A common assumption I’ve frequently read is that the “worst discovery” made by humankind was agriculture, in that it taught men (not humans) the concept of property. The rather androcentric theorizing seems to be that once men conceptualize food as property which can be hoarded away despite the needs of others, it’s invariably a short step for them to think of everything else around them as property — including the woman or women they reserve for their exclusive sexual and farming use.
For this to be true across the board, however, we should see the same behavior everywhere agriculture is “discovered” and implemented. Fascinatingly, that does not seem to be the case. For example, in the New World before the coming of the White people, many of the Native American peoples were both agricultural, and lived a very matrifocused life: the clan’s women owned the land and fields in aggregate, and shared out the harvested food to all the clan’s members. Children belonged to the maternal clan, and the closest relationship was not husband and wife — such as in our culture — but rather between mother and children, and sisters and brothers. Brothers considered their sister’s children to be most closely related to them; fatherhood was unimportant, since children belong to the mother’s clan.
While the above is (lamentably) a highly simplified synopsis of this fascinating subject, from what I’ve read the Iroquois still retain some of these matrifocused social behaviors. I’ll freely admit I find this a much more attractive society in which to live — but then I’m not big into abusive hierarchy. It begs the question, though: if agriculture is not invariably a precursor to patriarchal ownership and possessive violence against women and children and weaker men, then what is? What truly is the “worst discovery” made by humankind?
I’ve been reading quite a bit for my second comprehensive exam about the remaining matrifocused cultures left in the world, as well as those matrifocal societies which have relatively recently been deliberately destroyed by interference from the surrounding patriarchal cultures. Curiously, I’m starting to think that the worst human discovery is not agriculture, but rather the concept of individualized paternity.
Paternity itself is not the issue — in all the matrifocused cultures I’ve read about there are men who believe certain children resulted from having had sex with the children’s mothers. This is not a big issue for them, however, because they do not consider those children “theirs.” Such cultures understand the truism (heavily ignored in most Western cultures) that the only parentage a child can be certain of is that of their mother — because she gave birth to them. Further, the men in these matrifocused cultures already “have” all the children they could want or need, in that they are the cherished male role models for all their sisters’ children. With their sisters, these men are providers and protectors for all the clan’s children, often taking on difficult journeys or jobs in order to benefit their entire clan’s health and well-being.
A quick aside here: I’ve often heard the self-serving argument that if matrifocal societies really worked — if the men were really happy in them — then such societies would not have eventually become patriarchal. While this is a charming conceit that absolves the observer of any guilt, it is unfortunately untrue. First, careful linguistic and genetic research reveals a consistent historical pattern in matrifocal societies: of resistance to outside patriarchal oppression, which if unsuccessful is followed by migration. If the men of matrifocal societies were (theoretically) so horribly oppressed, why would they leave en masse with the women and children?
Secondly, even today we see surrounding patriarchal cultures doing their best to undermine matrifocused societies through environmental destruction of the lands upon which the matrifocal society depends. Again: if men are so miserably “under the thumb” of women in these societies, wouldn’t simply offering them a supposedly better way be enough to get them to leave? Yet they don’t — more severe means of societal destruction must be applied, such as the impoverishment of the entire culture.
To be fair, I should note that the technique mentioned above does indeed work — that of a culture demonstrating a better way to live, so that oppressed members of another culture chose to abandon it for the friendlier culture. Interestingly, I only know of this happening in one case, and it occurred in the “Old West” of the United States. Women and slaves of the fledgling new United States — the extant patriarchal culture — would, when exposed to how they were treated in the matrifocal cultures of the Native Americans, frequently chose to abandon their supposedly “civilized” lives to go live among the “savages.”
Most amazing to me was to read of their determination: in one case a woman was “rescued” on three separate occasions from the Native American clan which had adopted her. In every case she managed to escape and return to them — and one of those times she was carrying a baby with her! I find it fascinating that we never hear about those women in our history classes; nor do we hear of the puzzled accounts by missionaries to the Native Americans, who wrote of how joyful the lives of the “savages” seemed to be — at least until the missionaries and other invading Whites destroyed their matrifocused cultures.
Tomorrow, a return to the point of this musing: individualized paternity as the worst discovery ever perpetrated by
(I so hate cliffhangers — I can’t believe I’m doing this! :)