“A most important, novel, well-argued and monumental piece of work.”
J. D. Lewis-Williams,Rock Art Research Unit, University of the Witwatersrand
“This book may be the most important ever written on the evolution of human social organization. It brings together observation and theory from social anthropology, primatology, and paleoanthropology in a manner never before equalled. The author, Chris Knight, who teaches social anthropology at the University of East London, is up to date on all these fields and has achieved an extraordinary synthesis. His critiques of Claude Lévi-Strauss on totemism and myth are a sheer tour de force.”
Alex Walter, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University
“Blood Relations is an extraordinary work, in which imaginary creatures and magical events are orchestrated on a global scale, from Australia to Amazonia, into a single vision of how humans created humanity….Though Knight does tend to resemble a shaman with a spread-sheet, he is not concocting some syncretic religious brew of Darwinism and tribal initiation rites. He is every bit as materialist as Dennett or Dawkins – ultra-Darwinian, in Stephen Jay Gould’s terms – but unlike them, he has an intuitive understanding of the sacred. The trick here is to retain one’s sense of magic after one stops believing in it. Blood Relations appreciated the importance of sacred ritual, and of sociobiology, the better for being able to stand outside them. Writing under the influence of Primate Visions, Donna Haraway’s feminist interpretation of primatology, Knight felt able to refer to his own narrative as myth, and free to bring his own props to the sociobiology show. ‘If you could have calculating, maximising capitalists operating in human origins narratives, why could you not also have militant trade unionists?’ he asked. ‘If you could have profits and dividends, why not also industrial action, pay bargaining and strikes?’ Culture, he proposed, was the settlement that followed the world’s first strike.”
Marek Kohn, Science correspondent, Independent on Sunday
“The Most Brilliant Anthropological Study Ever Written. The many words used to describe Chris Knight’s ‘Blood Relations’ include, monumental, encyclopedic, brilliant, original, ingenious, and a tour-de-force. It is all of these and more! This work is simply the most brilliant and imaginative book about human cultural development ever written. Its range is astonishing. Its arguments are cogently made with great detail. Its synthesis of primatology, sociobiology, and anthropology are compelling. Where others have depicted women as the victims of a dominant male hierarchy, Knight reveals how the sex roles and behavior of both men and women developed together in a dialectic relationship. Where others have stressed the loss of oestrus and continuous sexual receptivity in the female, Knight spotlights menstruation and its associated marital and other cultural taboos. Where others stress man the hunter and woman the gatherer, Knight envisions paleo-women as evolving an increasing solidarity to shape the structure of both hunting and gathering. Women are not the passive creatures that are so often depicted by the radical feminists who have an interest in portraying women as the victims of dominant males. Females have been active participants in shaping culture, behavior, and human destiny…Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 years ago, Knight believes, a massive social, sexual, and cultural explosion occurred and he does an ingenious job of providing us with insight into how this may have happened. A major change in reproductive strategy had to take place before males could take off as hunters and leave their women behind. Women synchronized their ovulatory cycles with one another; the concept of the “sex-strike” is the heart of the book. Blood as a symbol of menstruation provides a key to much of human culture and Knight uses it to explain the inner logic of many of mankind’s myths and taboos. Because the disruptive effects of sex can be enormous, these controls have played an important role in the development of human culture. The riches of this deeply learned book cannot simply be conveyed in a brief review. It is a work to be read over and over and contemplated. The many insights into human culture and the relationships among the sexes will surely provide any open minded person with a new perspective as to why we are the way we are”.
Amazon.com reviewer Dec 25 2000 (Cincinnati, Ohio U.S.A.)
“This book was a revelation to me. Having struggled through numerous turgid anthropological works by the likes of Lévi-Strauss, Róheim etc., it was thrilling to read such an ambitious clear-sighted and compelling account of the origins of human culture, together with an excellent critique of much current anthropological thinking. ….a wonderfully stimulating book”.
Mick Hartley, Amazon.com
“A man writing about menstruation as empowering not polluting; a Marxist analysis in which sex solidarity and class analysis assume equal explanatory power; a fully social and revolutionary account of our human cultural origins that privileges women; an explicitly political narrative of science in the first person; an interweaving of anthropology, biology, history of ideas, and philosophy; an attempt not just to interpret the world but to change the world: Blood Relations is all this and more”.
Diane Bell, American Ethnologist
“Ignoring this book is a mistake. It is a very readable, witty, lively treasure-trove of anthropological wisdom and insight….Chris Knight has taken on the task of explicating not only the whys and hows of human cultural evolution, but also vast constellations of cultural behaviour covering Australia, Africa, Europe and all of the Americas.In this endeavour he is extraordinarily cross-disciplinary in his approach, utilizing insights from cultural anthropology, sociology, sociobiology and palaeo- and ethno-archaeology.In short,Knight is a complete anthropologist, one who realizes the value of exploring all corners of his field to synthesize disparate work into a cohesive whole. His deep commitment to such synthesis should give pause to those of us who refuse to look outside our own areas of expertise for support or contradiction of our theories. His Marxist perspective, while of questionable practical value, is metaphorically rich. And his scholarship is impeccable. While many of us rarely bother to read ‘the greats’ of our field any more, Knight delves deep into Durkheim, Frazer and Lévi-Strauss and many others, coming up with long-forgotten insights and providing his readers with an enormously useful review of a century of evolutionary theory and ethnographic data…In fact, as a feminist, I would very much like it if Knight’s story turned out to be true, since it gives so much credit to women’s collective solidarity, strike power and biological and intellectual creativity…. Best of all, it’s a story that’s ‘good to think with’. It made me review in my mind everything I ever learned about evolution and rethink it in a new way.”
R. E. Davis-Floyd, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
“Revolutions in science seldom appear ready made…. But I suspect that the basis of a new synthesis between anthropology and biology may well lie within the pages of this book.”
Robin Dunbar, Times Higher Educational Supplement
“Imagine a time when women lived together, worked together, sang and danced together, and our lives, work rhythms, songs and dance rhythms were all governed by the cycles of the moon. Imagine a time when all our skins were dark, Europeans having newly arrived from Africa. Imagine a time when women had the power and solidarity to make men leave their warm hearth-sides, go out into the howling wastes of Ice Age Europe to hunt giant and ferocious mammoths and then transport their kills proudly back to the women’s camp.This is not a feminist matriarchalist dream. This happened somewhere between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, according to the latest scientific account of human cultural origins given by male Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight in Blood Relations. The ‘Human Revolution’, as archaeologists call it, sparked an explosion of symbolic culture that was carried from Africa into Europe, Asia and all the way to Australia 40,000 years ago, and later all over the planet.”
Camilla Power, Everywoman
“No, this is not another Man the Hunter origins myth, with man simultaneously inventing technology, culture and the nuclear family, and teaching it all to his dumb wife sitting at home with baby, waiting for the bacon. On the contrary. First it is not about Man or even Woman: it is about women organising in solidarity with one another. Yes, it is about culture: how women’s solidarity was at the core of it. And yes, it is also about the family: how women’s solidarity exploded the ‘natural family’ of most primate societies, in which the females are the sexual possessions of the male or males. Knight argues that the first human societies were communist. For him, as for Friedrich Engels, this means something historically specific (and nothing whatsoever to do with the monstrosity of Stalinism). Communism meant a society in which women – as never before or since – were free. Women collectively said No to rape, and men obeyed. Responsibility for children belonged to the whole community. Women’s rule – matriarchy – in this sense meant freedom for everyone. Language, co-operation and science replaced physical coercion, animal individualism, and the rule of genes.”
Liz Dalton, Sulfur Magazine
“Read this book and be changed. It is another of the great books of our time whose far-reaching influence in modern culture has not even begun to be felt. BLOOD RELATIONS is beautiful.”
Earl Hazell, Amazon.com
“Chris Knight has produced a book of absorbing interest. The author likens himself to the palaeoanthropological storytellers and it is a fascinating tale that he has to tell. His setting is some 40,000-45,000 years ago…Recommended for health sociologists and students, especially those interested in the gender order of society and in the social significance of biological processes. The book is a narrative, best read through from cover to cover, and this is an agreeable and thought-provoking task.”
Agnes Miles, Sociology of Health and Illness
“One of Knight’s chapters is headed ‘The Revolution’…, but his whole book might well have had this in the title for his thesis has revolutionary implications for modern scholarship as well as hypothesising a revolution in the remote past.”
Emily Lyle, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh
“A refreshing alternative to the plethora of prosaic and sexist variations on the ‘Man-the-Hunter’ theory of the origins of human culture.”
Cris Shore, Dept. of Social Anthropology,Goldsmiths’ College London
“Blood Relations is magnificent. Comprehensive in design, powerfully informed in execution – this book clarifies not only the problems of the past, but posits the need for a new cultural leap if we are to survive the present.”
M.R.A.Chance, Department of Anthropology, University College London
“Chris Knight in Blood Relations has this ‘extraordinary resolve’. His is an immense work of documentation and close argument. For all its obvious risks, the model offers no hypothesis which is not rigorously testable. Not only this, but it appears to solve most of the outstanding conundrums in contemporary anthropology.”
Peter Redgrove, Times Literary Supplement
“Blood Relations points us all in a refreshingly new direction.”
Clive Gamble, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton
“Encyclopaedic in scope, this is a seminal work that will certainly stand as a classic example of the application of the Marxist anthropological model to an examination of the origin of human culture…”
Choice, American Library Association
“Chris Knight has a political agenda, and he is not going to hide it from us. He is a good Marxist (‘old fashioned’ as some readers are bound to conclude), believing in class struggle, trade-union activism, workers’ solidarity, and most of all in Engels’s version of primitive communism and the early matriarchate….This theory is designed to cock a snook at every premise which sleeps undisturbed in our current assumptions….The result is an exhilaratingly original edifice of astonishing range.”
Caroline Humphrey, London Review of Books
“Blood Relations is an incredible work of scholarship, and in particular of Marxist scholarship – a vindication of scientific socialist theory at a time when Marxism is supposed to be dead. Here we have the actual proof that Marxist theory works. Not by ignoring facts that don’t fit – but by putting the facts first. The facts are sacred. The theory must fit the facts. We’re so used to having paraded before us Marxism and Marxism-Leninism as it was prostituted by the Soviet Union – where if the facts didn’t fit they were ignored – that we’ve forgotten what Marxism really means.Chris’ book is based on the facts. These facts were well-known within a variety of scientific disciplines – sociology, anthropology, archaeology. You look at these facts, and a lot of them seem completely inexplicable. They appear bizarre. Why do women co-ordinate their menstrual cycles? Why do so many religions have taboos onmenstruation? Why do they have taboos on eating bloody meat? And this is not just in one or two societies, but all round the world, in societies which appear to have very little else in common.Now, men were not very interested in these facts. They just seemed to be bizarre things that primitive societies did. Their importance is that they’re the key to understanding how we became human….Chris’ theory may not be 100 per cent correct. But so far, it explains all the known facts. None of the other theories did. And I don’t think it’s too strong to say that in time to come it will be seen as significant perhaps in the way Darwin was seen as significant, in really changing the way we look at what it is to be human.”
Dorothy Macedo, Vice-Chair, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy
“A quite remarkable contribution to our subject.”
Marilyn Strathern, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
“It may seem far-fetched, but Knight’s grand theory synthesises many disparate anthropological and archaeological observations…”
Chris Stringer, London Natural History Museum
“From apparently modest beginnings, this is the most ambitious project on the origins of culture to have emerged for decades.The effort to establish a collectivist point of departure for the theory of human communication has had to struggle against the individualist assumptions that dominate cognitive science, but this very struggle makes the book original and important”.
Mary Douglas, C.B.E., F.B.A.
“I suspect that it will be a slow burning classic, revived from time to time, but then discarded because it repudiates bourgeois metaphysics.” Keith Hart, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
“As women all over the world fight for control over their own sexuality and fertility, Chris Knight in Blood Relations has performed a service. We can now prove that we’re demanding nothing new. We once had collective control over our own bodies; our fight now is to regain it.”
Leonora Lloyd, Secretary, National Abortion Campaign
“Chris Knight is reconstructing a human revolution that occurred many thousands of years ago. Whether his argument is true or not I am not qualified to judge. But what I want to convey here is the excitement – and the quite extraordinary sense of homecoming and comradeship – which this magnificent book has caused me. But also relief, such relief: as if I am at last in the presence of an understanding which allows something hard and knotted and perverse and intrinsically unshareable, to unfold, stretch, breathe. The release of tension as I read page after page of the detailed, passionate and ironic argument was extraordinary, and something for which I still feel great waves of gratitude.”
David Holt, Lecture to The Guild of Pastoral Psychologists
“This book is a revolutionary textbook for socialists and feminists. It turns upside down the reactionary developments in biology and evolutionary theory that dominated the1980s….Communism – the ideas of revolutionary change, of solidarity, of feminism and of a society organised for the benefit of everyone – is not only still the spectre that haunts Europe, but it is the very thing that created us as human beings…”
Keith Veness, Labour Briefing
“How did human language and culture first emerge? The answer has now been found. It points us back to the very place where we all learned our craft. Human solidarity and culture began on the picket line.”
Jim Perry, Secretary, Cannock Chase & Littleton National Union of Mineworkers
“Knight offers us a model of the birth of culture which, born in practices and needs which are firmly rooted in our biological nature, nevertheless takes form in the real will of our ancestors to impose a collective and liberatory solution to a common problem.”
Timothy Mason, University of Paris Full text of this review
Chris Knight. Menstrual synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake. In T. Buckley & Alma Gottlieb (eds), Blood Magic: The anthropology of menstruation. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 232-55
Over much of Aboriginal Australia men exercise ritual power through ceremonies (stated in myths once to have been the prerogative of women) in which they symbolically “menstruate” and “give birth.” The resultant power is conceptualized as a rainbowlike snake, which is said to be the source of life and which “swallows” humans and then “regurgitates” them, now “reborn.” This chapter discusses examples of such rituals and beliefs. It suggests that Australian Aboriginal culture in certain regions exhibits a phenomenon known in Western medical science as “menstrual synchrony,” and that such synchrony has been conceptualized traditionally as “like a rainbow” and “like a snake.” More on Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake.
FF Network No. 15
(April 1998): 19-21
The gendered interpretation of blood
Isabel Cardigos, In and Out of Enchantment: Blood Symbolism and Gender in Portuguese Fairytales. Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 260. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1996. 273 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0784-5), FIM 155,-, Soft (ISBN 951-41-0783-7), FIM 130,-
Available at the Tiedekirja bookstore
Kirkkokatu 14, FIN-00170 Helsinki, Finland
fax: +358 9 635017; e-mail: http://www.folklorefellows.fi/comm/tilaus-fax.html
In and Out of Enchantment by Isabel Cardigos is, as its subtitle indicates, a study of fairytales where the starting point for the analysis lies in Portuguese tale variants. The study interprets two masculine and two feminine fairytale types. The theoretical frame of reference is both traditional and highly innovative. The traditional side of the study is the use of psychoanalytic theories, both Freudian and Jungian, and structuralist models as tools of interpretation. The innovative aspects stem from the feminist approach which in this case means problematising some of the traditionally male-biased psychoanalytic views and making them work in a female-focused and female-oriented way.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 3(1): 133-153
In much Native American mythology marriage is conceptualized as a monthly honeymoon interrupted at each dark moon by menstruation. Woman’s monthly alternation between marital sex and menstrual seclusion is coded as an alternation between her rival partners, Sun and Moon. Against this background, a Plains Indian myth attempts to come to terms with a novel problem. With the introduction of patrilocal residence, a woman must stay with her husband and his relatives even when she is menstruating. It is as if her two rival partners, instead of living apart, had come to occupy the same space together, limiting her movement and precluding her escape. Such permanency in marriage, overriding menstrual periodicity is experienced as a dangerous violation of ritual norms. Exploring the consequent difficulties and contradictions, the myth finds a way of validating the new arrangement. This story along with many others analysed by Lévi- Strauss analysis in the light of his own ‘exchange of women’ theory of human cultural origins. Re-analysed in the light of menstrual sex-strike theory however, it makes good sense, shedding light on the origins of women’s oppression.
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WOMEN INITIATED CULTURE
A review of Chris Knight, 1991. Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Women initiated culture. It was they who opened the door to human history. They did so through a sex strike whose banner was the blood of menstruation.
This is Chris Knight’s claim in ‘Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture’ (London & New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). It is the story of More on The Revolution Which Worked
Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight.
Yale, 581 pp., £40, 31 October 1991,0 300 04911 0
Most people, including most social anthropologists, have only a hazy idea about the origins of human culture. For decades the whole treacherous territory has been avoided, and anthropology has come to construct itself in such a way that the subject is indeed unknowable. More on Rituals of the Full Moon
Professor Alex Walter, Rutgers University
This book may be the most important ever written on the evolution of human social organization. It brings together observation and theory from social anthropology, primatology, and paleoanthropology in a manner never before equalled. The author, Chris Knight, who teaches social anthropology at the University of East London, is up to date on all these fields and has achieved an extraordinary synthesis. More on The Most Important Book Ever Written on the Evolution of Human Social Organization?
THE ORIGINS OF SOCIETY was written in 1988, three years before the publication of my Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. It still provides a good basic outline of my argument. With hindsight, this rendering appears to me as one of several early "mythical" versions of my story – although by no means the worst of these. Scientifically speaking, it is now somewhat out of date. Thanks largely to the work of Ian Watts, it is now known that the human revolution occurred well before the Europe Upper Palaeolithic, and that the location (almost certainly) was sub-Saharan Africa. In the light of this knowledge, this pamphlet’s many references to "the Ice Age" no longer seem very appropriate. Writing today, I would also amend my style of argumentation, which in this pamphlet is hardly Darwinian. Shortly after Blood Relations was published, Camilla Power recast the theory in more rigorously Darwinian ("selfish gene") terms, making it rather more persuasive to scientists working in this field. Despite these shortcomings, I have found that newcomers to the whole topic appreciate the brevity and conceptual simplicity of this particular version, so it seemed worthwhile to reprint it in the form in which it was written.
Chris Knight, University of East London, June 2003
Copyright: C. D. Knight, 1989.
Comment, information and/or criticism welcome. More on The Origins of Society
Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy University College London in 1987
This thesis presents and tests a new theory of human cultural origins. The point of departure is an economic finding: unlike non-human primates when they engage in hunting, human hunters normatively do not eat their own kills. This apparent self-denial, it is argued, is best seen as an expression of a cultural universal, the sexual division of labour, in which women obtain meat which their sexual partners have secured. It is suggested that the female sex may have played a part in the establishment of this arrangement, and – in particular – that menstrual bleeding may have been central to its symbolic underpinnings.
In this context, a model of the “initial situation” for human culture is proposed. In this, menstrual bleeding is (a) socially synchronised and (b) marks a periodic feminine sexual withdrawal (in effect, a “sex-strike”) functioning to motivate and regularize male periodic hunting. On a symbolic level, menstrual blood is identified with the blood of game animals, a generalised avoidance of blood ensuring both a periodic separation of sexual partners (necessary for effective hunting) and the separation of hunters as consumers from their own kills (necessary to ensure economic circulation and exchange of the produce).
The body of the thesis takes the form of an extensive testing of this model. It is shown that it facilitates a much-simplified and internally coherent re-reading of Lévi-Strauss Mythologiques, in addition to much other recent writing on traditional mythology, cosmology, ritual and symbolism.
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A review of Chris Knight’s Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. 2000
Timothy Mason (Universite de Paris 8) 2000.
The first academic anthropologists were much influenced by Darwin. The ways in which Tylor or Frazer applied the selectionist theory of evolution have often been summarily characterized as an Imperialistic and ethnocentric form of Social Darwinism, but in fact their thinking was more interesting and more complex than that. Nevertheless, when a new generation of anthropologists, closer to the terrain, less interested in historical questions, took over the baton, they renounced the search for the Key to All Mysteries, leaving Frazer to the poets and novelists. For Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, the Savage ceases to be the witness to our prehistoric past, and becomes a man like others, his daily cares and fundamental needs being much like our own.
The anthropological community congratulated itself on having turned its back on Big Questions without answers. New, more properly scientific problems could now be tackled with new, more properly scientific methods. But, perhaps unfortunately, it may be that the social sciences are open to other pressures, other criteria, than are the hard sciences. Malinowski owed his success with the public to the tales and anecdotes that run through his work ; his theoretical contributions have never fully satisfied the specialists. However, in general, after the anthropologists abandoned their early attempts to outline a history of humankind, they found little favour with the ordinary reader. If some of their works still attracted attention, these were more likely to be moral tales of the kind that Colin Turnbull offered in his books on the M’Buti, whom he found in a state of grace, or on the Ik whom he saw as prefiguring our own terrifying future. As Chris Knight remarks, by renouncing the quest for origins, the anthropological community lost its readers and cut itself off from contact with the world at large.
The vacuum, argues Knight, was quickly to be filled by sociobiology, first launched by Edward O. Wilson, but then taken up, above all, by the primatologists working in the wake of De Vore and Goodall. The chimpanzees of Gombe or the baboons of ‘The Pumphouse Gang’ filled our Sunday colour supplements. So powerful were the stories told, that sometimes it was as if human beings were nothing but apes with language added on ; culture came to seem nothing more than a kind of varnish behind which one might espy the naked ape, armed with reproductive strategies and engaging in power struggles which were the very image of those of our primate cousins.
A fully evolutionist theory of culture had to await the publication of Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene’. At the centre of this theory is the ‘meme’, which plays the same role of ‘replicator’ as the gene fills in biological evolution. And just as in the biological world, memes must obey combinatory rules. Thus our history can be characterized as a struggle between memes for their survival, and the elaboration of structures which are more and more complex, but which follow a few basic principles. This thesis is more seductive for the humanist than are the constructs of the sociobiologists, for it points to a radical cut-off between biology and culture. Memes are the new replicators, the wave of the future, which means that humanity is to be at the centre of the new programme. Furthermore, the literary critic will recognize a familiar air, for ‘memology’ offers echoes of the work the Russian formalists, of Vladimir Propp’s analyses of folk-tales, or of Levi-Strauss’s work on mythologies.
Blood Relations; a Marxist sociobiology
It is in this context that Chris Knight’s book may be read. Knight is a theoretician rather than an ethnologist, and his writings are based on the observations made by others; the shadows of Frazer, Freud and Levi-Strauss lie across his pages. A militant socialist in the tradition of Engels, he sees his work as a left-wing response to sociobiology, which he characterizes as the Political Economy of our time. It is, he believes, up to Marxists to use and transform it. But he is a resolutely post-modern Marxist; one of the names he invokes – along with that of Mary Douglas – is Donna Haraway, for he has drawn much of his inspiration from her ‘Primate Visions’. Knight tells us that he will add his own story to the others, that it will be a resolutely political story, with no pretensions to objectivity.
The tale that he unfolds is, predictably, one of revolution – the fundamental revolution, centred on reproduction and sexuality. It is not, he assures us, true to say that human nature is such that revolution is impossible to accomplish – on the contrary, our humanity, our cultures, our relational networks come into being through and in a revolution initiated by women 100,000 years ago, and through the counter-revolution subsequently mounted by men. Thus it was that our humanity was forged by women, whose fundamental needs for food and for help in raising children form the foundations upon which culture was to be erected.
Let us follow one of his key illustrations: the Sharanahua is a South American people among whom one may regularly see a group of young women, arrayed in their finest garments and very visibly painted, form a line, dance together, and challenge the young men. Each of the women chooses a man whom she orders to go off into the forest and hunt for her. Off go the men; when they return, the women are waiting for them. Unhappy is the wretch who comes back empty-handed; he will do his best to creep into the village unperceived, and to hide in his hut. The lucky hunter, however, lays his prey down at the entry to the village, where the women are waiting, and goes off to prepare himself for the festivities. He knows that he will that very night enjoy the favours of the woman by whom he was chosen.
Knight tells us that this scenario is a distant echo of the birth of all human culture. Women need men – not as mere genitors, but as providers of goods and services. To persuade males to play a role so rare among primates, women have recourse to a ‘sex-strike’. Knight sums this up in the formula: No meat, no sex. To underpin his theory, he follows two paths; first he carries out a rewrite of Levi-Strauss, and second he tries to show how the very specific physiology of the human female can be explained by the ‘sex-strike’. To this anthropological theory, Knight adds in counter-point an account of his own development. Throughout his book, he reveals how his own intellectual and political evolution influenced his scientific choices. The chapters of his book do not simply follow an argumentative chain, tracing out the logical steps in the construction of his theory; they also trace out the pathways which lead from the youthful naivete of the early militant to the mature adult capable of making an honourable contribution to the revolutionary project.
Incest and ‘own-kill’
Levi-Strauss places the birth of culture under the sign of the incest-taboo. But, argues Knight, that does not go far enough; women are not just pawns in a game played out between groups of brothers. On the contrary, they are themselves the main players. The incest taboo cannot be understood unless it is placed in the context of a second taboo, the traces of which, he says, are to be found in virtually all hunter-gatherer societies: a hunter is forbidden to consume the meat of an animal that he has killed himself. This is what Knight calls ‘the own-kill rule’. In most cases, the hunter must offer the meat to one or another of his in-laws. Often enough, he must provide his wife’s family with meat and other services for years before he is admitted as a son-in-law. To taste the blood of an animal that one has brought down oneself is the equivalent of an incest – you should not sully your own blood. Knight writes:
“If one’s ‘taboo’ or ‘totem’ is not one’s ‘meat’ or ‘blood’ or ‘flesh’ in the most literal sense, it is at least one’s ‘spirit’, ‘substance’ or ‘essence’. And the crucial point is that the ‘self’, however conceived, is not to be appropriated by the self. It is for others to enjoy. According to this logic, a man’s sisters are inseparable from himself, and , sexually, they are therefore for others to take as sexual partners. A man’s hunting products – the game animals which he kills – are likewise inseparable from himself, and are his own flesh, his own blood, or his own essence which he is not allowed to eat. Not two rules are in force, but only one; the rule against ‘eating one’s own flesh’.”
Upon this basis is erected a cycle which lasts one lunar cycle. During the period of the new moon, women remain among their families of origin – the group of sisters, of mothers and of children, often living together under the same roof. The men, for their part, go out to hunt. During the period of the full moon, the women join their husbands or their lovers – if they have succeeded in bringing meat back to the village. The men, as we can see, sexually consume blood which is not their own. And the women, their sisters, their mothers, their children and their brothers, eating the meat which has been brought by their lovers, also consume blood which is not their own.
It has to be said that in his critique and extension of Levi-Strauss, Knight offers arguments which are pertinent and interesting, and that the quasi-symmetrical structure which he establishes from the different forms of taboo is pretty convincing. But Knight wants to go further than this; like Freud, whom he invokes, he is in the business of digging up a primary scene – the sex-strike. In the natural world, as we may learn from the writings of the primatologists, society is pretty much a collection of individuals, each of which has its own personal interests. Whether eating or reproducing, in the end, each individual is in it for him or herself. Some kind of rudimentary alliance can arise, but there is no true exchange – monkeys do not exchange food, do not exchange sexual partners, unless they are threatened by a stronger individual. Human beings, as Levi-Strauss understood, can do this.
The question that must be asked, claims Knight, is how women managed to escape from the control of the dominant males, and how they managed to persuade the other males to work for them, to free them from the need to spend all their time looking for food to the detriment of their maternal roles. This is indeed a critical question, for human babies are even more fragile than are monkey infants, of which many die while very small due to accidents occasioned by the mother’s need to be mobile in order to feed herself. Human females, then, have a strong interest in establishing a home base or semi-permanent camp, and in getting men to do the work of provisioning.
This brings us to a crucial point in the argument; Knight illustrates it by reference to another, altogether different species. Among sea-horses, monogamy is the rule. The females impose this form of sexual relationship through the synchronization of their ovulation – all the females produce their eggs at exactly the same time and so the males cannot easily fertilize a number of females. Female sea-horses use the moon as a cosmic clock. Human females, suggests Knight, did the same thing.
A group of women began to ovulate in synchrony, producing their eggs at the time of the full moon. Their menstruation, obviously, was also collective, and coincided with the new moon. The women’s sex-strike occurs, then, at the moment of the new moon, and is realized through collective menstruation. Let us see how the strike could have been put in place.
Women, periods and the moon
Human sexuality is rather different from that of our closest relatives, in particular as it concerns the females of the species, for whom the most marked characteristics are the absence of estrus and permanent receptivity. Although there are primate species with similar characteristics – particularly those which are monogamous – it is not usual and never as strongly pronounced. One explanation, put forward by Desmond Morris, among others, is that the female attempts to capture her mate’s long-term attention through offering a greater intensity and continuity of sexual pleasure. It has also been pointed out that the absence of estrus means that if a man wants to be sure of impregnating his partner, he must maintain sexual relations with her over a longer period than is the case among chimpanzees.
Knight remains unconvinced by all this. What is marked among the females of our species, he argues, is not her constant receptivity, but rather the moment when she is less receptive – her menstrual period. He writes:
“Despite oestrus loss, hormonally controlled sexual signals are not entirely missing from the human female menstrual cycle. On the contrary, menstruation in the human case has been accentuated as an external display. It is at menstruation rather than ovulation that the human female experiences her behaviour as hormonally influenced to a certain degree.”
And he adds :
“A woman loses considerably more blood during menstruation than does any other primate. This shedding of blood, although small, represents a significant loss – a loss which has to be made good by additional food intake, particularly of iron. The adaptive advantage of this has not yet been explained”.
Menstruation, he suggests, functions as a signal. It lets men know that the woman will refuse sexual intimacy. But this is not enough ; all fecundable women must signal their refusal at the same time. Knight needs to demonstrate that this is possible. He begins by noting that although the menstrual cycle is not necessarily linked to the phases of the moon – periodicity among primates is variable – the typical cycle of the human female lasts 28.5 days, and coincides exactly with the lunar cycle. Next, Knight cites the results of some research that indicates that when women spend enough time together – in a boarding school, for example, or a university dormitory – they tend to have their periods at the same time.
Women, then, are capable of menstrual solidarity, and of clearly demonstrating, all together, that they are not disposed to have sexual relations. They use the moon and the tides to synchronize ; at the new moon, women have their periods. They remain shut away in their homes. They mock the men, as Sharanahua women still do today : “There’s no meat in the house”, they say, “we’ll eat penises”. The men, thus reminded of their human duties – duties of exchange and reciprocity – get together to organize the hunt. They will return, says Knight, around the full moon, loaded with meat.
Women, men and culture
At first, the occasional sex-strike did not bring about a radical break between nature and culture. This only came about when our ancestors were forced to quit the coastal regions under the pressure of the new meteorological conditions brought about by the last Ice-Age. Knight situates the break very late, putting it at only 70,000 years ago. It was at this period that, deprived of the resources of the sea such as fish, crustaceans and baby seals, women began to feel the need to force men to go hunting regularly.
This required an elaborate social organization; one the one side, the women, who had to plan and put into effect the strike, and on the other the men, who had to plan and carry out the collective hunt. For the women, menstrual blood linked to menstrual synchronization was the basis of their solidarity. But at any one time, only a minority of women would be having regular periods: pregnant women, those with unweaned children, older women and the undernourished do not bleed. Even today, among hunter-gatherers, menstruation is rare, and very few women have the regular cycles that their counterparts in industrial societies undergo – indeed, anthropologists refer to this rarity of periods when they try to explain why such peoples hold menstrual blood in abhorrence. So there is not enough real blood to do the trick – particularly if the hunt lasts for several days, and the men who have remained at the home base must be kept at bay. Knight at this point in his argument brings in the fact that a good number of archeological sites show quite abundant traces of red ochre :
“… it is reasonable to suppose that on many occasions, humans would have experienced the need to make visible the source of the ‘magic’. The strike itself may have seemed in this context somewhat demanding of blood. If my hypothesis were correct, we might expect to find cultures to have evolved artifices serving to amplify the visual impact of women’s blood. Real menstrual blood dries, flakes and turns almost black rather than red within a few hours. If women wanted to declare themselves defiantly ‘powerful’ for longer and longer periods, and wanted to express this in some visually unmistakable way, they may well have felt the need to augment their blood with something which stayed red for longer and did not quickly flake. Could red juices, ochre, or mixtures of ochre with blood and/or animal fat, have fulfilled such a function?”
Understandably, Knight replies to his own question in the affirmative. Symbolic culture, according to this hypothesis, comes to light in the body-decoration of women. The first human message is that addressed to the male group by the female group who, covered in red, the emblem of their menstrual blood, say a collective ‘No’, and offer the first exchange. Sex, says Knight, for meat.
This is the source of two fundamental taboos: the women remain in the base camp, and with them are the children and the young males who are too young to hunt, old people, and a few males who are left behind to protect the group. The men who go on the hunt must be sure that the women will not lie with the men who stay behind: sons and nephews become taboo. At the same time, the men must promise not to keep the meat for themselves, and in this way, the own-kill taboo is put in place.
What kind of feminism?
Knight sees his work as contributing to those currents in anthropology and sociobiology which take account of the feminist perspective – but not just any feminist perspective:
“Influenced by friends and comrades who were feminists, I naturally felt feminism of any variety to be a liberating political force. But … for the women I was closest to (many of whom were involved in the Greenham Common anti-Cruise missile campaigns of the early 1980s), the construction of ‘female males’ was not what the struggle was all about, any more than joining the capitalists was the essence of working-class emancipation. The struggle was more about refusing to collaborate with the whole masculinist political set-up, organising autonomously as women, drawing on support for real change from the wider class struggle – and fighting to bring men as allies into a world transformed on women’s terms.”
It may be – at least in part – for this reason that Knight takes such pains to reject the idea that the exchange offered by the women could be seen as a form of prostitution. He insists that among hunter-gatherers, it would be immoral in a woman to offer sex without demanding a gift in return, rather than in insisting on payment. In South America, in Melanesia, in Africa, the woman always expects the lover or husband to offer her gifts each time she makes love to him. The prostitute, says Knight, is not she who insists on the strict application of the basic rules imposed by the sex-strike. On the contrary, it is the strike-breaker, who offers her body to men on demand – by thus undermining feminine solidarity, she threatens society itself. Prostitution does not consist in the simple demand of a reward for sexual services, but in undercutting the trade-union price and offering up one’s body in the place of other women. The woman who openly demands a gift makes the rules clear; the prostitute muddies them.
How is it, then, that the prostitute is present in almost all human societies, and is so common in modern societies? According to Knight, she will only proliferate in societies which are dominated by men, in patriarchal societies. How is it, then, that if women gave birth to culture, women in all cultures find themselves under the masculine thumb?
Knight’s reply to this is that after the revolution, there was a counter-revolution. This counter-revolution is clearly recognized and celebrated by men. To demonstrate this, he takes the case of Australian Aboriginal peoples, among whom the myth of the Rainbow Snake is widely disseminated. This serpent, which swallows menstruating women, and which brings members of the same blood line together, where they should remain separate, is the very symbol of feminine solidarity, founded on the sex-strike and on synchronized menstruation, says Knight. But, in Aboriginal mythology, it can be seen that the men have hijacked the snake, putting themselves in the place of the women at the moment of collective menstruation. Women, they say, do not have ‘real periods’ – which is why they must be socially isolated when they bleed. Kept apart from one another while they menstruate, women are no longer able to synchronize, are not longer able to announce and celebrate the strike. Men, on the other hand, through sub-incision or other forms of self-mutilation, practiced collectively, particularly during rites of initiation, substitute themselves for women, taking their place as the guarantors of the social system. Knight cites one of the male participants in these rites:
“But really we have been stealing what belongs to them (the women), for it is mostly all woman’s business; and since it concerns them it belongs to them. Men have nothing to do really, except copulate, it belongs to the women. All that belonging to those Wauwalak, the baby, the blood, the yelling, the dancing, all that concerns the women; but every time we have to trick them. Women can’t see what men are doing, although it really is their own business, but we can see their side. This is because all the Dreaming business came out of women – everything; only men take ‘picture’ for that Julunggul [i.e. men make an artificial reproduction of the Snake]. In the beginning we had nothing because men had been doing nothing ; we took these things from women.”
According to Knight, the Aborigines have maintained in their myths and ritual practices the memory trace of a critical moment in the evolution of culture – the moment when men overthrew the existing order and imposed masculine domination. This could only occur through a revolution in symbolic representations. The Snake would no longer swallow women.
The primal scene?
Knight knows that the story he tells is but one among many. But, he claims, his is a special kind of story, for though it is indeed a myth, it is a scientific myth. He believes that science must be liberating. His story, he says, may aid progressive forces in their struggle against the dominant ideology, and help give them back the confidence that they have lost since the 70s, to dream once more of revolution. In an England where the Left is in disarray, where the Labour Party is in the hands of an admirer of Mrs. Thatcher, one may understand why Knight – who cites Ken Livingstone in his list of acknowledgments – wants to find new foundations upon which to construct a radical critique of society. But at what price? In order to construct his myth, Knight is forced into simplification and abstraction from the cultural whole. Thus, he says at one point that for the populations from which our species sprang there is a moment when blood is only blood and all blood is alike. However, it is known that in hunter-gatherer societies, blood can only be understood in its relationship to other bodily fluids – milk, sperm and bile. And it is also the case that blood is multiple. But this complexity would put a brake upon the sociobiological imagination, just as the recognition of similar inter-relationships put a brake on the project of Taylor and Frazer. Perhaps that is why Knight – with much precaution – is willing to accept the concept of ‘meme’. As he says :
“I intend to draw on this parallel between ‘genes’ and ‘memes’ not because I find the analogies convincing … but because this way of looking at matters helps to validate my own narrative of a ‘human revolution’ which transported evolution beyond the parameters of ordinary Darwinism.”
Memology allows cultural elements to be abstracted from their contexts, and permits the identification within a rite or social practice of forms or formulas that are susceptible to being thus abstracted. But one of the problems of this approach is that it is always tempting to do nothing other than to project upon our distant past the configurations of our own desires. Knight sees the trap:
“Although I scarcely understood its scientific complexities, sociobiology by this stage did not simply repel me, despite its obvious political roots. Indeed, I warmed to its ideological excesses. They seemed to promise for the first time a publicly communicable way of validating my own narrative. If the stockbrokers, the company directors and the bourgeois feminists could be uninhibited about projecting their purely political constructs into primatological and palaeoanthropological debate – then how could they object to a socialist doing the same? Obviously, it seemed to me, they could not object in principle. The bone of contention could only be the extent to which – if at all – our respective grids worked.”
He admits, then, to projecting onto the canvas that he has imagined his own political values and hopes. But it is possible that other, less well-controlled material, has also made its way into the picture. At the centre of his myth, we find the moment of revolution itself. We have already caught a glimpse of what we may justifiably refer to as the ‘primal scene’ in the dance of the Sharanahua women. But how did the first fully human females put their revolt into practice?
“Let us return to the imagined protohuman population still only tentatively pursuing the new strategy. Genetically this population would be heterogeneous, with some females more desirable in male eyes – and more interested in sex – than others … In reality, the whole purpose of female strike action would have been not to avoid sex altogether, but to make males go away only temporarily – and then to come back home with meat. Not only does this assume that males are motivated to return to females. It also implies that females can enjoy sex sufficiently to have something to offer when the males do return … Because of this, the new system could have worked only on the reverse basis, with those females most wanted by males being among the first to get organised.”
At the very centre of our cultural revolution, then, we find the most voluptuous women. Knight goes on:
Given the logic just outlined, females set on following the new strategy would clearly have done best if they could (a) arouse the sexual motivations of males prior to each hunting exhibition whilst (b) making absolutely sure that no actual sex – no consummation or fulfilment – was allowed. The need, then, would have been to find a balance, sharpening the edge of the strike weapon not by disclaiming all sexual interests – but rather by dangling before the hunters’ eyes the rewards in store for them once their tasks had been performed.
Here it is that we find the origins of clothing. Quoting Lystistrata’s oath (“I will live at home without any sexual activity, wearing my best make-up and my most seductive dresses, to inflame my husband’s ardour”), he writes :
“Bangles, beads, necklaces and other adornments, many in the form of pierced marine shells, appear suddenly in the archaeological record in great abundance during the very earliest stages of the Upper Paleolithic. Doubtless, they were accompanied by pigments, pubic coverings, shawls, tassels and other items of ornamental clothing made of materials which have unfortunately not survived. Taken together – and leaving aside the possible physical functions such as protection or warmth – these items would have conveyed symbolic information on various levels. Firstly, they would have helped combine bodily concealment with allurement. We can imagine women deliberately dressing up – and very probably also dressing one another up – in order to mark the start of each ‘strike’.”
Knight sees a (fairly reduced) role for the older women, but at the centre of his vision we find the young women and the young men. Mature men, children – and one may imagine that in the emergence of humanity, the relationship between mother and child will have been of some importance – are thrust to one side. This is exactly what we see in the dance of the Sharanahua of which he makes so much, and in which only the young are involved. But while the rites that surround the sexuality and the alliance of the young are often of great importance in human societies, it is very rare for these questions to be left to the entire discretion of the adolescents themselves. We may wonder whether Knight has not – at the very centre of his construction – allowed memic simplification to reduce the play of culture to a sort of night-club for teenagers.
The philosopher Mary Midgely has said that evolution is our Creation Myth, and that we could characterize it as a religion. Scientists like Crick or Wilson base upon it their projections of a radiant future when scientists, finally getting rid of ordinary human beings, will be free to shape the world as they wish. Knight does not share their elitism – as we have seen he believes that his enterprise is a leftist response to the conservatism which he detects within sociobiology. But, similar in this to his adversaries, he has a teleological conception of evolution. Thus it is that, from time to time, one may detect a note of irritation towards our ancestors – why did it take them so long to invent culture? But while Kipling, in imagining the origins of the alphabet, projects the bourgeois family back into our prehistory, Knight sends the striker, the feminist, and the political militant back into the past.
Has he succeeded? If by that you mean has he made a contribution to the debates within the domain in which he situates his work, one may say that he has met with some recognition; Blood Relations has been read and commented on by palaeoanthropologists and sociobiologists – and a certain number of young researchers such as Camilla Power have signed themselves on board. Knight himself, as a militant socialist, has published articles intended to popularize his ideas in left-wing journals. Even if he has not gained the popular audience that Engels or Morgan achieved with their versions of evolutionary theory at the end of the 19th Century, he may imagine with some confidence that his works will be read in some working-class homes. Knight has also contributed to bringing about a renaissance of evolutionary cultural theory within academic anthropology – although he was not by any means on his own here. To some extent, he has benefited from the swing of the pendulum; a generation of anthropologists who read Ardrey or Lorenz in their youth has joined the few voices – like that of Robin Fox – which have steadily rejected the idea that culture is an autonomous domain, ultimately inexplicable, as Boaz had characterized it. But he has also contributed to it; it was under his impulsion that the colloquium ‘Ritual and the Origins of Culture’, held at the School of Oriental and African studies was held in 1994, and gave rise to an edited volume bringing together the work of psychologists, anthropologists and historians in an attempt to outline the biological origins of rites, and their place in the evolution of our species.
Problems remain: some paleoanthropologists still believe that traces of culture can be found among the Neanderthals – for Knight, it is important to argue that the latter were displaced by modern humans because they did not possess culture. And one may also add that Knight’s myth can only hold if one ignores the contributions to culture that must have been made by the long and intimate relationships between mother and child, between brothers and
sisters – among chimpanzees, where infants remain attached to their mothers for a long time, social placement and a rough version of lineage can be seen.
But to conclude, we shall need to leave the field that Knight claims as his own. Well before he studied anthropology, Knight did an MPhil in Russian Literature at Sussex University. His first culture is literary – as one might expect, he cites Robert Graves, he quotes Propp, and he has read Girard. As a story-teller, he is not naive. He knows that he is offering at the same time a myth, a scientific theory and an autobiographical novel. It is a Dickensian story – ‘Great Expectations’, perhaps – that of a young man who seeks to make his way in a world both threatening and exciting, a young man who catches a glimpse of the love of his life in the light of a palaeolithic camp-fire, who loses sight of her in his quest for the truth of the world and the authenticity of his soul, but who nevertheless keeps his flame alight, hoping to find her again in a better world towards the forging of which he will himself have contributed. Knight’s hero is worthy of love, for as a true Romantic lover, he has long laboured at the construction of his beloved.
Is it because he inserts himself into the story he tells, because he continually lets the reader know that he himself is not duped by the tale, that he manages at least to suggest that, while he may not completely convince, he does offer a way out of the present impasse? Sociobiology, even when practiced by those who are not inveterate conservatives – and not all of its adepts are – has trouble doing much other than to sing to what is – or at least to what they imagine is inscribed in our genes. Memology, in its turn, submits us to the tyranny of ideas or of rites – Dawkins, for example, sees religion as a kind of virus against which ordinary men have little defence. Knight offers us a model of the birth of culture in which, born in the practices and needs which are firmly rooted in our biological nature, it nevertheless takes form in the real will of our ancestors to impose a collective and liberatory solution to a common problem.
Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin, London & New York, 1986.
Dunbar, Robin, Chris Knight & Camilla Power (eds.), The Evolution of Culture, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1999.
Frazer, James, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic & Religion, (Abridged Edition), Papermac, London, 1987.
Haraway, Donna, Primate Visions : Gender, Race & Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge, New York & London, 1989.
Knight, Chris, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1991.
Knight, Chris, Sex and Language as Pretend Play, in Dunbar, Knight & Power, 1999, pp. 228-247.
Midgely, Mary, Evolution as Religion: A Comparison of Prophecies, Zygon, vol. 22, No. 2 (June 1987), pp. 179-194. 10