Women and the struggle for human sociality
For anthropologists who subscribe to an evolutionary materialist approach to human origins, the central role of the female of the species in the process of creating a distinctly human culture is beyond question. As the producers of new life, the mothers were crucial to the continuance of the collective. As the nurturers of the totally helpless human infants and as the caregivers, protectors and teachers of the young children, the women played the primary role in the enculturation of each new generation.
But there is much more to say about their importance in producing what Frederick Engels termed “the transition from ape to man.” In his never-completed essay entitled “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” Engels writes: “First labor, after it and then with it, speech — these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man.” (New York: International Publishers, 1950, p. 11)
Dependence on language as uniquely important to Homo sapiens and essential to our species’ cultural transformation is indisputable. Clearly, as an extremely efficient and productive form of communication, its development involved the interaction of individuals of both sexes, but its introduction and its transmission to each new generation was certainly the work of women.
The total helplessness of hominin babies and the extended nutritional dependence of hominin children would have necessitated the provisioning and sharing of food between the mother and her offspring on a broader scale than that witnessed among our primate relatives. Equally important, the collectivity of women and children would have constituted the social center of the primordial band. Women would have been keepers of the fire, producers of tools, builders of shelter and processors of food.
Our confidence in these assertions concerning the crucial role of prehistoric women rests, in part, on the patterns of life among forager and hunter groups as described in innumerable anthropological and related reports, especially those by witnesses untainted by the anthropological counterrevolution discussed earlier in this series.
Two outstanding Marxist scholars
In the views of two Marxist-oriented theoreticians of human origins, it was the collective intervention of women that introduced patterns of civility, cooperation and sharing to the primordial hominin bands. Both Evelyn Reed and Chris Knight exhibit a breathtakingly comprehensive familiarity with existing ethnographic, anthropological and archeological findings. Their hypotheses regarding “the transition from ape to man” rest on the extensive use and interpretation of this knowledge.
Reed, a Marxist and a feminist activist who died in 1979, devoted 20 years to her study of the existing literature in the areas of ethnology, social anthropology, archeology, zoology and related fields. These two decades spent mulling over hundreds of field reports, theoretical compilations and other materials resulted in a remarkable document, the 491-page book titled “Women’s Evolution.” (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975)
Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, we haven’t found even a single reference to Reed’s book among the many more recent printed and online materials consulted in preparation for this series. We suspect that the culprit here is the anti-communist, good-old-boys network, more commonly referred to as the bourgeois academic establishment.
Reed was an anti-capitalist activist, not a bourgeois academician. Thus, she lacked the qualifications necessary to be taken seriously by the academic establishment. As a revolutionary, she would have had difficulty earning the necessary credentials, had she even wanted to. Nevertheless, as we hope to demonstrate, at least in brief, her hypothesis is based on a solid foundation of scientific reports, objective evaluations and logical reasoning.
Knight, also a Marxist activist, is an anthropologist by profession. His theoretical contribution, “Blood Relations,” was referenced earlier in this series. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991) It contains, in addition to Knight’s take on the revolutionary intervention of prehistoric women, a comprehensive history of how the new science of anthropology was effectively de-evolutionized in the early 20th century.
Knight has admirable credentials as an activist. To the discredit of his superiors, he was first suspended and then fired from his academic position at the University of East London for his words and actions as a leader of an April 2009 protest in London against a G20 Summit of imperialist political leaders and bankers. Then, in 2011, he was arrested with 21 other “Occupy London” activists for targeting a mining company’s criminal activities.
Deciphering past practices and beliefs
In the vast body of data addressing various aspects of the lives of foraging and hunting peoples, there are many seeming puzzles, oddities and sometimes utterly baffling practices and beliefs, at least as seen through the eyes of observers from the capitalist world. The assessments that explorers, slavers, missionaries, traders, entrepreneurs and other agents of the global imperialist system have made of these practices and beliefs have often smacked of blatant, colonialist-style racism. Anthropologists and ethnologists have not always been immune from similar approaches.
A more neutral or disinterested response has been to write these practices and beliefs off as simply inexplicable, given the huge cultural gap between the peoples of the imperialist centers and those of the less-developed parts of the world. What both Reed and Knight have accomplished is to draw together some of the most poorly understood of these practices and beliefs, together with other factual information, to produce unifying concepts and economical hypotheses that make sense of the data.
Of course, what we’re most interested in is what their hypotheses have to say about prehistoric social/sexual relations and any clues concerning the origins of “marriage.” But a short summary of each author’s conceptual framework, although failing to provide a complete picture of its full power and scope, will at least delineate a context for the author’s view of primordial social/sexual relations. We will tackle these challenges in the next two installments of this series.
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 with your name and address to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2nd Floor, NY, N.Y. 10011 or order from Amazon.com.