A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 11

Domesticating the hunters – Knight’s hypothesis

British anthropologist Chris Knight has joined a host of militant workers in capitalist society who have lost their jobs for standing up to “the boss.” We touched on his acts of political defiance against the imperialist ruling class — which cost him his livelihood as a professor— in Part 9 of this series. In this installment, we’ll summarize his radical view of the transformation of hominins into modern humans.

Knight distinguishes himself as an exceptionally capable anthropological theoretician in several ways. Very importantly, he has a good understanding of Marxism and of the historic discoveries of Lewis Henry Morgan, Frederick Engels and Karl Marx in the study of human evolution. In addition, he is an exceptionally well-informed and fair-minded combatant in the ideological class struggle that has unfolded during the last century and a half over the course that anthropological work should follow. Third, his familiarity with the work and writings of other anthropologists is formidable.

At the center of Knight’s hypothesis is the development of solidarity uniting the female members of the matrilineal band. In “Blood Relations,” he captures in a single paragraph what follows from this concept: “In principle, it would only have needed two females — perhaps sisters, perhaps mother and daughter — to have set in train the movement towards culture as an unstoppable force. If these two always backed each other up, always acted in concert, synchronised their menstrual cycles and were able to motivate two or more males to hunt for them by making sex dependent on it, then they might have been so much more successful in securing meat than other females in the population for their strategy to act as an attractive model, and for any genetic characteristics facilitating such solidarity to spread through the population.” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, pp. 294-95)

‘Menstrual synchrony’ as a vehicle for female solidarity

First of all, it is important to note Knight’s emphasis on “menstrual synchrony”: “Since the 1970s, medical science has begun to acknowledge what countless women must already have known for generations — that when women who are friends associate closely with one another, their cycles begin to synchronise.” (pp. 212-13) Knight’s use of this phenomenon is superficially similar to that of sociobiologist Paul Turke and his collaborators, who view menstrual synchrony, along with “concealed ovulation” and “continuous but discriminating sexual receptivity” as key to their theory of how human males came to distinguish themselves from their male primate relatives as much better providers. (“Effects of ovulatory concealment and synchrony on protohominid mating systems and parental roles,” Ethology and Sociobiology 5, 1984, pp. 33-44)

Knight is able to distinguish his hypothesis from that of Turke et al. on several grounds: “Turke’s theory rests on no palaeontological or other direct evidence for reproductive synchrony in hominid evolution. The hypothesis is not buttressed with findings from archaeology or from the study of contemporary hunter-gatherers.” (p. 219) It is impossible here even to summarize the mountain of “direct evidence” and “findings” that Knight draws on in “Blood Relations” to make demonstrably credible his theory. To offer just one example, though, his use of both region specific and global climatological data to contextualize and date the process leading to the “human cultural revolution” that he envisions is impressively precise.

Innovation based on climatic stress

Knight writes: “We will see that everywhere, the decisive events [producing his hypothesized cultural revolution] were associated with periods of combined dryness and cold.” (pp. 277-78) He presents evidence that the preference of the pre-revolutionary hominins, both in Africa and as they spread out into Eurasia and Australia, was for shoreline areas bordering rivers, lakes and oceans. But dramatic climatic changes, both in Africa and elsewhere, that forced them away from shorelines and into what Knight calls “the hinterlands” were the basis for cultural leaps: “[A] sophisticated blade-making technology … dated to about 70,000 BP [years before the present] … coincides with the onset of a glacial period and worldwide regression of sea levels. … It was evidently this deterioration which triggered the cultural advance. … Then at about 40,000 BP came the next major technological advance. … Again, cold weather had something to do with it.” (p. 278)

For Knight, the most important of these climatic shifts was the Last Glacial Maximum, a period of intense global cold between about 26,000 and 19,000 years ago. He writes: “Despite their tropical origins, modern humans with their warm clothes, semi-permanent dwellings and well-controlled domestic fires embraced the snowswept plains and tundra of ice age Eurasia as if such spaces had been made for them. We must conclude that females in these regions were guaranteeing their subsistence requirements by relating to males in a wholly new way.” (p. 279)

The ‘sex strike’

And what was that “wholly new way”? To get the male hunters to consistently supply meat to the band or clan, the women established what Knight terms “the sex strike,” a menstrually coordinated, periodic refusal by women to have sex with the hunters until the hunters brought back meat to be shared by all. Again, it’s not possible to detail here Knight’s multifaceted support for this hypothesis. But before we turn to his comments on the institution of “marriage,” one crucial byproduct of the sex strike begs for mention.

“A central argument of this book is that … such collective control over sex lies at the root of all sexual ‘morality.’ … The ‘moral’ hunter-gatherer woman is the one who keeps in step with her sisters, her kin and/or her gender group, on occasion refusing sex unless or until the male(s) in her life can be induced to behave acceptably, for example by providing meat. … Only one logical thread, carried through to its conclusion, leads us towards central-place foraging, a home base, sexual morality and a genuinely human lifestyle [i.e., the solidarity of women!]. The other thread is a competitive, primate-style ‘prostitution’ pathway [meat for sex on an individual, strikebreaking basis], leading social life in wholly noncultural directions.” (pp. 188-89)

Based on Knight’s hypothesis, the solidarity of the women’s sex strike would have made male competition for women a waste of time and would have created the human level of sociality among primordial foragers, fishers and hunters that was envisioned by Frederick Engels in “The Origin of the Family”: ”Mutual toleration among the adult males, freedom from jealousy, was the first condition for the formation of those larger, permanent groups in which alone animals could become men.” (New York: International Publishers, 1972, p. 100)

Knight counterpoises his view of social/sexual relations between the females and males of early human social groups to that of French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Knight’s view is developed carefully and in great detail, so we’ll need to quote him at some length: “Lévi-Strauss’ ‘exchange of women’ model, resting as it does on the absolute primacy of marriage, produces some serious theoretical problems. It precludes female solidarity and fails to explain the patterns actually found in traditionally organised — particularly hunter – gatherer — cultures.

“Culture’s ‘initial situation’ cannot be dogmatically asserted, but we can be fairly certain that it bore little relation to Lévi-Strauss’ picture of women as ever-available, passive pawns in the political schemes of men. It would seem more likely that women, in the course of cultural origins, could give themselves sexually because they had something to give — their bodies were not completely owned or spoken for by the other sex in advance.

“Viewing the same feature in the context of the development of hunting and gathering, we may take it that although women did not usually hunt, they could use a measure of control over their own sexual availability to induce men to hunt for them. An implication is that women (supported by their kin) had the capacity to withdraw themselves sexually. In effect — like some female primates but in much more conscious and organised ways — they could go ‘on strike.’”

The origin of sexual morality

Knight continues, ”Naturally, this did not imply that women did not enjoy sex or that sex seldom happened. It simply means that when sex occurred, it took place as a release from the basic cultural constraints — not in obedience to them. In this sense, no matter how joyfully celebrated and woven into the meanings and symbols of all cultural life, sexual gratification from culture’s very beginnings has been delayed, sublimated and harnessed to economic and other ends, its actual consummation always taking place beyond, behind and in a sense, ‘in spite of’ culture. The bonding involved in love-making, as something tending to undermine wider forms of solidarity, has always been for the public cultural domain something of an embarrassment. …

“Of course, there is all the difference in the world between sexually relaxed cultures and more repressive ones in these respects, but in no human social context are people simply uninhibited or unembarrassed in public in the manner of monkeys and apes. In any event, the prioritising of sex has never been allowed to last for long or to threaten society’s fundamental economic goals.” (pp 151-52)

So we can see, from Evelyn Reed’s perspective, which was summarized in Part 10 of this series, as well as in Chris Knight’s analysis here in Part 11, that from the very beginning of human culture and essential to the first new organizational form of Homo sapiens, economic relations between the sexes played a decisive role. In fact, none of the material that has been reviewed up to this point in the series gives any reason to believe that the “traditional marriage” form described by anti-evolutionary anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the first installment of this series existed in the millennia previous to what has come to be called “the agricultural revolution.”

Up to now, our focus has been on the earliest forms of heterosexual relations among hominins and early humans. The ideas presented are of necessity speculative, but are bolstered by a wealth of zoological, archeological, climatological, anthropological, ethnological and other scientific data and, above all, a consistent materialist and evolutionary viewpoint. In the next installment, we’ll investigate the possibility of same-sex marriage among primordial humans.