The original rule was that against rape, ‘No means NO’, a woman’s body is sacred if she says so. Here is my story about how that rule arose.
“It’s not Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment.
It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded
history. This is coming. This is real…You watch. Women are gonna take charge of
So spoke former
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon at a Golden Globes dinner last
February where actors wore black – a symbol of sexual refusal – to protest
sexual abuse. It’s doubtful Bannon had boned up on his anthropology and
archaeology in reaching for the 10,000-year date, but he was joining a recent debate
on the lifespan and ‘natural history’ of patriarchy.
About a month
after Bannon’s pronouncements, two lefty University of London professors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, rewrote ‘the narrative of human history’.
They attacked the ‘myth’ that humans had once enjoyed equality and freedom in
hunter-gatherer bands, until the invention of farming sent us down the road to
social inequality (and Bannon-style patriarchy). So while the alt-right-winger
appears to be setting a limit to patriarchy as a historic phenomenon, the
anarchists seem to believe it extends all the way back to our very origins.
Disturbingly, I think Bannon is correct, both on the coming power of anti-patriarchy and in his
assessment of male dominance as recent history – not human nature. The
anarchist professors, because they are gender-blind in their analysis on the
history of equality, have got it wrong.
The main reasons
Graeber and Wengrow are disqualified from speaking about human origins are that
they give no context of evolution; they don’t deal with sex and gender; and
they leave out Africa, the continent on which we evolved as modern humans.
Let’s be clear. Bannon/Trump
are the enemy, the epitome of patriarchy, the clear and present danger to our
planet. I intend to do everything I can to make Bannon’s words come true. This
is why it matters that the London professors are undermining our current
understanding of how recent patriarchy is in our history, and how little it has
contributed to making us the species we are.
I want to present
evidence that gender egalitarianism was pivotal to the evolution of our
language-speaking ancestors. I’ll ask whether it makes a difference if our
modern human bodies and minds evolved through a prolonged period of increasing egalitarianism.
Would it help us if we were designed by natural and sexual selection to be
happy and healthy in egalitarian conditions? If so, then perhaps the positive question that
needs asking first is not ‘how did we get to be unequal?’ but ‘how did we first
Egalitarian bodies and minds
Let’s begin with
the biology. Perhaps the hallmark of our egalitarian nature is the design of
our eyes. We are the only one of well over 200 primate species to have evolved
eyes with an elongated shape and a bright white sclera background to a dark
iris. Known as ‘cooperative eyes’, they invite anyone we interact with to see easily what we are looking
at. By contrast, great apes have round, dark eyes, making it very difficult to
judge their eye direction. Like mafia dons wearing sunglasses, they watch other
animal’s moves intently, but disguise their thoughts from others. This suits a
primate world of Machiavellian competition.
Our eyes are adapted
for mutual mindreading, also called intersubjectivity; our closest relatives
block this off. To look into each other’s eyes, asking ‘can you see what I
see?’ and ‘are you thinking what I am thinking?’ is completely natural to us, from
an early age. Staring into the eyes of other primate species is taken as a
threat. This tells us immediately that we evolved along a different path from
our closest primate relatives.
In Mothers and
most important book on human evolution published this century, the outstanding
Darwinian feminist Sarah Hrdy gives a convincing account of how, why and when this
happened. She presents a straightforward argument. We do babysitting in all human
societies, mothers being happy to hand over their offspring for others to look
after temporarily. African hunter-gatherers are the champions of this
collective form of childcare, indicating that it was routine in our heritage.
In stark contrast, great ape mothers – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang
utans – do not let their babies go. Because of the risks of harm to their
infants, they are hyperpossessive and protective, not daring to take the
applies to great apes. Monkeys behave differently, being prepared to leave a
baby with a trusted relative. Old World monkey mothers usually live with female
relatives: great ape mothers don’t. This means ape mothers have no one nearby
whom they can trust sufficiently. This is telling us something significant
about the social conditions in which we evolved. Our foremothers must have been
living close to trusted female relatives, the most reliable in the first place
being a young mother’s own mother. This ‘grandmother hypothesis’ has been used to explain our long post-reproductive
lifespans – the evolution of menopause.
explores how multi-parental care shaped the evolution of our species’ unique
psychological nature. While cooperative childcare may start with the
mother-daughter relationship, bonding with grandchildren quickly leads to the
involvement of aunts, sisters, older daughters and other trusted relatives.
From the moment when mothers allow others to hold their babies, says Hrdy,
selection pressures for new kinds of mind-reading are established. These give
rise to novel responses – mutual gazing, babbling, kissfeeding and so forth –
which enable this variegated triad of mum, baby and new helper to consolidate
bonds while monitoring one another’s intentions. Within a few short hours after birth, a baby
in an African hunter-gatherer camp will have been held by numerous relatives
and friends, of both sexes.
most salient feature of our anatomy distinguishing us from other apes is the
extraordinary size of our brains. While a human and chimp mother have a fairly
similar body weight, adult humans today have upwards of three times the brain
volume of a chimp. Brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy
requirements. Doing the whole job by themselves, great ape mothers are
constrained in the amount of energy they can provide to offspring and so apes
cannot expand brains above what is known as a ‘gray ceiling’ (600 cc). Our ancestors
smashed through this ceiling some 1.5-2 million years ago with the emergence of
Homo erectus, who had brains more
than twice the volume of chimps today. This tells us that cooperative childcare
was already part of Homo erectus
society, with concomitant features of evolving cooperative eyes and emergent
can track the degree of egalitarianism in the societies of descendants of Homo erectus, by measuring brain sizes
in these early humans, using the fossil record. From 6-700,000 years ago we
begin to see cranial values in the modern human range, three times as large as
present day chimps. From half a million years ago, for both African (modern
human ancestor) and Eurasian (Neanderthal ancestor) populations, brain size
accelerates rapidly. What we find evidenced in the fossil record is materially
more energy for females and their offspring. This implies an inevitable gendering
of the strategies that enabled this to happen.
tendency to male dominance and strategic control of females would have obstructed
these unprecedented increases of brain size. While there must have been
variability in the degree of dominance or egalitarianism among human groups, we
can be confident that those populations where male dominance, sexual conflict
and infanticide risks remained high were not the ones who became our ancestors.
Our forebears were the ones who somehow solved the problem of great ape male
dominance, instead harnessing males into routine support of these
extraordinarily large-brained offspring.
key question is what drove the increase of brain size. Brains are wonderful to
have if you can afford them. But such large increases of brain size are
vanishingly rare in evolution because of the expense. What are these large
brains for? One major hypothesis is the Social Brain theory. This relates brain
size, specifically the size of the neocortex, across primate species, to the degree
of social complexity, the network of relationships that any individual needs to
deal with. This can be measured by
average group sizes for any particular species, or sizes of coalitions and
cliques within social groups. One version of the ‘social
brain’ focuses on specifically
group sizes as most critical in driving the
evolution of intelligence.
original idea behind social brain was called Machiavellian intelligence. This switched
the focus of understanding the evolution of intelligence from technology and
foraging to social relationships. Machiavellian intelligence is a subtle idea
that sees animals in complex social groups competing in evolutionary terms by
becoming more adept at cooperation, and more capable of negotiating alliances. So
in this theoretical perspective, the significant increases of brain size in the
primate order, from monkeys to apes, then from apes to hominins, result from
increasing political complexity and the ability to create alliances.
is difficult to explain using Darwinian theory premised on competition. Andrew
Whiten, one of the inventors of Machiavellian intelligence theory, and his
student David Erdal saw that Machiavellian intelligence could generate the
difference between primate-style dominance hierarchies and typical
certain point, the ability to operate within alliances exceeds the ability of
any single individual, no matter how strong, to dominate others. If the
dominant tries, he (assuming ‘he’ for the moment) will meet an alliance in resistance
who together can deal with him. Once that point is reached, the sensible
strategy becomes not to try to dominate others, but to use alliances to resist
being dominated oneself. This was termed ‘counterdominance’ by Erdal and Whiten, and they
used it to describe what is found regularly in African hunter-gatherer
societies, so-called demand-sharing, an attitude of ‘don’t mess with me’, humour
as a levelling device, and the impossibility of coercion since no particular
individual is in charge. They saw counterdominance as fundamental to the
evolution of human psychology, with competing tendencies for individuals to try
to get away with bigger shares where opportunity presents, but, faced with
demands from others, to give in and settle for equal shares.
and Erdal focused on food-sharing as the most visible aspect of hunter-gatherer
egalitarianism. But how does sex fit into this model? Whiten and Erdal noted
the hunter-gatherer tendency for monogamy, or serial monogamy, which contrasts
with polygyny among propertied farmers and herders. But again we need to go to
our biology to see the underlying features of our reproductive physiology that
lead to reproductive egalitarianism – the most significant form of
egalitarianism from an evolutionary perspective.
evolved a sexual physiology which can be described as
levelling and time-wasting. Why? Because if a hominin female really needs extra
energy for her hungry offspring, better to give reproductive rewards to males
who will hang around and do something useful for those offspring. Our reproductive
signals make life hard for males who want to identify fertile females,
monopolise the fertile moment and then move on to the next one (a classic
strategy for dominant male apes). We have concealed and unpredictable
ovulation. A man cannot reliably tell when his partner is ovulating. Also,
women are sexually receptive, potentially, for virtually all of their cycle, a
much larger proportion than any other primate. The combined effect is to
scramble the information for males about exactly when a female is fertile.
dominant male trying to manage a harem of females this is disastrous. While he
is guessing about the possible fertility of one cycling female, he has to stay
with her, and is missing other opportunities. Meanwhile, other males will be
attending to those other sexually receptive females. Continuous sexual
receptivity spreads the reproductive opportunities around many males, hence is levelling
from an evolutionary perspective.
women of the Congo forest have a slogan perfectly expressing their resistance
to male philandering: ‘One woman,
one penis!’ This serves as their ritual rallying cry against any attempt by a man
to form a harem. Basically, hunter-gatherer women demand one man each to
support their energy requirements and investment in costly offspring.
farming and herding societies, some men can muster resources, large livestock
or land, enabling them to acquire more than one wife, those wives and their
children then forming the patriarch’s labour force. This automatically means
other men go without reproductive opportunities. But for immediate-return
hunter-gatherers, those who consume all they hunt and gather the same day, men
cannot accumulate resources and harem-holding is simply not stable.
Symbolism and language depend
far, I have claimed that these features of our biology, life history and evolved psychology
provide evidence of an egalitarian past during our evolution: our large brain
size, cooperative eyes, menopause, intersubjectivity and Machiavellian counterdominance. These are underpinned by women’s evolved sexual physiology
increasing equality of reproductive opportunities among men, compared with their
great ape cousins.
will argue that using symbols and speaking language could only have emerged on
the basis of egalitarianism. Over fifty years ago, leading US anthropologist
Marshall Sahlins made a revealing comparison of nonhuman primates against human
hunter-gatherers. Noting egalitarianism as a key difference, he saw culture as ‘the oldest “equalizer”. Among animals capable of
symbolic communication’ he said, ‘the weak can collectively connive to
overthrow the strong.’ We can reverse
the arrow of causality here. Because among Machiavellian and counterdominant
humans weaker individuals can connive to overthrow the strong, we are animals
capable of symbolic communication.
in such conditions is language likely to emerge. The strong have no need of
words; they have more direct physical means of persuasion. Here, listen to Graeber , discussing the ignorance and lack of
imagination of those in power in state administration. His words apply very
well to the evolutionary origins of language as the essence of human
If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever
you want, you don’t have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they
think is going on, and therefore, generally speaking, you don’t. Hence the
sure-fire way to simplify social arrangements, to ignore the incredibly complex
play of perspectives, passions, insights, desires, and mutual understandings
that human life is really made of, is to make a rule and threaten to attack
anyone who breaks it.
as the mutual exploration of each other’s minds – ‘the incredibly complex play
of perspectives, passions, insights, desires, and mutual understandings’ as
Graeber has it – requires nonviolent safe space and time to be able to work.
Conversation as a necessarily consensual process expresses the quintessential
opposite of the relations of dominance applied by the big stick. It relies on
the ultimate in intersubjective ability to look through the eyes of the other.
A fundamentally egalitarian matrix is the only possible ground for the
evolution of language.
With his anarchist instincts, Graeber associates arbitrary rules with the power of
the bureaucratic and bullying state which has no interest in what its subjects
actually think since it can apply violence with impunity. But the first rules
ever invented by human beings surely did not come from the minds of dominant
individuals. The powerful need only operate by the maxim of ‘might is right’.
Rules and taboos observed in hunter-gatherer communities where there is no possibility
of coercion follow another dynamic. At first glance, they may appear as random
collections of weird customs with no particular logic. Take for example the
concept of ekila among the BaYaka. This is an ancient idea found across the
Congo basin among diverse groups of forest hunter-gatherers. Untranslatable, it
encompasses food taboos, hunting luck, respect for animals, menstrual blood,
fertility and the moon. For anthropologist Jerome Lewis, ekila provides a trail of breadcrumbs for any individual as they
grow up, teaching them how to ‘do’ their culture.
thoroughly egalitarian because the authority for these rules does not rest with
any single influential person, but with the forest itself. The axiom of ekila is proper sharing, interdependency
and respect, between those of a different age or sex, between humans and
animals. Then the forest provides. We can tell that this was not dreamed up by
some dominant male because for a man to maintain his ekila (roughly, his hunting luck), he should not have sex before a
hunt. A woman preserves her potency or ekila
when she goes to the moon, that is menstruates. All those in her hut must
follow the same observances and taboos.
Ekila is an ancient, self-organising system of law
that may echo the big bang of earliest human culture. It really represents what
I claim is the original rule, the rule against rape, ‘No means NO’, a woman’s
body is sacred if she says so. And here is my story about how that rule arose
in the first place.
Red ochre from the southern African Middle Stone Age which has been
rubbed and striated to produce pigments for body art.
Ian Watts. All rights reserved.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was NO!
Women’s bodies evolved over a million years to favour the ‘one woman, one penis’
principle, rewarding males who were willing to share and invest over those who
competed for extra females, at the expense of investment. But as we became more
Machiavellian in our strategies, so did would-be alpha males. The final steep
rise in brain size up to the emergence of modern humans likely reflects an arms
race of Machiavellian strategies between the sexes.
As brain sizes increased, mothers needed more regular and reliable contributions
from male partners. In African hunter-gatherers this has become a fixed pattern
known by anthropologists as ‘bride-service’. A man’s sexual access depends on
his success in provisioning and surrendering on demand any game or honey he
gets to the family of his bride – mainly his mother-in-law who is effectively
his boss. Where women are living with their mothers, this makes it almost
impossible for a man to dominate by controlling distribution of food.
problem for early modern human females as they came under the maximum stress of
increased brain size would be with males who tried to get away with sex without
bride-service. To deal with this threat, mothers of costly offspring extended
their alliances to include just about everyone against the potential alpha. Men
who were relatives of mothers (brothers or mother’s brothers) would support those
females. In addition, men who willingly invested in offspring would have
interests directly opposed to the would-be alpha, who undermined their
reproductive efforts. This pits a whole community as a coalition against a
would-be dominant individual. Evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm
describes this as ‘reverse-dominance’, a political dynamic that for the first
time established a morally regulated community.
occasion for reverse-dominant, collective – moral
– action happens whenever a prospective alpha male tries to abduct a
potentially fertile female. Can we describe this in more detail in terms of
alpha male strategy is to find and mate with a fertile female, before moving on
to the next one. But how does a male identify fertile females, considering that
in human evolution ovulation became progressively concealed? One cue to the
human reproductive cycle could not be so easily hidden: menstruation. With no
sign for ovulation, menstruation became a highly salient cue to males that a
female was near fertility.
alpha male, a menstruating female is the obvious target. Guard her and have sex
with her until she is pregnant. Then, look for the next one. In nomadic hunter-gatherer camps, women of
reproductive age are pregnant or nursing much of the time, making menstruation
a relatively rare event. Undermining cooperative childcare, menstruation
threatens to trigger male competition for access to an imminently fertile
female, and also competition among females, because a pregnant or nursing
mother risks losing male support to a cycling female.
have two possible responses to this problem. Following the logic of concealed
ovulation, they might try to hide the menstruant’s condition so that males
would not know. But because the signal has potential economic value by attracting
male attention, females should do the opposite: make a big display advertising
imminent fertility. Whenever a coalition member menstruated, the whole
coalition joined that female in amplifying her signal to attract males. Females
within coalitions would begin to use blood-coloured substances as cosmetics to
augment their signals. This is the
Female Cosmetic Coalitions model of the origins of art and symbolic culture.
creating a cosmetic coalition in resistance, females deter alpha males by
surrounding a menstrual female and refusing to let anyone near. They are
creating the world’s first taboo, on menstrual blood or collectively imagined
blood, speaking the world’s first word: NO!
even as a negative, this cosmetic display encourages investor males who are
willing to go hunting and bring back supplies to the whole female coalition. Cosmetically
decorated females who create a big show of solidarity against alpha males
ensure that investor males will get the fitness rewards. It is fully in the
interests of investor males to sexually select females belonging to ritual
cosmetic coalitions, because they then eliminate competition from the would-be
Cosmetic Coalition (FCC) model shows us the prototype of a moral order, upheld
through those puberty rituals, taboos, and prohibitions that surround menstruation in so many ethnographic accounts. Ekila, discussed above, is a classic example.
FCC strategy is also the prototype symbolic action, with collective agreement
that fake or imaginary ‘blood’ stands for real blood. While it is revolutionary at the level of morality,
symbolism and economics, the strategy emerges as an evolutionary adaptation, driven by male sexual selection of female ritual
participants. On this basis, through reverse gender dominance, the
hunter-gatherer institution of bride-service emerges, with roughly equal
chances of reproductive success for all hunters.
the FCC model explains what we find as the earliest symbolic material in the
archaeological record. When the theory was first advanced in the mid-1990s, it
predicted that the world’s first symbolic media would consist of blood-red
cosmetics. It predicted where and when we should find them: in Africa, preceding
and during our speciation, in relation to the increases of brain size. This
points to a pigment record from 6-700,000 years ago and especially with the
rapid growth of brains in the last 300,000 years.
theoretical predictions have been strikingly confirmed. Pervading the record of
the African Middle Stone Age are blood-red iron oxides, red ochres. These pigments
are the first durable materials to be mined, processed, curated and used in
design. They date back at least 300,000 years in the East and southern African record, possibly as old
as half a million years. From the time of modern humans they are found in every
southern African site and rock shelter. They become the hallmark of modern
humans as they move out of Africa around the world, found in copious quantities
in both the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, and in Australia from the first entry
of modern humans to those continents.
Gender ambiguity at the core of the earliest
know in the era of #metoo, men find it
hard to hear women say NO. With that sexual physiology designed by evolution to
keep men interested on a fairly continuous basis, women have to work hard to
override their signals of attraction. And if they want men to go away and get
on with some hunting, they will have to work very hard indeed.
‘not right now, darling’ won’t work. They need noise, rude songs, militant
dance formations to get men’s attention: ritual. But the clincher is a symbolic
overturning of reality. If men are looking for a mate who is female of the
right species then change that, collectively act out “We’re actually males, and
not even human but animal!’ Signal ‘Wrong sex, Wrong species, wrong time’. Be a
red ochre body-painted coalition pantomiming the rutting behaviour of the animals
you want men to hunt.
can see why hunter-gatherer puberty rituals take the forms they do. The Kalahari
Eland bull dance is one of the world’s oldest living rituals. Women of the camp flash naked buttocks as they dance
in playful imitation of mating antelopes. Men can watch but not approach close
to the menstrual girl’s seclusion hut. She is identified as the Eland Bull,
with whom the women pantomime mating.
In the Hadza maitoko ceremony, girls dress as hunters,
acting out the story of the matriarch who hunted zebra and tied their penises
onto herself. What first appears inexplicable now makes perfect sense as
women’s supernatural construction of taboo – ‘wrong sex, wrong species’. This
is showing us what the first religious concepts looked like.
Gender egalitarianism made us human: the untold secret
Even if you don’t
believe this particular story and want to work out another explanation for the
red ochre and the origin of the supernatural, the biological and psychological
evidence that our ancestors went through a prolonged phase of egalitarianism
remains. Without that, we would not be here as language-speaking modern humans.
We might have evolved into a smaller-brained hominin with rounder-shaped eyes, using
primate-style gesture/call systems of communication, and the planet would look like
a very different place.
Does all this
matter? Does it matter that women, organizing as the revolutionary sex, bust
through the ‘gray ceiling’ of brain size? That female political strategies
created human symbolic culture? That resistance is at the core of being human? Should
we be telling our children the story of our Paleolithic heritage of gender
equality – the untold secret – and how it gave our African ancestors an extraordinary
future? If we want that future stretching ahead of us as far as it stretches
back into our hunter-gatherer past, I think it does.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Camilla Power is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of East London. She is a social anthropologist interested in the evolutionary emergence of human culture, and her research combines interdisciplinary perspectives of Darwinian and behavioural ecology modelling with primatology, archaeology, and hunter-gatherer ethnography. Her fieldwork has been with Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania researching gender ritual.