Women and the birth of humanity

Girl’s menarcheal ritual — here among the Kua (G/wi or //Gana), photo Valiente-Noailles

A recent twitter thread welcomes an important new article whose findings support the ‘Blood Relations’ theory of the origin of human society first proposed by Chris Knight in 1991. The article documents the widespread use of red ochre by women as illustrative of the monthly menstruation rituals in Africa from approx. 160,000 peaking to around 40,000 years ago. The study concludes that the best theory that explains this distribution and use of red ochre over such a period and across a number of sites in Africa is that of Knight’s ‘sex strike’ theory.

Chris Knights Blood Relations theory argues that women in Mesolithic times organised sex strikes to get men to hunt and provide enough food for the growing energy demands of the big brains of their children, signifying the existence of the first organised human society.

The Female Cosmetic Coalition hypothesis argues that the ritual use of red ochre to symbolise menstrual blood played a critical role in this revolution. This was the first collective social act that created a social relation of production in which women selected men as partners to cooperate in the reproduction of children. Ritual use of ochre in the cave drawings is more evidence that women made collective decisions to deny men sex in order to get food in exchange. Anthropology in the 20th century has provided plenty of evidence of how widespread this practice was based on synchronizing menstruation with the moons monthly cycle.

Is this not more proof of the first social revolution when humans transcended primate natural selection through the conscious social selection by women of men who were ‘responsible’ child carers rather than philanderers?  The authors of the new article may not recognise this was the first social act of primates as humans, but that is the substance of the sex strike theory their findings support.

One can see how it vindicates Marx’, Engels’ and Luxemburg’s concept of ‘primitive communism’ by showing how women’s collective action gave birth to a social relation of production which survived for over 100,000 years.   

Of course, the story does not end there as the rapid decline in the use of red ochre in Africa after 40,000 years ago suggests that the transition into the domestication of plants and animals added more nutrients for children’s brain growth to that of hunting and gathering. This allowed men over around 70,000 years to gradually exert their control over the means of production and eventually form a new mode of production – a Domestic or Slave mode as women became the first slaves to constitute an oppressed slave class. It is likely that the overthrow was concluded around 10,000 years ago, the commonly agreed timing of the dominance of the domestic/slave mode.

This timeline fits with the evidence that the transition to private property and slavery met resistance from women fighting to defend the communal social relations. As a class struggle in which women defending nature resisted a male ruling class, conflict between dominant and subordinated modes began a process of uneven and combined development similar to that described by Trotsky in the History of the Russian Revolution from the standpoint of 1930 when Russia was a fusion of pre-capitalist, capitalist and post-capitalist modes of production.

This ‘articulation of modes of production’ theory developed in recent Marxist anthropology confirms the position that the overthrow of ‘mother right’ within the patriarchal family continued to generate resistance to the tributary modes of production and the capitalist mode of production. The articulation of modes is ‘uneven’ since the earlier modes are weaker, and as ‘combined’ modes they testify to their continued resistance to the dominant modes.   

For Marx, Engels and Luxemburg, the ‘world historic defeat of women’ led to the original class society in which men ruled over women. Yet this defeat has never fully suppressed women’s resistance to class society since. We can see women in contemporary lineage modes today still body painting as menstrual rituals to influence males to cooperate in their sex roles. This strengthens the evidence that women over 100,000 years refused to be slaves and in many parts of the world still maintain a degree of autonomy from men.

To date, no other historical and contemporary evidence explains how body painting rituals to collectively sexually select the cooperation of men, enabled more than 100,000 years of egalitarian social relations, and the rise of the big brain. The argument in support of the ‘sex strike theory’ and the Female Cosmetic Coalition hypothesis is taken a lot further in the Radical Anthropology Group publications online.

When there are those who argue that none of this is proved by the evidence so far, the onus is on them to provide an equally powerful theory.  Explanations are only ever as good as the most elegant theory at any given moment eliminating the distortions of ideology in theory and practice. Recent work in this field draws on multidisciplinary teams and is reviving the view of the ancient commune widely held before its suppression by a Western anthropology hostile to Marxism.

One notable recent competing theory is that of David Graeber and David Wengrow, who in their recent book, The Dawn of Everything argue against any original commune.  Their method is a radical bourgeois empiricist rejection of a pre-determined historical evolutionary dogma that fails to cope with the diversity and complexity of human society. The absence of Marxism in their work is pointedly obvious. Yet the material presented in their book fits neatly with Marx’s non-dogmatic theory of evolution from the Grundrisse to Ethnological Notebooks. Rather than face this challenge to meet Marxism head on, the authors end up replacing the grand old narratives of pre-determined stages of development with the grand new narrative of a 21st century anarchist version of the ahistorical radical bourgeois individual.

Their postulated ubiquitous blossoming of an anarchic ‘free will’ is substituted for the historical contradiction of kinship with kingship, of competing modes of production, where the original commune rules for millennia, is overturned and women enslaved, struggles to resist kingship, is suppressed, rebels again, and is never fully subordinated. Far from being a schematic social evolution through the rear-view mirror of bourgeois ‘civilisation’, this resistance is the ongoing class struggle of the residual commune that survived the overthrow of women, their historic exploitation as slaves, serfs and wage labour and which represents today the potential for the revival of the commune in modern form.