A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 16

Social tensions facilitate transition from matrilineal clan to patriarchy

Lewis Henry Morgan used the Darwinian concept of “natural selection” to explain prehistoric transitions, first from hominin sexual promiscuity to group marriage and then on to the pairing marriage form. At the time Morgan and Frederick Engels were developing their view of human evolution, in the second half of the 19th century, natural selection was a new and exciting scientific breakthrough. But the genetic basis underlying this process was not known when Engels accepted Morgan’s explanation and referred to it in his “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.”

In fact, the subsequent discovery of the genetic basis undermined Morgan’s use of natural selection and forms, perhaps, a principal motive for the alternative hypotheses put forward by Evelyn Reed and Chris Knight (see Parts 10 and 11 of this series). Both of these hypotheses outline chronologically remote, prehistoric evolutionary processes (or “revolutions”) in the relations between the sexes that set the stage, first, for the period of matrilineal clans and mother right and, later, for a transition to agriculture.

According to Knight’s hypothesis, the male hunters were induced by a women’s sex strike to share the product of their kills. Reed’s basic argument is that the hominin hunters were induced by the hominin women to give up the practice of cannibalism and become farmers.

There is no necessary conflict between the evolutionary materialist ideas of these two pro-Marxist theoreticians. Viewed chronologically, Reed’s two-part hypothesis would probably straddle Knight’s, with Reed’s hypothesis of male hominins overcoming cannibalism preceding Knight’s hypothesis of the human female solidarity sex strike, which, in turn, would logically be followed millennia later by the push of human women of the matrilineal clans for the domesticated hunters to become farmers.

Kin-based vs. non-kin-based loyalties

As noted in previous installments, the pairing marriage characteristic of the matrilineal clans had an exogamous character; pairings were made between clans, with the “husband” visiting or relocating to the woman’s clan from his own maternal clan. These moves had the benefit of initiating and building connections between clans, which meant building trust and networks of mutual support. But while the practice had the immediate effect of contributing to interclan alliances and solidarity, its long-term effect contributed to undermining matrilineality and the communal nature of the clan.

Reed writes in “Woman’s Evolution”: “It is the men who are most affected by the conflict between matrilineality and matrimony. The man who leaves his own community for that of his wife has divided interests and loyalties. All his basic rights, responsibilities, and allegiances are with his sisters and other matrikin. This inhibits the fuller development of his ties with his wife and her children.” (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975, pp. 319-320)

Further along she writes, “As against the husband-wife pair joined in marriage, there arises what may be called a counter-institution, the sister-brother pair united in matrilineality. … The antagonistic coexistence of sister-brother and husband-wife can be viewed as the harbinger of fundamental changes taking place in the matriarchal structure.” (p. 324)

This source of social/sexual tension, resting on a contradiction between kin and non-kin relations, was by itself, however, insufficient basis for the qualitative transformation in social/sexual relations that was to come. Reed adds another kin/non-kin source of social/sexual tension that developed from the social pattern spelled out in many anthropological reports. She describes how potential “husbands” were accepted into the prospective wife’s clan.

Winning the acceptance of the prospective wife’s matrikin and, in particular, that of the prospective mother-in-law involved working for them. Reed writes: “He becomes a husband when he has passed through the ordeal and is ready to accept the work of husbandry. … One meaning of ‘husband’ is ‘a man who has a wife.’ But a ‘husbandman’ is a farmer, a tiller of the ground. Thus the husband makes his appearance in history as a gardener working for his wife’s kin.” (p. 312)

Reed emphasizes the profound political significance of men embracing farming over hunting and how this development occurred in parallel with a new form of social/sexual relations between men and women, something much more akin to what is considered “marriage” in modern society: “From gardening 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.” (pp. 312-313)

The contradictory character of the gift

A further source of social tension among the matrilineal clans was a practice whose initial effect, like that of exogamous sexual relations, was to initiate and build networks of trust and mutual support among neighboring clans. This was the custom of gift exchange.

From an evolutionary point of view, gift exchange initially functioned as a largely symbolic extension to the interclan level of the intraclan sharing of resources that was an essential characteristic of communal, matrilineal society. Its importance was examined in detail by Marcel Mauss in “The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.” (Trans. by W. D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990. Orig. pub., 1954)

Mauss stresses the collective and symbolic nature of gift giving in what he terms “archaic societies”: “First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon each other. … Moreover, what they exchange is not solely property. … In particular, such exchanges are acts of politeness … in which the passing on of wealth is only one feature of a much more general and enduring contract. Finally, these total services and counter-services are committed to in a somewhat voluntary form by presents and gifts, although in the final analysis they are strictly compulsory, on pain of private or public warfare.” (p. 5)

Summarizing his anthropologically based analysis, Mauss writes: “Thus, in four important population groups [of foragers and hunters] we have discovered … the archaic form of exchange — that of gifts presented and reciprocated. Moreover, we have identified the circulation of things in these societies with the circulation of rights and persons. … The number, extent, and importance of these facts justifies fully our conception of a regime that must have been shared by a very large part of humanity during a very long transitional phase, one that, moreover, still subsists among the peoples we have described.” (p. 46)

But like exogamy, reciprocal gift giving produced contradictory pressures. The “compulsory” or obligatory nature of the exchange would become problematical when the evolving technology of agricultural food production and food storage began producing surplus beyond immediate needs. The inevitable economic inequality based on factors like differences in productivity that resulted in differential quantities of food surplus was, perhaps, first expressed in the phenomenon of feasting, a widespread practice among early agriculturalists that we’ll consider in detail in the next installment.

McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993. To order, send $10 to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2nd Floor, N.Y., NY 10011 with name and address, or order from Amazon.com.