Did communal society survive Europe’s Agricultural Revolution?
Was there a golden age of woman-centered peace and plenty during the Neolithic period in the far western region of Eurasia, an area that archeological theorist Marija Gimbutas labeled “Old Europe”? Gimbutas’ hypothesis, presented in a number of books and enthusiastically embraced by numerous feminist writers, envisions a widespread gynocentric society flourishing under the blessings of economic equality and social harmony but, problematically from a materialist point of view, set technologically in the context of the unfolding agricultural revolution.
Gimbutas attributes the demise of this Old Europe to an invasion of warriors from the Eastern Steppes, who brought with them the trappings of patriarchy and their Indo-European language and culture. She bases her hypothesis on the results of her own extensive European archaeological fieldwork, the findings of other archeologists in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern areas, an analysis of religious beliefs and myths in those areas, and generally known facts about the prehistory of the areas.
Gimbutas is widely known among feminist scholars for her interpretation of what she terms “goddess figurines.” This diverse array of human shapes in stone, bone and clay, many of them with clearly feminine features, are frequent finds at archeological digs, and Gimbutas marshals them all as evidence for her hypothesized prehistoric gynocentric society in “The Language of the Goddess.” (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989) Her description of marriage in Old Europe pretty much parallels what has been written in this series about the pairing marriage form found in matrilineal clan societies previous to the adoption of agriculture.
Challenges to “Old Europe” hypothesis
Gimbutas’ hypothesis has proved to be very controversial. Many archeologists have challenged her conclusions, and not all these responses have had a reactionary, anti-feminist subtext. Archaeologist Ian Hodder, for example, has continued the excavation of the prehistoric Anatolian site Çatalhöyük. This work was begun by James Mellaart, whose preliminary discoveries there form an important part of Gimbutas’ evidence. Hodder, in “The Leopard’s Tale,” respectfully disagrees with Mellaart’s earlier conclusions and Gimbutas’ use of them. (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006) Another challenge to Gimbutas has come in the form of essays by 12 women archeologists collected under the title “Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.” (Edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999)
It remained for a revolutionary Marxist, however, to present a thoroughgoing critique of Gimbutas’ hypothesis. As a militant woman leader and a Marxist theorist, Workers World Party founder Dorothy Ballan was very interested in what Gimbutas had to say. In her article on Gimbutas’ hypothesis, “When Goddesses Ruled: ‘The Language of the Goddess’ Confirms Early Matriarchy,” Ballan credits Gimbutas’ remarkable achievement in ”The Language of the Goddess”: “The very fact that a woman has broken through the almost inaccessible male-dominated field of archeology is in itself a considerable accomplishment and a source of pride and encouragement to other women.” (“Liberation and Marxism,” June/July 1990, p. 2)
Ballan acknowledges Gimbutas’ conception of what Ballan terms “an idealized version of ancient primitive communism” as a positive contribution, but notes that “it is not a new one. This idea was expounded more than a century ago by Bachofen in ‘Mother Right’ and by Lewis Morgan in ‘Ancient Society.’ These forerunners of Gimbutas, who analyzed early society with the information available at that time, were basically correct. But surprisingly, they are not mentioned in Gimbutas’ book. …
“Bachofen, Morgan and Engels laid the foundation for ‘The Language of the Goddess.’ What then is Marija Gimbutas’ contribution? What she did was unearth physical evidence that they were right, that the matriarchy did precede the patriarchy.”
Eurocentricism and anti-communism tarnish findings
“However,” stresses Ballan, “her idealized focus on the matrilineal societies of Stone Age Europe leads to a distorted view of human history. Today a Eurocentric view of world history is justifiably under attack by progressive historians and social scientists. Gimbutas’ descriptions of ‘our authentic European heritage’ destroyed by ‘that aggressive male invasion’ from Russia and Asia introduces a narrow Eurocentric view of prehistory.
“Gimbutas is an archeologist with 30-years experience who speaks 17 languages. She cannot be unaware of the research of numerous other anthropologists, archeologists and historians who have confirmed the worldwide evidence of matrilineal and matriarchal
“Gimbutas presents the overthrow of the matriarchy as though it were merely a case of external force intervening in a peaceful, stable and egalitarian system. She has no other explanation for the great, historic and decisive development that brought about the patriarchy. She dare not give any explanation that deals with the material conditions of life, i.e., with the basic economic conditions in human society. …
“The material conditions of life, the growth of the productive forces of society and the relations of production that grow out of it, have no relevance to her cultural theory. The view that technology … in turn changes all the old relations in society, including art and literature, seems not to influence Gimbutas’ thinking at all.”
Material forces are basis for beliefs, social change
Ballan continues: ”It is important to study the forms of ownership in any society to get to the root cause of development, which includes not only upward, forward movement, but also includes regression. What did destroy the primitive form of communism and matrilineal relations in the period of mother right was the beginning of surplus and the private ownership of that surplus.
“The beginning of existence of these new conditions corresponds roughly to the rise of the patriarchy. The very social relations that had existed for so long became a brake upon the society and that stagnation led to erosion of the old family relations. It was a development on a world scale, not an external force invading an idyllic society. It was an outgrowth of the stagnation of the older forms of social relations.” (pp. 3-4)
Ballan notes and condemns the anti-communist tirade that concludes “The Language of the Goddess”: “Gimbutas turns to crude anti-communism as a prop for her thesis. This may be music to the ears of the ultraright in the United States and it may help in gaining favorable press reviews. But it will do little to establish her work as a significant contribution — either to archeology or to the women’s movement. “
She continues: “Another problem is what many reviewers praise as the spiritual implications of her work. … It is all good and well for women to be inspired by the facts, established more than a century ago, that matriarchal, communal societies flourished widely for many, many thousands of years. … But Gimbutas climbs to another dimension altogether when she glorifies divine female worship as the force behind egalitarian, communal societies. She implies that myths determine the basis of society, rather than the social and economic basis of society determining the myths. This puts her work in the field of myth and superstition. It also puts her in conflict with science.” (p. 5)
Taking into consideration Ballan’s incisive evaluation and the misgivings of many of Gimbutas’ archeological colleagues, we think it’s safe to conclude that Gimbutas’ hypothesis (as opposed to the findings of her fieldwork) does not represent a defensible exception to a materialist perspective on the evolution of patriarchal marriage.
As human groups in Europe and elsewhere adopted agricultural production over foraging and hunting as their primary source of sustenance, the new relations of production introduced economic inequality that favored men over women. What Gimbutas’ work actually uncovered are significant vestiges of the communal human society that was no longer dominant in her hypothesized “Old Europe” of the Neolithic period.
In future installments in this series our attention will be drawn to the tenacious persistence of some other pre-patriarchal “vestiges” well into the epoch of patriarchy and the efforts of patriarchal rulers to stamp them out.