by Daphne Liddle
WE ARE BROUGHT up with assumptions about the nuclear family being eternal,the natural order of things – cave-man mum, dad and family.But this is not so, the nuclear family of just two adults and theirchildren that we are familiar with is the product of social and economicforces and has changed throughout history according to predominant economicmethods and culture.
Western anthropologists, encountering different peoples and societies,assumed that the men would naturally be dominant in those societies as intheir own. They spoke only to the men and discovered only half the truth.“All our histories have hitherto started from the absurd assumption, whichsince the 18th century in particular has become inviolable, that themonogamous single family, which is hardly older than civilization, is thecore around which society and state have gradually crystallised.” That wasFrederick Engels writing in The family, private property and the state. And from Robert Briffault’s The Mothers: "The fanciful opinion that women are oppressed in savage societies was partly due to the complacency of civilised man, and partly to the fact that the women are seen to work hard.Wherever women were seen engaged in laborious toil, their status was judged to be one of slavery and oppression. No misunderstanding could be more profound."
The primitive women is independent because, not in spite of her labour.Generally speaking, it is in those societies where women toil most that their status is most independent and their influence greatest; where theyare idle, and the work is done by slaves, the women are, as a rule, little more than sexual slaves.“No labour of any kind is, in primitive society, other than voluntary, and no toil is ever undertaken by the women in obedience to an arbitrary order".
Referring to the Zulu women, a missionary writes, ‘Whoever has observed the happy appearance of the women at their work and toil, their gaiety and chatter, their laughter and song … let him compare with them the bearing of our own working women.’“It is not labour, but exploited and enforced labour that is galling tothe human being.”
Going back to our human origins – what is a natural family? Is there such a thing?For mammals the basic family unit is mother and dependent offspring,needing milk and protection until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Usually this is a matter of weeks or months.Different mammals have different family or group structures: – some are simply mother and offspring together for a few weeks. With some, a father is involved in the short time it takes to rear the young.With many, a whole group hangs together, as with herd animals. This is more common among herbivores who find protection from predators in large numbers. Carnivores tend to walk alone or in small groups because they are rivals to each other for the food supply.Our closest animal relatives, the great apes all live in groups but havevarious different types of group structure: chimps live in male-dominatedgroups, bonobos live in female-dominated groups, orang utans are usually isolated except for females with young. The point is that there is no specific predetermined group structure for human beings that is right orwrong.
The earliest humans were forced to live in groups bigger than the bourgeois nuclear family to survive and protect the most vulnerable – the youngest and the very old. Any species that does not protect vulnerable youngthrough to self sufficiency does not survive. And human groups need more than one generation of adult carers to ensure the survival of the young.Babies need their grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as their parents.
Human females are the only animals that naturally survive well beyond their years of fertility because children with grandmothers are more likely to survive than those without.Human young take a much longer time to reach a state of self sufficiencythan any other species. One or two people alone cannot successfully rear them. It needs a group, a wider family circle; it needs society,co-operation and collaboration.Those human beings who were able to co-operate and work together and carefor others survived – and passed these traits on to their descendants.It was this need to work together, to provide food and to rear the young that led to the development of language among humans, as pointed out by Frederick Engels in his short work, The part played by labour in thetransition from ape to man.
Co-operative work needs sophisticated communication – language; and so does passing on essential survival information from one generation toanother.Those who were entirely selfish and looked only after themselves may have survived for a while but their offspring stood no chance and there were nodescendants to pass these traits on to.We do not know exactly how the earliest human family group structures worked. But certain deductions can be made from studying groups of humans living at different stages of development before they came into contactwith civilisation.
The early anthropologists saw the different societies of the world through male-biased eyes. But the Victorian anthropologist Lewis H Morgan took a less biased approach and his researches provide the factual basis forEngels’ classic The origin of the family, private property and the state.
His work showed that primitive tribal and family structures were very complex, with many different degrees of kinship and rules governing whocould form a relationship with who.From the huge variety of different types of family structure, he looked at the traits they had in common and deduced that the earliest forms of marriage were group marriages. They were primarily an agreement of economiccollaboration between one family and another. All the sisters of one family would marry all the brothers of another.Their children would regard all the women as their mothers and all the men as their fathers. The children would all regard each other as brothers and sisters.
These marriages would be matrilocal, in other words based in homes of the women. The children would be part of the wider maternal family.A child would regard his mother’s brother, who was part of the same maternal family, as a closer relative than his father, who would have been born in a different maternal family. Throughout his whole life a man would feel closer ties with the family he was born into than the one he married into. He would protect his sisters’ children before his own.
These marriages were not necessarily permanent. Neither side was economically dependent on the other. Both men and women, working in groups,were food producers. They tended to divide into men being hunters and women being gatherers of wild fruit and vegetables.In case of marriage breakdown the women, working together, could supportthemselves and their children. The men, as hunters, tended to be more mobile. They could easily feed themselves but it was not so easy for them to rear children while hunting. They left the children with the more settled women.“The communistic household, in which most or all of the women belong to one and the same gens, while the men come from various gentes, is the material foundation of that supremacy of the women which was general inprimitive times,” – from Engels’ The family, private property and the state.
The total amount of work done to produce the necessary food in those days was not more than a few hours a week. That was enough and most of the restof the times was spent in leisure and social pursuits. We can speculate that, with the development of language, this gave rise to discussions, toshared thoughts and the beginnings of the arts, crafts and sciences.Certainly these people needed and used applied sciences: studying the living habits of animals they needed to hunt – and those predators whomight hunt them.
The growing cycles of food plants, herbal medicines andpoisons would have been an essential study. They would have speculated about what caused all this and how could they influence it. Conversation would have been a powerful social bonding activity – as it still is. I would also speculate they would have spent a lot of time in social bonding, not just talking but grooming each other. Some of the earliest artefacts found from the stone age are decorated combs.But these few hours’ work a week would not have rendered any stores of food or any security against drought and famine. People would have been very vulnerable to natural disasters and populations would have risen and fallen often.Under these circumstances people would have moved about seeking more productive areas and clashing with other groups.For millions of years this is how the human race existed, with numbers just about holding even.
There is speculation that for part of its development the human race inhabited mainly seashores, finding food easily from various shellfish between the tide-lines. David Attenborough says this is still a minority view among anthropologists but “there’s a whole series of bits of evidence that keep cropping up from those who are trying tosolve this conundrum”. A diet rich in fish would have supplied the necessary GLA oils needed for brain expansion. A beach area would also have provided essential safetyfrom fast and powerful predators. Some men might just be able to outrun lions, panthers and wolves on dry land. Women with children would not.
The shallow sea would have been a safe refuge. Some believe this is how humans came to walk on two legs, as a wading ape, with thick hair remaining only on the bit that stayed out of the water.Eventually the discussions and conversations around the home base gave rise to some scientific and economic advances – the use of fire, how to plant useful fruits, vegetables and herbs near the home base by the womenand how to herd animals rather than just follow their natural migrations bythe men. Protecting the herd animals from wolves and so on would have guaranteed that the herds would grow and produce a surplus food supply.
They also tried to influence the weather, using magic and to communicate with dead ancestors – keeping the family unit together in spite of death.Those men and women who claimed to be able to make rain were in greatest demand. They achieved high status as magic workers but were in danger if they failed in time of great need.
Some groups started to produce more than they needed. They had a surplus they could exchange with other groups – the beginning of bargaining and marketing. Even so, everything they produced, they made and owned collectively.Over time the marriage structures also changed gradually. Many preferred pairing marriages but they still contained elements of the group marriage traditions – and, before the concept of private property they were still matrilocal. This is a better term to use than matriarchal because that implies the exercise of power. In early human society there were few powerstructures. Most tribes had some way of making important decisions about alliances and so on involving representatives of all the families in the tribe – usually the oldest and more experienced. Since women usually live longer than men,many tribal types of council were predominantly female. In some parts of the world, if a wife died, her husband would be expectedto marry her sister – a legacy of the spirit of group marriage.Lewis Morgan relates many examples of children in Africa who regard their mother’s sisters as additional mothers and their father’s brothers as extra fathers – and who regard their cousins as brothers and sisters.In other parts special high status women priests would undertake to carryout the duty of being communal wives to the men of whatever tribe or groupthey were formally married to, and let their sisters off of this task.
Julius Caesar, visiting Britain in 55 BC found that the Belgic Celts who inhabited Kent practised polyandry, a form of group marriage, where one woman would have several husbands, usually brothers. “Wives are shared between groups of ten or 12 men, especially between brothers and between fathers and sons; but the offspring of these unions are counted as thechildren of the man into whose home the woman was first led,” Caesar wrote in his de bello Gallico.
In the early days most marriages, even pairing marriages, still involvedcomplex economic commitments between the families. The large matrilocal families took on husbands literally to husband the livestock, to look after the farm animals in exchange for access to one or more of the daughters. Ifand when the marriage broke up, the man could go on his way with no economic harm to the woman and her children.“The pairing family, itself too weak and unstable to make an independenthousehold necessary or even desirable, in no wise destroys the communistic household inherited from earlier times.“Communistic housekeeping, however, means the supremacy of women in thehouse; just as the exclusive recognition of the female parent, owing to theimpossibility of recognising the male parent with certainty, means that thewomen – the mothers – are held in high respect.” – from Engels, The origin of the family.