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Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture

Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture

by Chris Knight

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The emergence of symbolic culture is generally linked with the development of the hunger-gatherer adaptation based on a sexual division of labor. This original and ingenious book presents a new theory of how this symbolic domain originated. Integrating perspectives of evolutionary biography and social anthropology within a Marxist framework, Chris Knight rejects the


The emergence of symbolic culture is generally linked with the development of the hunger-gatherer adaptation based on a sexual division of labor. This original and ingenious book presents a new theory of how this symbolic domain originated. Integrating perspectives of evolutionary biography and social anthropology within a Marxist framework, Chris Knight rejects the common assumption that human culture was a modified extension of primate behavior and argues instead that it was the product of an immense social, sexual, and political revolution initiated by women. Culture became established, says Knight, when evolving human females began to assert collective control over their own sexuality, refusing sex to all males except those who came to them with provisions. Women usually timed their ban on sexual relations with their periods of infertility while they were menstruating, and to the extent that their solidarity drew women together, these periods tended to occur in synchrony. The result was that every month with the onset of menstruation, sexual relations were ruptured in a collective, ritualistic way as the prelude to each successful hunting expedition. This ritual act was the means through which women motivated men not only to hunt but also to concentrate energies on bringing back the meat. Knight shows how this hypothesis sheds light on the roots of such cultural traditions as totemic rituals, incest and menstrual taboos, blood-sacrifice, and hunters’ atonement rites. Providing detailed ethnographic documentation, he also explains how Native American, Australian Aboriginal, and other magico-religious myths can be read as derivatives of the same symbolic logic.

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Blood Relations

Menstruation and the Origins of Culture

By Chris Knight


Copyright © 1991 Chris Knight
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18655-0


Anthropology and Origins

History itself is a real part of natural history, of the development of nature into man. Natural science will one day incorporate the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate natural science; there will be a single science.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844)

The question of human origins has always held a central place in Marxist theory, and for a good reason. Marx aimed to unite the natural with the social sciences, and was aware that an understanding of our origins was an essential precondition. As 'everything natural must have an origin', he wrote, 'so man too has his process of origin, history, which can, however, be known by him and thus is a conscious process of origin that transcends itself (Marx 1971a [1844]: 169). By knowing our process of origin, we know what we were, are and must become, and this knowledge 'transcends itself - that is, enters as a factor in our further development.

Every human tribe or civilisation has its origin-myth, and western society is no exception. Judaeo/Christian mythology held that God made Man and Woman on the Sixth day of Creation, after dividing heaven from earth, light from darkness, land from water and after creating the various celestial bodies, plants and animals on the five previous days. Man's sudden creation, semi-divinity and decisive elevation above the beasts were central features of this myth. Adam and Eve owed their existence to a miracle, and could trace their descent back to God. The cosmos had a meaningful structure and purpose. The earth was the pivot of the material universe, Man was first among mortal creatures, and Woman and all lesser beings existed to fulfil Man's needs and God's plan.

This biblical Genesis was capable of different interpretations and was used in legitimising various social arrangements, but by and large — despite the Copernican revolution in astronomy, despite centuries of social and religious turmoil and despite the slow advance of science — it continued to prevail in European cultures until the publication in Britain of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871). Then, once the initial controversy over apes and angels had died down, a new and very different story came to be believed. It was concluded that our origin (like that of other species) had been a natural one, unconscious, unplanned - the chance product of utterly blind impersonal forces. There had been no miracle, no shattering event, no aim in mind. It was just that upon one particular planet among innumerable dust grains within the universe random events combined with natural selection had produced microscopic marine life, then fish, and eventually the human animal. Humans were simply a zoological species, their mental powers differing in degree, but not in kind, from those of other beasts. Man had begun as an ape, and, at the end of the evolutionary process, he was still essentially an ape — albeit one with peculiar talents and a rather large brain (Darwin 1871).

With firm roots already in social theory, the idea of evolution conquered biology and quickly became the cornerstone of the new science of anthropology as well. The more ardent champions of the new paradigm applied it to human history in uncompromising fashion. All the earliest human institutions were seen as behaviour patterns evolved from the animal world. Earliest human language — far from being the breath of the gods — was made up of animal-like grunts; the first marriage — far from being a God-given sacrament — was in essence indistinguishable from sexual union among apes; the earliest human communities were polygamous ape-like hordes. All this was thought to be confirmed by reports on the animal-like behaviour of 'the savages of today' (Letourneau 1891: xi).

Social and political implications could be derived from the new story. Whereas Christianity had advocated the subordination of the egotistic individual to higher cosmic purposes, popular Darwinism preached 'the survival of the fittest', this concept being borrowed directly from capitalist — specifically Malthusian — economic and social doctrine. In a letter to Engels written in 1862, Karl Marx (n.d. [1862]) noted Darwin's claim to be

applying the 'Malthusian' theory also to plants and animals.... It is remarkable how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, 'inventions', and the Malthusian 'struggle for existence'.

Darwin — Marx argued - was transposing the logic of his own society to the natural world, and then deriving from 'nature' a supposed validation of the very cultural logic from which he had set forth.

In The Dialectics of Nature, Marx's collaborator, Engels (1964 [1873–86]: 35 — 6), agreed, adding that Darwin

did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom.

If Darwin saw no satire in this, it was because he was unaware of an alternative. The possibility of a different principle of human social organisation was simply not present within his conceptual universe. He therefore saw capitalism's logic as an expression of permanent natural necessity, the laws of individualistic competition embracing the entirety of natural and human history alike.

Darwin's case appeared well founded. The parallels between capitalist and zoological laws of competition seemed real enough. Marx himself, after all, had earlier written that capitalist society 'is not a society; it is, as Rousseau says, a desert populated by wild animals' (Marx and Engels 1927, 1, 5: 394; quoted in Kamenka 1962: 36). But like any great prophet exorcising rival gods, Darwin had unconsciously excluded other possibilities, thereby anchoring the values of his own particular culture in the inescapable nature of all life itself. Engels (n.d. [1865]) commented: '... nothing discredits modern bourgeois development so much as the fact that it has not yet got beyond the economic forms of the animal world'.

The Origin Myth of Western Capitalism

'Origin of man now proved.' Darwin wrote these words in his notebook in 1838 (Fox 1975a: 265). He jotted: 'He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.' The use of non-human primates (apes and monkeys) as models for early human life, and the belief that the problem of human origins had now been 'solved' — in principle if not in detail — were to characterise scientific discussions of human evolution not only for much of the remainder of the nineteenth century, but for most of the twentieth century, too.

Almost every time the question of human origins has been discussed within evolutionary science, it has been within the conceptual framework provided by Darwin. The question has been treated in essentially biological terms — as the problem of determining when and how a certain brain size, configuration of teeth and jaws and other characteristics evolved to produce a creature which could be called human. Even when the evolution of speech and social behaviour has been discussed, it has been assumed that the human stage was reached when social interactions between individual organisms led to the development of 'speech-areas' in the brain, or to the growth of increasingly subtle social instincts or learning skills.

To many, all this may seem natural and even inevitable. In what other way can the question of human origins be discussed? Is it not merely our own conceit which makes us think that we humans are special? Are we not essentially animals like any others, however much we may wish to avoid the fact? And does not a materialist approach compel us to root our behaviour in that most material of realities — our bodies, whose forms have evolved in materialistically comprehensible ways through interaction with one another and with the environment?

Another view, however, is that '... the essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in each particular individual. The real nature of man is the totality of social relations' (Marx 1963d {1845]: 83). The attractions of Darwinism are understandable, because unless we grasp the real uniqueness of humanity's social and symbolically constructed essence, we are obliged to treat the problem of origins in a biological way — seeking in the physical individual those 'material' properties responsible for our humanity. To quote Marx (1963d [1845]: 83–4) again, we are forced 'to conceive the nature of man only in terms of a 'genus', as an inner and mute universal quality which unites the many individuals in a purely natural (biological) way'.

As we seek our essence in biology, the importance of language, labour, ideology and consciousness in producing and defining our humanity is simply overlooked. Instead of seeing humans as symbolically constituted persons, our minds formed through childhood socialisation and through collective cultural products such as language, we see only the activities of bodies and brains. Instead of standing back and bringing into focus the evolving collective dimensions of all human life — dimensions such as economic systems, grammatical systems, religions — we view the world as if through a microscope. Increasing the magnification, we shorten our depth of focus, until the only visible realities become physical individuals eating, breathing, copulating and otherwise surviving in their immediate physical environments, their localised interactions filling almost our entire field of vision. Within this myopic perspective, the global, higher-order plane of existence of these physical individuals becomes invisible to us. We are left unaware of the existence of any transpatial plane of collective structure embracing and shaping the biological, localised life processes in which we are all involved. The subject matter of social anthropology — the study of economics, cultural kinship, ritual, language and myth — is not only left unexplained. It is not even seen as a higher-order level of reality in need of being explained.

In the late nineteenth century, many natural scientists, anthropological writers and sociologists within the materialist camp were inspired by Darwin's achievements to such an extent that they saw no other way of looking at human life. They assumed that the laws of competition and selection uncovered by Darwin could be extended to embrace the entirety of the human social sphere. Where origins were concerned, it seemed logical to assume that if humans had inherited their anatomy and physiology from some ape-like ancestor, then they had probably inherited their social institutions, their language and their consciousness in the same way.

As far as social life was concerned, the most basic institution was thought to be 'the family', which was said to have evolved from non-human primate mating systems. Darwin's conception of the origin of marriage was based on the observation that male mammals typically compete with one another sexually, the victors succeeding in monopolising the females. He cited a report on the gorilla, among whom 'but one male is seen in a band; when the young male grows up, a contest takes place for mastery, and the strongest, by killing and driving out the others, establishes himself as the head of the community' (Darwin 1871, 2: 362). In the human case,

if we look far enough back in the stream of time, ... judging from the social habits of man as he now exists ... the most probable view is that primaeval man aboriginally lived in small communities, each with as many wives as he could support and obtain, whom he would have jealously guarded against all other men. (Darwin 1871: 2: 362)

One popular writer concluded that 'primitive marriage' was 'simply the taking possession of one or several women by one man, who holds them by the same title as all other property, and who treats adultery, when unauthorised by himself, strictly as robbery' (Letourneau 1891: 57). This was supposed to be the expression of a universal 'sexual law' — applying equally to humans and animals — termed by Darwin himself 'the law of battle', according to which the males 'dispute with each other for the females, and must triumph over their rivals before obtaining them' (Letourneau 1891: 10–11). For more than a century, cartoon images of 'cavemen' colluded in depicting these as rapacious brutes battling against each other with clubs, each victor dragging home a clump of recently seized, voluptuous cave-females by their hair.

In the sense that the 'law of battle' fits baboon sexual organisation moderately well, Darwin's and Letourneau's views in this context could be called the 'baboon' theory of human origins. This theory did not disappear with the nineteenth century but continued to haunt discussions of origins, figuring centrally in Freud's magnificent myth of the 'Primal Horde'. Freud took the horde-motif directly from Darwin. He assumed that our precultural ape-like male ancestors were ferocious sexual rivals, each pitted in violent conflict against all the others in an attempt to monopolise whole harems of females. In Totem and Taboo, however, Freud conceptualised the actual transition to the cultural level not as a simple extension of all this, but as a revolutionary negation achieved when a band of sexually expropriated Sons within a primal horde rose up against their tyrannical Father, killed him, ate him — and collectively outlawed future conflict (Freud 1965 [1913]).

Freud's haunting theory entered subtly into the thinking of many anthropologists, including Malinowski, Roheim, Lévi-Strauss and more recently Robin Fox. Common to the theories of Darwin, Freud, Lévi-Strauss and Fox was an unquestioned, seemingly axiomatic assumption: females are and always have been passive sexual valuables to be fought over, renounced, exchanged or otherwise manipulated by dominant males. In the works of all these thinkers, male dominance is said to have preceded the establishment of human society, and to have continued unbroken and unchallenged throughout humanity's origins and subsequent development.

Throughout the 1960s — when the theoretical premises of the present book were first beginning to take shape — the majority of evolutionist-minded writers accepted the 'baboon' theory in a fairly simple Darwinian form, without bringing Freud's suggestion of revolutionary overturn into the picture. Most experts saw trooping, ground-dwelling monkeys — typically, baboons — as the best model for 'the proto-human horde' (Fox 1967a: 420). It was noted that among baboons, male sexual rivalries tend to be fierce, the victors typically monopolising whole harems of females whilst excluding their rivals completely from the breeding system.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Fox was the best-known social anthropologist to show an interest in evolutionary theory and in human social origins. Fox (1967a: 420; 1975a: 52–3) took it for granted that earliest 'man' organised his sex life through conflict, the males competing with each other for females. With men as with baboons, 'the status of the male is measured by his control over females' (Fox 1975a: 55). In the case of both species: 'The result of the reproductive struggle is a social system that is profoundly hierarchical and competitive' (Tiger and Fox 1974: 43). And in both human and animal systems: 'Competition for scarce resources — food, nest-sites, mates — is the basis of society and the stuff of politics' (Tiger and Fox 1974: 44).

In Britain and the United States, books such as Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape (1967) and Robert Ardrey's The Territorial Imperative (1969) elaborated such notions and became overnight bestsellers, being serialised in the popular press and aired repeatedly on radio and television. For the first time in decades, anthropology seemed set to become a popular science! The political implications were seized on with delight. Nicholas Tomalin (1967, quoted in Lewis and Towers 1969: 24) told his socialist readership in the New Statesman that the 'new facts' about early human competitiveness 'must make, if not reactionaries, at least revisionists, of us all. Man, and consequently his nature, is immutable. The old adage, "you can't change human nature" becomes true once more.' And Katharine Whitehorn, educating Britain's middle classes through her column in The Observer (29 October 1967), expressed gratitude ('I for one feel a lot better for it') for the revelation that the bourgeois world's aggression and violence is 'natural', adding: 'The desire to have and to hold, to screech at the neighbours and say "Mine, all mine" is in our nature too.' Marshall Sahlins (1977: 100) has described all this as 'the origin myth of Western capitalism' — a myth which has decisively pushed Genesis into the shade.

Excerpted from Blood Relations by Chris Knight. Copyright © 1991 Chris Knight. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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