I distinguish between two matriarchal periods. The first and by far the longest--which I call the Childhood of Humankind or the Age of Innocence--I see characterized by a Benevolent Matriarchy. I suggest it lasts from the time anatomically modern humans first appear c 200,000 years ago, or all the way from the start of our life as a species, Homo sapiens sapiens, and up to c 10,000--9500 BCE, i.e., the dawn of the agricultural revolution. The reason I name this era ‘benevolent’ is to indicate that woman’s dominant position in the group is due merely to her role as child-bearer and not to any coercive measures on her part.
The second, much shorter period--which I call the Adolescence of Humankind or the Age of Awakening--I see characterized by a Malevolent Matriarchy. A product of the new farming and stock-breeding economy, it lasts only a few thousand years until the first signs emerge of a patriarchal social order (c 5000-4500 BCE in the Near East). The reason I name this second era ‘malevolent’ is that now female rule, assisted by a burgeoning ego, gradually degenerates into a tyranny where men are oppressed. And I contend that this very different and more tightly organized matriarchy owes its existence to the unique milestone we now reach in our evolution as a species--namely the breakthrough of consciousness.
During the Benevolent Matriarchy all people are hunting-gathering nomads. So to figure what life may have been like back then we need to make some tentative comparisons with still surviving hunter-gatherers. Because anthropologists at the end of the 19th century found that some of these preliterate peoples (like Hottentots and Bushmen, inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, the Arctic, Australia, etc.,) still kept the original forms of their rites and beliefs, they see their societies as a sort of living fossils, arrested at a cultural stage similar to the Upper Paleolithic, or Early Stone Age.
According to William Haviland, author of Cultural Anthropology, hunter-gatherers live in small groups of 25 to 50 people who move about according to how available the main food stuffs are. The bulk of the calories consumed comes from the food stuffs women collect--such as roots and tubers, nuts and fruits, fish and shellfish--to which hunting adds proteins and fat.
Studies also show that most nomads are remarkably un-aggressive and egalitarian. Being mobile, they don’t accumulate surplus goods and luxuries, hoarding is considered a moral wrong and gift-giving is common. In the band, consisting of an association of related families and probably the oldest form of political organization, all adult members decide on common affairs by consensus, and conflicts are settled informally by gossip, mockery, negotiation.
Having lived so long under some form of patriarchal rule, we’ve learned to associate governing power with either physical force or the threat of it. But to come closer to understanding what matriarchal rule might have been like, we must realize that this kind of community is small in scale, lacks complex (or any) political organization and is held together by personal relationships, not territory or property. Private property scarcely exists before patriarchy, and archeological digs in pre-agricultural sites have yielded no weapons.
A pre-conscious stage
In the Childhood of Humankind I presume humanity moves through successive non-conscious and pre-conscious levels. People are still ignorant of individuality so the relations between leader and follower most likely resemble those between mother and infant. To communicate, not even words (and much less physical force) may be needed, only example, accompanied by facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures. The exaggerated eyes on many female figurines, some with brilliant gems inserted in their eye sockets, seem to indicate that eye-to-eye contact is important at this social stage. (We don’t know when language is invented; it was long supposed to be between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago, but lately scholars think it happened much earlier.)
I suggest the respective roles of the sexes are accepted as natural because the imperative need for survival makes them equally indispensable to the group. Men work in enterprises best served by them, like hunt and defense, and everybody pretty much finds an outlet for his or her own innate gifts. I label this period benevolent also because traditions of equality are a universal feature in the ancient history of humankind. The famous democratic traditions of Greece, e.g., were all inherited from the preceding pagan society.
It’s to the second and what I call Malevolent Matriarchy that I attribute the origin of sexism. And I consider this drastic reversal of female reign inconceivable without the unparalleled event that is the arrival of the conscious human mind.
But before pigeonholing the dramatic impact of this new and formidable player on the world stage, first a quick look at the environment in which I place the transformation of matriarchal leadership. See next post.
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