Original Origin of the Species
The field of anthropology began in the nineteenth century, primarily as a Eurocentric study of nonwhite cultures and civilizations. Though most anthropologists interpreted the people and cultures they studied through a white European patriarchal mindset, a handful of the field’s pioneers—all of them men since women were not allowed into the profession until the twentieth century—came to the conclusion that the first social organization of homo sapiens was based on maternal kinship and the first primitive societies were matriarchal.
A century later, another group of scholars, including feminist author Evelyn Reed, came to the same conclusion. But the notion that human cultures could be governed by females was not well-accepted in the 1800s. As Evelyn Reed wrote, “These discoveries came as a jolt to the long-held doctrine that the father-family and patriarchal society had always existed.”34 Nevertheless, these anthropologists—who included Lewis H. Morgan, Frederick Engels, J. J. Bachofen, and later Robert Briffault, and E. Sidney Hartland—came “to the conclusion that women are to be credited with leading the humanization and socialization of our species.”35
The theory that ancient matriarchies preceded the patriarchal social structure we exist in today is still controversial and a number of anthropologists and historians still claim that humans have always lived under patriarchy. Others say the evidence shows that before patriarchy, ancient societies were matrilineal and/or matrilocal—meaning that family relations and property ownership were traced through the mothers, not the fathers (matrilineal), and/or clans or couples lived in the house of the woman’s family (matrilocal), rather than a woman going to live with the husband’s family.
The problem is that there is no direct evidence to prove whether ancient societies were either matriarchal or patriarchal, and the artifacts that we study to understand the past before written records—the statues and temple ruins, the pieces of pottery and faded cave paintings—are interpreted by scholars who are human beings with their own preconceptions and biases. We put together a story of an ancient people and come to a conclusion about them that is filtered through the world as we know it. As historian Gerda Lerner explained: “The approach we use in interpretation—our conceptual framework—determines the outcome.” And, she wrote, “such a framework is never value-free.”36
In addition, the worldview we interpret the world through determines not only what we see and interpret, but what we don’t see. Historian Craig Lockard points out that:
When we study ancient societies, we may unknowingly be influenced by modern patriarchal attitudes, since these are prominent in today’s culture. We are more likely to study kings and wars than the beginnings of herbal medicine, cloth production, and the role of women as negotiators in community disputes.37
In other words, women have been written out of history because the fields of anthropology and history which were dominated by men for centuries dismissed women entirely, as well as the importance of what women accomplished.
However, most scholars today do agree that women in ancient societies had far greater status than in our modern world, and that women were probably, for the most part, equal to men.38,39 The roles each gender played, and the work they did, were quite different, but these differences were not assigned lesser or greater status. All the activities carried out by women and men were equally essential to the community and, therefore, equally valued.
Women were generally responsible for child-rearing, farming, production of food and clothing, healing, and governance within the communities. Men were generally responsible for hunting, warfare, and dealing with outside communities.
Where the controversy lies is not in whether women were at least as important as men, but in whether these ancient civilizations were ruled by women. But that question is, ironically, exactly why we can’t find the answer. What we need to do is to re-examine the discussion outside our current conceptual framework: We need to put aside our preconceptions and cultural expectations and look at what was a completely different mindset.
“Matriarchy” technically means a social/political structure in which women rule. But the concept of matriarchy in that sense is not a feminist concept, it is a patriarchal concept of a single person or group which rules over another.
What if there were social structures in which there was no such thing as ruling over—no hierarchies, no one gender ruling over the other? Actually, there were. They existed throughout the Americas and the Global South, and the European missionaries, chroniclers, and miscellaneous scholars who encountered these cultures from the 15th century on all wrote about these astounding “egalitarian” peoples where women and men were equal and no single individual ruled over the others.40,41,42,43
Most of these cultures were also described as matrilineal or matrilocal or, in some cases, matriarchal. But to describe an egalitarian society as matriarchal interprets the structure and human interactions through a patriarchal lens. In fact, they were matrisocial.
If we look again at the evidence of ancient civilizations which centered around women through the conceptual framework of being matrisocial, something very different emerges from the notion of any gender ruling over another. What emerges is a social structure based on equality and communalism—exactly what is described by most anthropologists as being the case with ancient human civilizations between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago.
In the typical communal society, there were elders whose advice carried great authority, and there were those who influenced their communities with their social, cultural, and spiritual guidance. In a matrisocial society, it is predominantly the women who guide their tribes and clans and social structures. What was lacking in these social structures was the concept of “ruler” or individual leader in the sense that we today understand “leader.”
For example, in her book Women’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family,44 Evelyn Reed cites the work of anthropologists who studied various indigenous societies around the globe and their observations about the forms of governance. A common theme in many was the lack of hierarchical structure, and the fact that titles like “chief,” “headman,” “sachem,” and “king” were European terms used by colonizers who could only view these other societies through their own cultural norms of patriarchy and hierarchy. In reality, these terms had nothing to do with the process of governance that characterized the indigenous societies which were communal.45
Reed quotes anthropologist Robert Briffault as saying about the Iroquois and Delawares, “They laugh when you talk to them of obedience to kings.”46 And Briffault wrote:
Chiefs are nothing more than the most respected among their equals in rank. Their principal duties were to conduct negotiations with other tribes and with Europeans, and to hold themselves responsible for the carrying out of any agreement thus entered into.47
In 1922, anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Browne wrote that the Andaman Islanders (off the coast of India) “had no organised government.…The affairs of the community are regulated entirely by the older men and women.”48 These elders gained respect partly through seniority and partly through having “certain personal qualities,” including “generosity and kindness, and freedom from bad temper.”49
But Radcliffe-Browne pointed out that even those most respected members of the community do not have “authority”; instead they have “influence.…The words ‘chief’ and ‘authority’ seem to imply some sort of organised rule and procedure, and of this there is nothing in the Andamans.”50
The division of labor required that there be respected elders or guides to help govern the various spheres of life, so there were men who were elected leaders for the men’s responsibilities (e.g., hunting, producing weapons, negotiating with outside groups), and there were women who were elected leaders for the women’s responsibilities (e.g., community life, agriculture, food allocation). But, as Reed explained:
In a communal society there is no obeisance of men to other men by virtue of their superior wealth, rank, and power; by the same token, there is no subordination of women to the “superior” male sex. On the contrary, the influence of women upon men was far more pronounced than the influence of men upon women.51
Though the possibility of ancient matriarchies (i.e., women ruling over men) is controversial and unproven, the central role of women in ancient civilizations is not: Most (if not all) were originally matrisocial. Though most of these ancient indigenous cultures were either partially changed or completely eradicated by the more recent phenomenon of patriarchy approximately 5,000 years ago, there were still vestiges of matrisocial civilizations throughout the world when Europeans began colonizing, observing, and recording these indigenous cultures (albeit, through their biased lenses of patriarchy and hierarchy).a
Robert Briffault, in his 1927 work, The Mothers,52 includes an extensive list of indigenous cultures which were originally matrisocial to varying degrees, including the First Nations of the Seneca, Pawnee, Sioux, Osage, Kiowa, and Pueblo tribes; in Africa, the Banyai, Tuareg, Targi, Tibbu, Bechuana, and ancient Numidians; and in Asia, the Malay Menangkabau, the Sakai, the Pelew Islanders, the Nue’Kun, the Syntang, Garos, and Khasi, to name a few.53
There is far less agreement over exactly how much of a role women played in the leadership of their people, and some scholars still maintain that early outside observers of indigenous cultures were mistaken in their documentation of “maternal” societies.b Though it might be difficult to quantify women’s influence in civilizations that no longer exist, there were a number of matrisocial First Nations, all of which were well-documented before the patriarchal structures of European colonization eradicated them.
Nineteenth century anthropologist John Wesley Powell, who studied the Wyandot people, wrote that family and tribal kinship was traced through the woman’s line and “the head of the family is female.”54 In addition, their civil government consisted of a “system of councils and chiefs,” in which each council was composed of four women who then selected a male chief. As a result, the tribal government of councillors and chiefs was “composed one-fifth of men and four-fifths of women.”55 Legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie writes:
“Traditional Cherokee society was organized according to matrilineal clans, and control over the land resided with the women. Because the matrilineal clan was the fundamental social unit, women had a significant role in the agrarian economy and controlled the means of production.”56
In the early 1700s, Jesuit priest Joseph-François Lafitau wrote about the Iroquois along the St. Lawrence, and commented on the prevailing belief that women were slaves among the Native Americans:
Nothing is more real…than the women’s superiority. It is they who really maintain the tribe, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the order of generations and conservation of the families. In them resides all the real authority: the lands, fields and all their harvest belong to them; they are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of peace and war; they hold the taxes and the public treasure…the children are under their authority; and the order of succession is founded on their blood.”57
The matrisocial structure of Iroquoian society was probably the most widely-studied and chronicled. As historian Howard Zinn explained, although the role of the women was less public than that of the men, they determined the leadership:
The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women attended clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women.58
Many Europeans mistook the role of these male chiefs, assuming they held ultimate authority, but in fact, as Mohawk historian Darren Bonaparte explains, the role of chiefs was “purely honorary”:
The Council of Elders which transacts all the business does not work for itself. It seems that they serve only to represent and aid the women in the matters in which decorum does not permit the latter to appear or act.59
One of the most important reasons for why all this matters is because the patriarchalists who held sway over history for centuries not only wrote women out of history, they also wrote women’s accomplishments out of history.
Because the predominant division of labor involved the men leaving for long periods of time to hunt, while the women remained within the community doing all the other work, it was the women who developed not just a cohesive society, but all the trappings of society, from agriculture to housing, from clothing to medicine.
For example, Evelyn Reed wrote that “The original ‘medicine men’ in history were actually women.”60 And according to Robert Briffault:
The connection of women with the cultivation of the soil and the search for edible vegetables and roots made them specialists in botanical knowledge, which, among primitive peoples,c is extraordinarily extensive. They became acquainted with the properties of herbs, and were thus the first doctors.61
Though food was provided by the men through their hunting, the majority of food, especially day-to-day, was provided by women. The myth that men were the primary providers is simply not supported by the evidence. As Gerda Lerner explained:
[T]he man-the-hunter explanation has been disproven by anthropological evidence concerning hunting and gathering societies. In most of these societies, big-game hunting is an auxiliary pursuit, while the main food supply is provided by gathering activities and small-game hunting, which women and children do.62
Lerner pointed out that in both the past “and in all hunting/gathering societies still existent today, women provide on the average 60 percent or more of the food.”63 In ancient and indigenous societies which were agricultural, women were the dominant (and often the sole) farmers; as a result, the majority of the food was once again provided by the women.
Reed also explained: “From the beginning there is a continuous record of the work of women in procuring and developing the food supply, discovering new sources and kinds of food, and gaining knowledge about its preservation.”64 While the men were off hunting—often unsuccessfully—women were discovering and developing the staple crops that are basic foods to this day: rice, wheat, barley, corn, manioc, squash, yams, millet, etc. She cited archaeologist Gordon Childe who pointed out that early “mankind, or rather womankind, had not only to discover suitable plants and appropriate methods for their cultivation, but must also devise special implements for tilling the soil, reaping, and storing the crop, and converting it into foods.”65
The central role women occupied in obtaining and producing food for the human race is considered by patriarchal standards to be far less important than the role men played in waging wars. Yet, the human race would not have survived if it had depended on the hunting skills of men. In addition, as women increased their knowledge and developed increasingly sophisticated skills, the discoveries and inventions that accompanied the daily work of producing and providing food were extraordinary.
From the discovery and cultivation of fire to developing methods of growing, preserving, and storing food, the idea that women did not invent or develop what they worked with every day makes no logical sense. There’s no evidence for and no logic to the notion that men did, only the ideology of patriarchy that sustains the myth.
As society under women’s leadership developed, women continued to develop a range of skills and crafts for daily life, inventing tools and processes for creating textiles, cordage, storage, shelter, and cooking utensils. Science was also an integral part of this development. For example, the need to understand the growing seasons led to women developing not just agronomy but also astronomy. Reed described some of the other sciences developed by women:
Not only medicine but the rudiments of various other sciences grew up side by side with the craft and know-how of women. Childe points out that to convert flour into bread requires a knowledge of biochemistry and the use of the yeast microorganism. This substance also led to the production of fermented liquors and beer. Childe also gives credit to women for the chemistry of pot-making, the physics of spinning, the mechanics of the loom, and the botany of flax and cotton.66
Women were also the builders, beginning with basic shelters and food storage structures.67 Briffault wrote extensively about the homes built by women in various indigenous societies:
“[The woman] not only owned the house, but fashioned it with her hands.…The huts of the Australian, of the Andaman islanders, of the Patagonians, of the Botocudos, the rough shelters of the Seri, the skin lodges and wigwams of the American Indian, the black camel-hair tent of the Bedouin, the “yurta” of the nomads of Central Asia, are all the exclusive work and the special care of the women.68
Briffault also mentioned a conversation ethnologist Waldemar Borgoras had with some Chukchi men (an indigenous people of Russia) about the framework of a house. Every time he would ask them for the name of a different part of the structure, they would respond, “I don’t know—that is women’s business.”69
As artists as well as artisans, the work of women became far more than simply utilitarian. As Reed explained, “Women developed their skills far beyond the building of granaries. They built elaborate houses and even whole pueblos or towns. Briffault assembled voluminous data on this aspect of women’s work as architect and engineer.”70 Briffault reported that:
The pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona recall the picturesque sky-line of an Oriental town; clusters of many-storied houses rise in terraced tiers, the flat roof of the one serving as a terrace for that above. The upper stories are reached by ladders or by outside stairs, and the walls are bordered with ornamental crenellated battlements. Courtyards and piazzas, streets and curious round public buildings serving as clubs and temples, form part of those towns.…Those edifices are built exclusively by the women. Among the Zuñi at the present day the men assist with the heavier work of timbering; among the Hopis the work is still done entirely by the women.71
The notion that women were the physical builders probably upends the propaganda of female frailty and passivity more than anything else. But in reality, the notion that men are physically stronger than women is a relatively recent phenomenon most commonly associated with European and ruling class teachings. Above all, it’s a concept that arose from patriarchy’s curtailment of women’s participation in life.
In many of the older indigenous societies, for example, men were generally considered better equipped for short bursts of strength, while women were capable of lifting and carrying heavy loads for long distances. Evelyn Reed cites the work of Katherine and William Routledge who lived with the Kikiyu people in Africa. The men could carry around 40 pounds, but the average woman would carry loads of firewood for five to ten miles; these loads often weighed 100 pounds. The Routledges wrote that “A Kikuyu man is quite unequal to carrying a load that his women think nothing of.”72
Robert Briffault listed a number of early indigenous peoples in which the women were quite a bit stronger than the men. In Africa, there were the Adombies, the Bashilanga, Ashanti, Somals, Kru, Wateita, Iyashi, and Dahomey.73 In the Americas, he quotes reports of women’s greater physical strength among the First Nations in Canada, in Honduras, and Tierra del Fuego, and he cites Admiral F. P. Wrangell, who wrote that the Native American women of Northern California “are, in general, of far greater bodily strength than the men, who, although tall and well proportioned, nevertheless appear to be weaker than the women.”74
Briffault also mentions Tibetan women as “being taller and stronger than the men,” the “Khasi women of Assam who “can carry loads which Hindu [men] are unable to lift,” the Chinwan women of Formosa who “carry burdens which the men are unable to handle,” and the women of Bhutan who “carry the men on their backs when travelling.”75
Just as indigenous civilizations around the globe were overthrown and colonized by Europeans, the collectivist and egalitarian matrisocial cultures were overthrown and women subjugated by patriarchal men; to say that either violent upheaval was the result of superior strength—or any other kind of superiority—is absurd. The conquering patriarchs, like the conquering Europeans, were armed with more lethal weapons and motivated by more murderous intentions.
How patriarchy came to occupy the world may never be known since there are no written records of the overthrow, but how the European system of patriarchal exploitation corrupted and colonized the Native American civilizations—with the result that women were marginalized and turned into property—is fairly well-documented. One typical example was what happened to the Cherokee Nation, which had been an agrarian, matrilineal society. As Rebecca Tsosie explained,
Traditional Cherokee society was organized according to matrilineal clans, and control over the land resided with the women. Because the matrilineal clan was the fundamental social unit, women had a significant role in the agrarian economy and controlled the means of production…[However] the introduction of the market system changed the economics of Cherokee society to include a dominant role for Cherokee men. First, the fur trade opened up the trade economy, which Cherokee men then transformed into livestock raising…[C]apitalism fostered a market-based economy in which men were labourers who produced surplus commodities for export, and women’s labour was concentrated into arenas that were not incorporated within the male-dominated export economy. Because of this, Cherokee men assumed the dominant role in all trades, including the agricultural trade.76
Once the economic structure of patriarchy, along with its system of exploitation, subjugation, and unsustainable production, took over and supplanted the economy based on egalitarian sustainability, it was inevitable that political subjugation would be necessary to reinforce the new economy:
[T]he traditional government was reorganized to incorporate the emerging role of Cherokee men in intercultural dealings with the white society, which had a marked effect on traditional clan systems and Cherokee women. Between 1808 and 1825, male leaders instituted a series of laws that transformed marriage, property rights, family lineage, and the political rights of women. This enabled these leaders to transfer Cherokee lands and resources to the United States government.77
Elsewhere across the land of the First Nations, the same pattern was repeated over and over; resources, food, forests, and croplands were depleted as the Native American men were seductively pulled into the new market- and profit-based export economy, while the women were pushed to the margins and disenfranchised of their cultural, economic, political, and human rights.78,79
As the women were disappeared, so too were the First Nations. “Native women in contemporary society sit at the bottom of the social hierarchy,” writes Jacqui Popick.d “They struggle with sexism and racism and are not generally respected even by their own people. Economically they are more disadvantaged than non-First Nations people and First Nations men.”80
Across the globe and across history, the subjugation of half the human race results in tyranny, exploitation, genocide, and environmental devastation. As the Cheyenne say:
“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”81
First Nations: Our First History
Myth of Ancient Patriarchy
Enforcing Patriarchy: Compulsory heterosexuality
The Notes to Original Origin of the Species:
a: Many of these cultures were called matrilocal because the males were required to move into the woman’s house after marriage. This really isn’t an indication of women’s equal or superior status, and in fact, there were a number of so-called matrilocal cultures which were quite patriarchal. However, a culture in which only women own or inherit property, or in which women are the primary decision-makers, are societies I’ve classified as matrisocial.
b: This was the term used by anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser in the 1930s.82
c: The terms “primitive” and “savage” were typical of Europeans’ notions of superiority, and so commonly used by whites to describe any non-European, that white scholars and scientists still use the terms as official designations of human civilizations prior to written history. Evelyn Reed was aware of the inherent racism of the terms, but did not substitute them. As she explained in her introduction, “The terms ‘savage’ and ‘primitive,’ often used in a derogatory, colonialist, or racist sense, are here used exclusively in a scientific way. ‘Savage’ is simply a designation for our earliest ancestors.”83
d: Popick studied Native American women as part of her undergraduate studies at the University of Lethbridge (Canada).