The Myth of Ancient Patriarchy
The existence of ancient matriarchal societies is still considered controversial and “unsubstantiated” by a number of scholars. One of the leading patriarchalists, Cynthia Eller, writes that “The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals.”86
At the same time, the evidence proving that ancient human communities were patriarchal is equally sketchy and ambiguous. In fact, the notion that patriarchy is the “natural” order of homo sapiens (and therefore, ancient matriarchies did not exist) is based on assumptions and interpretations of biased individuals.
For example, another leading patriarchalist, Steven Goldberg, author of The Inevitability of Patriarchy,87 argues that men’s “natural” dominance is biological; therefore, ancient matriarchal societies could not have existed.88 What is more commonly argued by Goldberg and the others who dismiss the evidence of ancient matriarchies is that since patriarchy has been and still is the only social structure modern humanity has ever known, it must therefore have always existed. Ironically, the accusation most commonly used against those who offer evidence of ancient matriarchies is that they are “unscientific” and “subjective.”
Another example of how bias results in incorrect assumptions was infamously carried out by the European invaders of the Americas. Throughout the North and South American continents, the civilizations of the First Nations consisted of matrisocial and matrilineal societies, as well as patriarchies, patrilineal societies, and blends of all.
But patriarchy was all that Europeans had ever experienced and so patriarchal bias rendered Europeans incapable of objectively understanding gender roles in Native American societies. To begin with, the Europeans dismissed women in positions of power as “wives” and “squaws” and refused to engage with them, except as property and spoils of war. As sociologist Duane Champagne wrote, “Europeans did not value women politically, economically, socially or spiritually.”89
And so the myth took hold that “Indian tribes” were ruled by male chiefs and warriors—even though women were the decision-makers or equal to men in many of the Nations90,91,92,93—a myth that was reinforced by the biased perceptions of the European anthropologists and other scholars who continue to repeat the same myths.
When Spanish, English, and other European invaders came to the New World and saw women working in the fields and building houses, they assumed that meant women were subordinate to men, if not outright slaves, because in their worldview, not only were women subordinate, but only subordinate classes performed manual labor.a, 94,95,96,97
In fact, manual labor was highly valued among most of the First Nations, and both women and men were respected on the merits of their physical labor, whether the work entailed building houses, hauling water, making tools, or hunting buffalo. For example, among the Eskimos, “Praise for individual conduct is generally expressed in terms of exemplary work performance.”98 Among the Plains tribes, “both men and women were respected for doing their jobs well.”99
And unlike the Europeans, no labor was devalued or trivialized, especially because of gender. In the Plains, “women worked hard, but they were held in high esteem for the elemental role they played in supporting village life”100 and among the Eskimos, neither the work of women or men was valued more highly than the other; they were “just different.”101 In the Pacific Northwest, the women of the Tlingit society generally held greater authority than men, particularly regarding decision-making and handling finances. Nevertheless, the division of labor that was defined by sex was considered complementary; no labor was considered superior or inferior and “the joint, but separate, efforts of the men and women of a family” were equally essential.102
Among the Southwestern Tewa, the traditional culture respected the different jobs of women and men equally; however, anthropologist Sue-Ellen Jacobs reported that, in the 1970s, the younger generation of men “seem to have acquired what is referred to by others in San Juan Pueblo as ‘the macho image.’ These men express clear disdain for any domestic chores they deem ‘women’s work.’” Jacobs also reported that it is mostly the older men “who rebuke this behavior.…an uncle recently told one of these men that he had better ‘relearn respect for women.’”103
Throughout the Americas, this pattern of learning to disrespect women was a crucial part of dismantling indigenous cultures and civilizations, and replacing them with the patriarchal values of the white European colonizers.
The results of this patriarchal marginalization of women were wide-ranging and utterly devastating. Legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie points out that the “policy of the European nations, and then of the United States, was to recognize male political leaders only.”104 This policy, she writes, had repercussions that unraveled the fabric and structure of Native American life and culture and led to a systematic and permanent impoverishment and degradation, first of the women.
One example was the Cherokee Nation, which as Tsosie explains, “was organized according to matrilineal clans, and control over the land resided with the women.” However, since women were irrelevant to the whites, “male leaders were asked to sign away tribal rights to land that, under traditional custom, was within the ownership and control of Native women.”105 Though the women organized to stop the loss of lands, their stature within the Nation had been so diminished by the impact and resulting changes of colonization that they were ignored by the men.106
The result was that most of their tribal lands were lost, after which whites began a campaign of military attacks and expulsion. After being forcibly removed from what remained of their ancestral lands in Georgia and held in an internment camp in Tennessee, 15,000 Cherokee people were infamously forced on an 800-mile death march—known as the Trail of Tears—in the winter of 1838 to their new “home” on a reservation in Oklahoma. Approximately 8,000 people died as a result of the expulsion from their lands, 4,000 of whom died during the death march.107,108
One of the primary reasons that no clear records exist of ancient matriarchies is that it appears that all or most of them did not develop a written language. This was, in fact, the case with many ancient societies, and even many of the indigenous nations of the Americas. As historian Howard Zinn explained about the First Nations:
“They were people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europe’s, accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama.”109
Some matrisocieties still existed when European scholars first came into contact with them, not just in the Americas, but throughout the Global South. But since European scholars interpreted what they saw through the biased assumptions of their own patriarchal societies, the existence of these matrisocieties, and the honored status of women, was invisible to them. Those few Europeans who did document the matrialb social structures (for example, Lewis H. Morgan, Frederick Engels, J. J. Bachofen, Robert Briffault, and E. Sidney Hartland) were later dismissed or ridiculed.
Soon after the arrival of the colonizing Europeans—as their interactions, trading, and wars began to impact and disrupt First Nation societies—the shift in social structures and economies, and from matrisocial to patriarchies, began. As more and more whites began documenting Native American societies, what they were documenting were no longer the same civilizations as before the invasions. Like the history of the Cherokees, the interactions with whites, the demands, attacks, and colonization had diminished and marginalized the status of women throughout the First Nations.
This same pattern of misinterpretation and biased recording of “history,” followed by forced imposition of social paradigms through economic and military colonization, was repeated throughout the global South, as Europeans invaded, occupied, and colonized. Any traces of matrial social structures were either ignored or written out of history.
And so, lacking any written “hard” evidence of matrial civilization, European-based scholars continue to assert that their version of history is correct and all others are wrong, especially those that contradict the “natural” order of “mankind.”
Original Origin of the Species
First Nations: Our First History
The Notes to The Myth of Ancient Patriarchy
a: Unlike the majority of the First Nations who had high regard for physical labor, Europeans viewed manual labor with contempt and regarded a life of idleness as the pinnacle of achievement.110,111,112,113,114
b: This is a new word I’ve invented, along with “matrisocial.”