A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 10

Domesticating the hunters: Reed’s hypothesis

In Evelyn Reed’s book, “Woman’s Evolution,” she argues that the practice of cannibalism among male hominins during the millennia after they began hunting was a pervasive, destructive and potentially species-annihilating behavior. The survival of our hominin ancestors as a species was then secured by the intervention of the female members of the hominin bands, who set up cultural obstacles to inhibit this practice.

Cannibalism is, of course, an unsavory subject. Most people would opine that it is a rare phenomenon, a desperate response to the threat of starvation or a horror indulged in by unhinged sociopaths. It is, however, a behavior that has been observed among many contemporary primate species. It has also been documented among foraging and hunting groups. See, for example, the section on cannibalism in Lawrence Keeley’s “War Before Civilization” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 103-106)

Reed’s narrative is that the hominin meat-eating hunters didn’t always distinguish between the animals and the contending hominins from other groups whom they encountered. Fresh blood, whether the result of an animal kill or a struggle between two hominin bands, would have signaled an opportunity for a meal. Reed assumes that the foraging female hominins were completely or largely vegetarians, continuing the herbivore tradition of their tree-dwelling ancestors. This gustatory dichotomy may strike the reader as doubtful. However, Reed is able to cite both archeological and anthropological evidence for this proposition.

Archeological findings that postdate Reed’s book bolster her view. Summarizing the analysis of hominin bones found in Spain and Europe’s Caucasus Mountains as well as in South Africa, Carole Travis-Henikoff writes in “Dinner with a Cannibal”: “Stone-tool cut marks that correlate with de-fleshing and disarticulation, breakage of long bones for extraction of marrow, method of deposition of remains, along with other recognizable evidence, demonstrate the practice of cannibalism within the ranks of some of our oldest kin. … Fossil and archaeological evidence from many caves on many continents imply that a great many of our forebears saw nothing wrong or shameful in the act of ingesting others of their own kind.” (Santa Monica, Calif.: Santa Monica Press, 2008, pp. 89-90) The datings on the evidence she is referring to range between 1 million and 2 million years ago.

A reasonable assumption would be that the objects of early hominin cannibalism would be the casualties of fighting between hominin bands. But Reed argues that no distinction was originally made between animal and hominin prey, but that the great contribution of hominin women was the creation of cultural taboos that prevented the male hunters from occasionally eating their own kind or even their own kin.

Unraveling the ‘totem and taboo’ phenomenon

Reed has a refreshingly clear explanation of the purpose of the “totem and taboo” phenomenon, an aspect of the culture of forager/hunter societies whose significance has baffled many an anthropologist. “Unable to draw the dividing line between humans and animals through biological criteria, our earliest ancestors were obliged to invent other means for making the distinction. They did this through their social kinship system. This began as totem kinship before it evolved into the higher form, the classificatory system of kinship. Those who were of the same kin were the same kind, human beings. Outsiders, non-kin, were members of a different kind, i.e., animals. This kinship criterion established the boundaries of cannibalism.” (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974, p. 30)

“Once instituted, totemism not only checked cannibalism but produced a broader beneficial effect. It tended to protect animal and plant life in general in a period when unregulated plunder of food supplies could have produced results almost as anti-social as cannibalism. … Those ­proto-human groups in which these controls were most effective had a competitive advantage and larger survival co-efficient which enabled them to reproduce more successfully over the generations.” (pp. 38-39)

The beginnings of ‘marriage’

The preceding constitutes merely an introduction to and the conceptual basis for Reed’s highly detailed analysis of the process of evolution of our earliest ancestors, during which, Reed demonstrates, the role of women was decisive. We’ll focus now, however, on her description of the evolution of “marriage,” to which she devotes a whole section of her book, with the title “The Beginnings of Marriage.”

“The first step toward marriage was the cross-cousin intermating alliance between two communities. This was not yet marriage since the pair did not change residence or live together under one roof. The man remained a member of his clan and phratry [a group of linked clans comprising one side or moiety of a tribe], the woman of hers. The men of both sides received rights of passage into the territory of the other side to peacefully seek their mates.” (p. 273)

Reed argues that the widely reported ceremony which anthropologists have always assumed to be a ritual initiating boys into manhood, a celebration of male puberty, had a very different meaning in the early stages of hominin society: “The rite of passage called ‘initiation,’ … did not originally mark the passage of a youth from childhood to adulthood. It commemorated the passage of a community of ‘animals’ into humans who, as humans, could no longer be killed or eaten.” (p. 287)

She further explains, “Rights of passage [to territories inhabited by other hominin bands] were essential not simply in the quest for food but also in the search for mates who, under the law of exogamy [limiting sexual partners to people outside ones own band or clan], were to be found in alien territory. Thus initiation was in effect a ‘matrimonial passport’ giving the ‘marked’ men access to one another’s territory. … The various incisions and other marks made on the bodies of the young men during initiation … served as visible evidence of the youth’s new status as an initiated man with the right to enter the territory of his cross-cousins.” (p. 291)

Noting that youthful sexual exploration in matrilineal society was unrestricted, Reed comments: “Initiation, therefore, was not designed to initiate the young man into the mysteries of sex. Rather, it was designed to instruct him as to his proper social behavior in the community of his future wife.” (p. 299) And further along: “In the earliest stage of matrimony the husband was little more than a visitor to his wife’s community. He did not start out by occupying a separate house or hut with his wife; he was given accommodations in the male clubhouse reserved for strangers and visiting husbands. There under the surveillance of his wife’s male kin he slept and took his meals.” (p. 304)

The economic origins of ‘marriage’

A new stage in marital relations came about with the introduction of gift exchange: “With the development of the gift-giving institution and the increasing breakdown of the hereditary enmity between the intermarrying sides, the mothers’ brothers took over the functions of go-betweens for their sisters’ daughters and young suitors. Individual pair-matrimony developed on the basis of the community gift-interchange system, which was as much an expression of fraternal relations between the men of the two sides as it was of matrimony. … The act of interchanging gifts with these former strangers was their assurance that fraternal relations had superseded enmity.” (pp. 306-307)

But still, “To pass from … a liaison to the more substantial union of marriage it was necessary for the young woman to invite the young man to her mother’s house. … Before a man could be promoted from the status of lover to husband he must be accepted, that is, ‘adopted,’ by his mother-in-law.” (pp. 310-11) Reed cites a passage from Ruth Benedict’s “Patterns of Culture” on the requirements for a successful “adoption”: “From this time forward the young man has to reckon with the village of his wife. Its first demand is upon his labor. Immediately his mother-in-law gives him a digging-stick with the command, ‘Now, work!’” (New York: New American Library, 1959, p. 124)

“From gardening,” observes Reed, “it was a short step toward the care and domestication of farm animals, and these were the two elements required for a higher economy. Thus marriage developed side by side with the development of husbandry, a new occupation of men which more and more displaced their former occupation of hunting. … Marriage from its inception did not hinge upon the sexual relations between a man and a woman; it was centered entirely on economic and social relations.” (p. 313)

Reed has much more to say about prehistoric marriage and prehistoric society in general. But for our purposes we’ve already reached her most important conclusion: the economic origins of the institution of marriage. In the next installment of this series, we’ll attempt to summarize the somewhat different, but equally evolutionary and materialist scenario that Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight has constructed in his provocative book, “Blood Relations.”