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Gender egalitarianism vs patriarchy theory

Were early human societies egalitarian? How can we know about this? And how far are gender perspectives addressed in these questions? And does it ultimately matter? Anthropologist Camilla Power asks the questions.

It is a longstanding position in anthropology that hunter-gatherers, especially nomadic groups who consume all they forage the same day – known as ‘immediate-return’ – are notably more egalitarian than any other society we have evidence for.  

The word ‘egalitarian’ itself was adopted by James Woodburn, who has 60 years (and counting!) of fieldwork with the Hadza in Tanzania. This implies assertive, ideological adherence to equality. People are actually different in terms of age, sex, strength, capacities and abilities, but their egalitarian attitude insists on equal treatment in terms of sharing, personal autonomy and decision-making. Egalitarian societies are always working at the maintenance of this type of equality, always on the lookout for anybody trying to aggrandize themselves, threatening the balance of power. This, in Woodburn’s view, makes them exceptionally stable over time.

As anarchist Brian Morris, who has long-term fieldwork with the south Indian Pandaram, says, these societies really are both anarchist, with emphasis on personal autonomy and no one being in charge, but also communist in terms of sharing of resources, and cooperation in labour.

Challenges to the egalitarian hunter-gatherer model

There have been a number of challenges to the emphasis on egalitarianism among recent and extant hunter-gatherers. One is to historicise hunter-gatherer populations, looking more at their recent and contemporary interactions with farming, herding and nowadays capitalist economies. This argues that we cannot use current hunter-gatherers successfully as models for human evolution. Too much has changed.

Others claim wide diversity in economy, environment, culture and technology of hunter-gatherers on different continents. Different groups can be contrasted as immediate vs delayed return, with the latter possessing technologies for storage, enabling surpluses and social stratification.  Some of these societies have historically had relations of slavery and labour exploitation. Sometimes, these are termed ‘complex’ hunter-gatherers, with settlement and higher population densities. But the idea that maintaining egalitarian relations is somehow politically more ‘simple’ compared to instituting hierarchy is a deeply questionable one.

Another approach pursued by evolutionary ecologists is to track wealth transmission down the generations. Very little material wealth is actually inherited in immediate-return societies, but these authors point to inherited variation in health and strength, and variation in social connections as significant causes of inequality, which is passed down generations. Yet despite these meticulous searches for sources of inequality (yes, of course, some people are stronger and more healthy than others, and that would indeed impact on children), the ideological insistence on equality of opportunity and access remains robust and profound in these societies. It persists long after the people concerned have lost their traditional lifestyles under the impacts of modernity.

Anarchists trashing hunter-gatherer egalitarianism

A recent challenge to the ‘narrative’ of hunter-gatherer ancestral egalitarianism comes from a surprising quarter, anarchist anthropologist David Graeber with colleague David Wengrow.  They attack 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.

The biggest problem with Graeber and Wengrow’s contribution is that they try to deal with the topic of the origins of inequality without addressing gender in any satisfactory way. The big risk in this gender-blind analysis – whether we take it as about human origins or about the emergence of inequality – is that attacking hunter-gatherer egalitarianism has the effect of undermining our understanding of gender egalitarianism as well. It leaves us with a default picture of male dominance as part of human evolution all the way. In its most biologically reductive version, this is ‘patriarchy theory’, the idea that men have always had more strength, more practice with weaponry, and so always dominated women. While they did the important things like big-game hunting and social connections, women stayed home with the babies.

This is a travesty of the reality of gender relations among nomadic hunter-gatherers. Women have very powerful means to resist men’s exploitation and evade their control, through their solidarity, collectivity and social networks. Among immediate-return hunter-gatherers, men cannot coerce women or children.

Graeber and Wengrow neglect the careful studies that show African hunter-gatherer women lose status and freedom from male control as they become more sedentary. This happens when women are less able to move and avail themselves of sophisticated support networks. African hunter-gatherers especially resist the atomization of nuclear families using many mechanisms to create links between far-flung friends and relatives. One diagnostic of truly egalitarian hunter-gatherers is that people can live where they choose.

When discussing Ian Morris’s economic income models of Palaeolithic life, Graeber and Wengrow themselves add in, ‘but what about all the free stuff: security, dispute resolution, primary education, care of the elderly, medicine, music, religion…’. Their list goes on, and yet, significantly, they leave out free collective childcare – probably the single most telling aspect of gender relations among hunter-gatherers, according to modern-day anthropology.

Human origins: gender relations are central to the story

Graeber and Wengrow are definitely not speaking about human origins because a) they give no context of evolution; b) they don’t deal with sex and gender; c) they leave out Africa, the continent on which we evolved as modern humans. If we put gender relations central to the story of human evolution, a very different picture from the patriarchy model emerges. Gender egalitarianism appears pivotal to the evolution of our language-speaking ancestors

What evidence is there for an increasing egalitarian tendency in human evolution, and why did this necessarily have a dimension of gender? There are three main areas to consider: firstly, our species biology, life history and evolved psychology – the evidence of our bodies and minds; secondly, the ethnography of foraging peoples, particularly African hunter-gatherers, who give us specific insight into how egalitarianism works in practice; and thirdly, the archaeological record in Africa of art and symbolism stretching back long before 40,000 years.

What are the egalitarian features of our anatomy, life history and psychology?

1. 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.

2. Intersubjectivity – 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.

3.  Mothers and others – the most convincing account of how, when and why intersubjectivity and cooperative eyes evolved is given by Sarah Hrdy in her great book Mothers and others. 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. They don’t dare take the risk.

4. Grandmothers, menopause and childhood –  This particularly applies to apes. Monkeys behave differently, being prepared to leave a baby with a trusted relative. The key factor involved is exactly how closely related individuals are. 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 postreproductive lifespans – the evolution of menopause.

Coevolving with grandmothers were children. Childhood is defined as the period after an infant is weaned from the breast before the child has any permanent teeth. During that time, children need help with finding a diet they can process, and that is where grandma steps in. In this way, in evolution mother’s mother would have had a big impact on a child’s survival, while the mother could begin the cycle of having her next baby. This has resulted in the special characteristic of ‘stacked’ families among humans, where a mum has several dependent offspring at once.  With no one to help, other great ape mothers have to have very long intervals between births, breastfeeding until each offspring can become an independent juvenile. Little apes have no childhood in the sense of a supportive transition period, and this is the time when many of them will die.

Hrdy shows 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.

5. Our huge brain volumes – 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 intersubjectivity.

We 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.

Male dominance and strategic control of females would have obstructed these unprecedented increases of brain size. 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.

Why such big brains? Machiavellian intelligence leads to egalitarian relations

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 female group sizes as most critical in driving the evolution of intelligence.

Originally, ‘social brain’ was called Machiavellian intelligence. This 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. In this theoretical perspective, then, the significant increases of brain size in the primate order, from monkeys to apes, and then from apes to hominins, result from increasing political complexity and ability to create alliances.

Egalitarianism 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 hunter-gatherer egalitarianism.  At a 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. Whiten 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.

This gives us the next egalitarian feature of our anatomy:

6. Women’s sexual physiology – This 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.  For a 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.

BaYaka 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.

Symbolism and language depend on egalitarianism to evolve

Our next egalitarian feature is

7. Language – Language itself is the proof of a prolonged phase of ‘primitive’ communism in our ancestry. 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. Only in such conditions is language likely to emerge. The strong have no need of words; they have more direct physical means of persuasion.

In his excellent book Debt, Graeber discusses the extraordinary capacity of humans to cooperate with total strangers, which is normal for all of us, whether hunter-gatherers, or people in megacities, but is simply not found in any other complex social mammal. This ability, cooperation with people you have never seen before or will necessarily see again, underlies the use of symbols and linguistic communication. As Graeber expresses it: ‘Conversation is a domain particularly disposed to communism’ (2011: 97).

Language as the mutual exploration of each other’s minds 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. 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.

Rules in societies where no one is on charge

Rules and taboos in hunter-gatherer communities where no one is boss of anyone else 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. This is 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 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.

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.

The 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.

So the 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 actual behaviour?

The 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.

For an 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.

Mothers 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.


In 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!

But 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 alphas.

The Female 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.

The 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.

Finally, 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.

These 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 lies at the core of earliest religious ideas

As we 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.

Whispering ‘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.

Now we 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 about 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 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.

University of East London Senior Lecturer in Anthropology Camilla Power is a member of the Radical Anthropology Group

Featured pic: Cave paintings, Magura Cave by MarieBrizard

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