I am currently reading A People’s History of the World: from the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harmon, and it makes me bristle, again, over many traditional assumptions about human history, human nature, and the position of women:
- Harmon’s analysis of the Paleolithic period recognizes that for tens of thousands of years humans lived in cooperative groups that were completely egalitarian, with no sign of accumulated wealth or social status. (It’s a fascinating concept that I’ll be digging into later.)
- But Harmon, like many classic authors, suggest that the reason for the oppression of women is due to their relegation to the gathering side of the hunter-gatherer society and their focus on rearing children. We now know that in the Paleolithic era women had children only every 3 to 4 years [Harmon pg. 13] so how is this justification for wholesale exclusion? They just didn’t have children often enough to be taken up entirely with their care.
- Look at the math: Paleolithic groups ranged from 20-40 number of people. 50% were women. Let’s say that 40% of those were of child-bearing age (since life expectancy was short), so how many children were there? Surely not so many that one woman couldn’t supervise them all.
- And why is there an automatic assumption that mothers would only care for children they had borne? Where is the speculation that children were raised communally with a woman or man past childbearing years supervising the children? Again, there’s the assumption that, as in modern societies, it’s one mother one child.
- This is also somewhat based on the idea of every mother breast-feeding her own child. When did the idea of a wet-nurse come into play? How do we know definitively that it was a new development in the Middle Ages, for example?
- He also starts using phrases like “kinship groups” as the foundation of the differentiated family but there is evidence that in early societies people lived with others who were not always genetically related. In societies where ancestors were revered, archaeologists have discovered mummies and graves of people underneath homes that are not related to the people in the house. This assumption of the strength of kinship groups sounds like an assumption of the nuclear family.
- In Catalhoyuk, one of the oldest cities ever found, there were no walls between living quarters, so I think the so-called family unit was not biologically based as much as people suggest. Catalhoyuk is another example of an early civilization that had no evidence of inequality. [The Ascent of Woman]
- Like so many other authors, Harmon is suggesting that the move to horticulture/agriculture started to exclude women because of the invention of the plow and the draft animal. This again suggests that there is a connection between brute strength and social status. He does recognize that the division of labor “did not amount to a male dominance as we know it.… Missing was the male supremacism that is too often assumed to be part of ‘human nature’.”
- Why is there never a suggestion that women and men were segregated because of women’s superiority with fine motor skills? That they were inventing and creating objects instead of hunting? Look at the very complex processes that had to be developed by people who were involved with gathering, food preparation and agriculture:
o the knowledge required to determine what was food and what was poison
o agriculture itself
o preservation through drying, salting, smoking
o development of containers and systems for storing food
o medicine (as we know that very early humans carried herbs to address ailments)
o domestication of animals. While the dog was the first domesticated animal because of its contribution to hunting and safety, the second domesticated animal was the chicken, specifically for food.
- Archaeological evidence has proven that the first Shaman ever discovered was a woman [Jenner]. Again, how is it that we think that strength has automatically been the underpinning of social status?
- And there is very little mention in any of these studies about the new research that shows that men’s brains fire in collective situations more than women’s e.g. a group of hunters, or today’s basketball team. It could be chicken and egg logic, but the absence of the idea is curious.
I press on, intrigued with the idea of proving that there was a time when we were all equal and that male supremacy is not the ‘natural order.’
Here are more of my musings on our Stone Age Sisters…
Sources for this post:
A People’s History of the World: from the Stone Age to the New Millennium Chris Harmon (Bookmarks Publications Ltd, 1999)
The Ascent of Woman
1 Million Years in a Day,
- Greg Jenner, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London) 2015, page 27 of 36 chapter 1.