The revolution which worked


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 a revolution which worked. It is a book which will provoke some to fury, others to delight. It is based on 25 years of research and debate, and a wealth of evidence from the new biology, primatology, archaeology, palaeontology, social anthropology and the structural analysis of mythology. The author, a Marxist, an anthropologist and a man, makes no apology for any of this, but does acknowledge his debts to the women thinkers and activists — from scientists of almost every discipline to poets, witches and Greenham women — who have been and still are researching the same issues.

Friedrich Engels wrote over a hundred years ago that in order to become culturally human, our animal ancestors had to overcome male sexual jealousy, which lay at the heart of all hierarchy, competition and conflict over sex and food in the animal world (Engels, F. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State). Sex organised pre-human society. Chris Knight argues that ‘with the establishment of earliest culture, society at last succeeded in organising sex’.

When did this happen? Central to Knight’s book is the exciting debate now opening up on the dating of the birth of anatomically modern humanity. Becoming culturally human was bound up with our evolutionary achievement of anatomical modernity – the one was contingent on the other. All the evidence of the new palaeontology, archaeology and molecular biology points to the same extraordinary conclusion: humanity in evolutionary terms is a tiny newborn baby.

Around 200,000 years ago the ‘African Eve’ who mothered all of us (according to the newest genetic studies) appeared in sub-Saharan Africa. Neanderthals were still roaming in Northern Europe when we started moving into other continents, to leave our fossilised bones 100,000 years later — and have them unearthed 100,000 years later still – in Israel at Qafzeh, and in South Africa at Blombos Cave and Klasies River Mouth. We ‘daughters of Eve’ were deliberately mining red ochre for use in body-painting and ritual — the collective symbolic action which Knight sees as the basis of all human language, kinship and culture. Already 100,000 years ago, the ‘symbolic explosion’ was beginning to get under way. In Europe, the outcome is known as ‘the Upper Palaeolithic revolution’, which took off soon after the beginning of the last great Ice Age. Modern humans (the Cro-Magnons) were suddenly spreading across the world, in the space of a few thousand years moving from Africa to Asia and Australia to eastern and western Europe and finally to the Americas. They had home bases, domestic fires, sophisticated and developing tool kits, and an organised sexual division of labour. They not only talked; they also spoke poetry, played musical instruments, sang and danced, and decorated themselves with body-paint. Ritual, as ‘the collective dimension of intimate, emotionally significant life’ (Knight) gave us our meaning. It defined us as human. We knew then how to rejoice in the achievement.

How did it happen? Scientists from every relevant discipline are at present puzzling over it. Knight sees it as a revolution: the successful outcome of a long struggle against our previous ‘animal’ social organisation.

As riverine and shoreline gatherers, scavengers and small game hunters, our still earlier ancestors — living over 200,000 years ago — had been able to survive happily as long as the mild climate of the interglacial years provided us with food in abundance. Males, females, and even infants could almost equally well gather what grew, lay or crawled around them. The failure of males to provision their sex-partners or offspring, in such a context, hardly mattered and could be tolerated. It was, after all, part of the natural order of things — for primates.

We were designed for paradise. In the tropics and sub-tropics, African Eve’s children, naked and warm, played, swam, and picnicked on the beach. Knight supports Elaine Morgan’s hypothesis that we adapted to wading and swimming as we evolved along the lakeshores of East Africa and the coasts of the Afar Gulf. Significantly for his theory, he believes that our ancient association with rivers and the sea conditioned our own biological rhythms. Prior to the revolution which made us culturally human, Knight believes that females already had the biological capacity to synchronise their ovulatory and menstrual cycles with one another and with the tides. The tides, as everyone knows, are governed by the moon. So — there we gambolled, well-fed, sunburned and moonstruck.

But then, as eventually it always must, something else happened. The global climate began to change. First at one place, then at another, our anatomically modern ancestors were forced by rapidly changing environmental conditions to seek increasingly scarce food far from the shores. The natural order no longer worked — at least, not for the mothers and their infants. With their ultra-dependent offspring so much longer and heavier a burden than were the offspring of any other primates, the mothers started noticing bitterly with what ease the unfettered males travelled and could feed themselves. For there was plenty of food to eat. But it was no longer growing, lying or crawling. It was walking or running away. It was the era of big game, the golden age for the giant mammals roaming the plains, surviving all weathers as long as the grass did. And the males of our species were going hunting.

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.

How was this revolution achieved? Like all revolutions, Chris Knight argues: by going on strike. It was women who desperately needed change. They went on sex strike. ‘They collectively refused sex whenever meat supplies were exhausted or men attempted to approach without meat’ (Knight). They signalled No with the blood of menstruation; and the equation ‘Blood = No’ simultaneously extended the taboo to the blood of game animals. Hunters must not eat their own kill. It must be returned to camp, handed to the collectivity of women, and cooked to remove all blood before being communally eaten. At one blow the women’s strike action prompted the collective organisation of men for the benefit of all; outlawed generalised or individual male dominance; and, in seeming paradox, separated sex from foodgetting. Individual sex-for-food bargaining was banned. Women’s bodies were sacred — to themselves and others. The food given by men to their sexual partners was then shared among the women’s blood kin. A hunter had rights not in his own kill, but in the meat given to him by his sisters, which they in turn had received from their partners. Heterosexual relations were enjoyed only in conditions free of need, when everyone had been fed.

The model explains at a single stroke menstrual and incest taboos and the origins of human kinship systems. Culture — collectively agreed rules and rituals governing society, something unknown in the animal world, and a unique breakthrough in evolution — was born. Sex was subordinated to economics. As Chris Knight argues, this was necessarily women’s initiative not because they enjoyed sex any less than men, but because, as every mother knows, when it comes to the crunch, the baby and its survival has to come first.

With this book the whole apparently mighty edifice of patriarchy is challenged at its roots. It can be seen as nothing more than a gigantic bluff (backed up of course by force) perpetrated on women since the end of early communism from around 10,000 years ago. Woman as the Other, as Nature, as outside or antithetical to culture, and ultimately, for the extremes or religion or fascism, as outside humanity — it is all a projection by a society which since the onset of male and class rule has been profoundly anti-woman, profoundly fearful of women’s solidarity, and the socially transforming power which it engenders.

‘Blood Relations’ implicitly challenges the fear of femaleness which western feminism itself has not yet overcome. Can we ever be biologically whole, culturally human, and free to make whichever sexual choices we wish? The bland designer feminism which is dominant today provides only a grotesque pseudo-answer: the individual woman as super-commodity, in intense competition with every other woman, selling herself body and soul once more — but this time only to the highest bidders.

We can be whole and free. Because originally, we were. We went on strike, not once, but every month. Our clock was the moon. The rhythm of our blood flow sent the men to hunt and us to our inner world where we could centre ourselves and be close, both sexually and spiritually. The men’s rhythm, and their intragender closeness, mirrored ours. When the hunt was over, heterosexual relationships could be resumed. There was a time for every season.

The mechanical rhythms of capitalism are making us ill. That the present world is dying has become a cliché. While the rich stuff themselves or starve themselves, the poor just starve. War, pollution, disease, disaster, violence, rape, personal loneliness and misery stalk all our lives. Children expect the end of the world. Many are already suffering it. Our so-called ‘natural order’ no longer works — at least, not for the vast majority of us. Cold, hungry, facing their children’s questioning eyes, the poor of the world notice bitterly with what ease the super-rich travel and feed themselves. For there is plenty of food to eat. And the power of new technology is almost limitless. But it is all controlled and possessed by a tiny minority. It is the era of plenty, of superabundance….

The ferment of new understandings about our beginnings of which this important book is a part could help us find our way — back to the future.

Liz Dalton (adapted from the original version published in SULFUR magazine, Michigan USA; October 1992).

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