, it would also have disrupted the relationship between mothers and their children.
Distressed, anxiety-ridden states of mind were passed from one generation to the next and became embedded in society as ‘traditions’. A whole range of attitudes and practices which are cruel, oppressive and irrational became enshrined as ‘normal’, even laudable behaviour, necessary for the existence of civilisation. This is patriarchal society.
The Natural Recovery Process
Since it would be impossible to mobilise an army of Reichian psychotherapists sufficient to solve the world’s problems as DeMeo describes them, he offers little hope for the future. However, traumatic experience has not only occurred during and since the period he focuses on. Natural disasters and climate change have always been a part of life on earth; and on a local or personal level, experiencing trauma has always been and will always be a possibility. At some point during any individual’s lifetime, it is a likelihood.
As a species we have adapted to deal with this emotional risk, inherent particularly in our long period of maturation, by developing the ability to suppress painful emotional experience. Once suppressed, it can remain so indefinitely, allowing for continued mental and emotional functioning rather than catatonic collapse. The level of such functioning will, however, be adversely affected to some extent.
It would be more than extraordinary if this ability to suppress negative emotional material was not matched by a natural ability to release it and recover from its effects when circumstances become favourable.
This ability does exist, and in one way or another forms the basis of any workable system of psychotherapy. DeMeo hints at it in his discussion of Reichian therapy. Harvey Jackins, the founder of the Re-evaluation Counselling movement, is explicit – calling it the ‘discharge process’. He describes it as a physical phenomenon (crying, shaking, sweating etc) and something potentially available to all human beings, as a normal part of life that has been hidden or forgotten. Modern culture, in fact, discourages emotional discharge, thereby helping to perpetuate the problems.
This was not the case in pre-patriarchal, ‘primal’ societies. For instance, Malidoma Patrice Somé, in his book Ritual – power, healing & community, describes in detail a traditional funeral ritual amongst the Dagara people of West Africa. There, funerals are occasions that provide every member of the community, whether or not they are closely related to the person who has died, with the opportunity to express any and all of their grief about anything. The result is a collective cathartic experience that goes on for several days. Within a protected ritual space, everyone is expected to express their grief, anger, sorrow, fear – whatever has emotional power – through crying, shaking, dancing, shouting and wildly running about.
This occurs whenever somebody dies, so that grieving and emotional discharge are a normal part of the social life of the community. In what Somé describes as the ‘indigenous world’, people “understand the expression of emotion as a process of self-kindling or calming which not only helps in handling death but also resets or repairs the feelings within the person,” and the whole population remains emotionally and psychologically healthy as a result.
So for reasons to do with culture, economics, and post-ice-age climate change, the differences in the development of human society in Asia and in Europe meant that whilst in Europe the ancient matrilineal social forms stayed in place and grew stronger, in Asia the opposite was true. And after 4,000 BCE, increasing drought in central Asia resulted in widespread trauma and the breakdown of the old ways completely.
The result was two separate cultures that were the antithesis of each other, one of them militant in its need for new territory and its distressed and ‘armored’ attitudes toward other human beings. This ultimately led to the first wars in the human story, conquest, slavery, and the beginnings of stratified class society.
Since then we have had history – largely the history of kings and their armies, power struggles and empires. Today, after more than 5,000 years of this, it is clear that human life cannot continue in this way for very much longer.
Indeed, there are already welcome signs of change, though at the same time the power structures that have characterized civilisation so far are becoming more extreme. Humanity has an enormous choice to make over the next generation or two. The question is whether we can fully activate our extraordinary intelligence, make use of the information already available to us, and adapt to meet the challenges that are already fast arriving.
For a more detailed exploration of the themes and issues and raised in this article, please see ‘The Ancient Problem with Men’ (Unique Publications 2011), available from the Speaking Tree bookshop in Glastonbury or online at www.unique-publications.co.uk.
James DeMeo, ‘Saharasia’, Orgone Biophysical Research Lab (USA) 1998.
Riane Eisler, ‘The Chalice and the Blade – our history, our future’, Harper Collins (USA)1988.?
Friedrich Engels, ‘The Origins of the Family, Private Property and The State’ (4th edition) 1891; English edition Camelot Press 1940.
Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, ‘Origins Reconsidered – in search of what makes us human’, Little, Brown & Co 1982.
Malidoma Patrice Somé, ‘Ritual – power, healing & community’,? Swan Raven & Co (USA) 1993; English edition Gateway Books 1996.