The challenge of uncovering human prehistory
Part 1 of this series focused on the counterrevolution in anthropology that arose in response to the work of Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Engels, whose findings outlined an evolutionary history of human development. In this installment, we’ll raise some preliminary considerations toward an objective, scientific investigation of human prehistory. In following parts of this series we’ll take up the discoveries of Morgan and Engels in some detail.
In the present work we are guided by the profound groundwork provided in Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” and the deft summarization and contemporary application of his work in Dorothy Ballan’s pamphlet, “Feminism and Marxism.” However, there is no substitute for a serious, focused reading of these two essential works in their entirety.
In later parts of this series we hope to add some of the recent material on human history and prehistory, unavailable to either Engels or Ballan. But, first, we should review some of the insights provided by the groundbreakers.
A scientific approach to human prehistory
In her introduction to an International Publishers edition of Frederick Engels’ “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” (New York, 1972), Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock notes: “Where materials are available for ethnohistorical research into a given primitive culture, they reveal fundamental changes of the type that have been taking place independently in various parts of the world or have been developing rapidly during the recent centuries of colonial rule: the breaking down of the corporate kin group into individual families and the individualization of property rights, the downgrading of women’s status, the strengthening of rank, and the usurpation of powers by chiefs — in short, the basis for class society.
“Nonetheless,” Leacock writes, “areas where warfare and trade, often in slaves as well as goods, have been causing vast upheavals for up to four or five centuries of European influence and domination are still commonly treated as if reconstructed 19th century social forms represent ‘untouched’ institutions.” (pp. 58-59)
We will avoid the use of the word “primitive” to characterize prehistoric societies, since it needs to be emphasized more and more, as contemporary foraging and hunting groups succumb to the genocidal impact of the world’s imperialist powers, how remarkably “civilized” these peoples were in their interpersonal relations and how “scientific” in their use of natural resources in their efforts at survival. However, we can agree with Leacock on the need to apply a very critical eye to ethnographical reports.
The historical materialist approach
Karl Marx was fascinated by the ethnographic material he found in Lewis Henry Morgan’s book, “Ancient Society,” but Marx died before he was able to accomplish the task of interpreting it. Engels, Marx’s lifelong collaborator, took up the task, resulting in ”Origin” and an uncompleted work titled “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.”
While Marx and Engels were thoroughly cognizant of the difficulties alluded to by Leacock a century later, they had a powerful theoretical tool for use in evaluating Morgan’s ethnographic material. Known as “historical materialism,” their method broke with the then prevailing approach of European philosophers who, in their various interpretations of the world, assumed the priority of ideas over matter.
Marx’s approach emphasized human sociality and production of the wherewithal for life as fundamental to humanity’s reality and evolution. Also fundamental to Marx’s approach was the inextricable link between material reality and dialectical change. (A very clear explanation of dialectical materialism is given by Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, in his book, “In Defense of Marxism.”)
The patterns of life and kinship that Morgan reported on from his personal contact with the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, other Native American groups, and reports he received on foraging and hunting groups across the globe offered a material basis for Engels to project the evolution of humanity from communal beginnings, through the various stages of class society, to a communist future — really to a final reclaiming of Homo sapiens’ original communal humanity.
Just as the material reality of revolutionary French workers setting up a workers’ government in 1871 — the Paris Commune — allowed Marx and Engels to concretize their prediction of workers’ political power and of a workers’ government that could lay the groundwork for a socialist/communist future, so too, the patterns of life and kinship that Morgan reported on revealed a material basis for projecting the evolution of humanity from communal beginnings, through the various stages of class society, to a communist future, a final reclaiming of our species’ humanity.
Part 3 of this series will examine the findings of Lewis Henry Morgan, the founder of modern anthropology, regarding the role of women in early human societies. As we shall see, understanding the social position of women in foraging and hunting societies is crucial to understanding the forms of marriage that existed in that long period of human prehistory.
McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” World View Publishers, 3rd ed., 1993.
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