Uncovering the Truth Behind Matriarchal Societies in the Ancient World
A theme common amongst the mythology of ancient cultures is a belief in the existence of a Golden Age, when humans lived uncorrupted, in peace and harmony, experiencing prosperity and societal stability. While the theme is common, there is much variation in its form and detail across those cultures. Some scholars believe that the foundation of this Golden Age in human prehistory was a matriarchal society. One in which women ruled; a society underpinned by feminine values, until its collapse into patriarchy sometime between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, leaving men and their male gods ruling society’s values and structures.
For many, this Golden Age of Matriarchy is no more than a hopeful expression of feminist desire - a myth, now debunked, that at one time served the interests of a particular feminist vision but for which the evidence has been found lacking and the benefits of which to the feminist cause have been considered highly questionable.
The Garos are an indigenous people of india and are one of the last remaining matriarchal societies in the world. (Vishma Thapa / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Definition of “Matriarchal” Society
However, so much of this analysis depends upon definition. Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth has lamented the lack of any clear definition of a matriarchal society. She considers the concept “so indistinct that nearly everyone could understand it in different ways”. Clearly, the case for finding such a prehistoric matriarchal society will be at its weakest if a matriarchy is defined narrowly as simply the opposite of patriarchy, as a society “ruled” by women instead of men. On the other hand, if any non-patriarchal society is by its very nature considered matriarchal, there will clearly be far greater latitude in identifying such a societal framework in pre-history. Or is it somewhere between these two extremes that a true matriarchy is to be understood? In my view it is.
In seeking to identify the existence of a prehistoric matriarchy in which women “ruled”, it is noteworthy that most anthropologists do not consider that there are, or ever have been, any societies that are known to be “matriarchal” in this sense. Their identification as “matriarchal” is considered to represent a confusion with a number of other related but distinct societal structures, such as matrilineal (tracing kinship through one’s mother), matrilocal (families remain located close to the maternal line), and matrifocal (where the mother is head of the family).
Dr. Goettner-Abendroth has agreed that matriarchies will by definition never be found if one is looking simply for a society in which women take the “ruling” role of men that characterizes patriarchal societies. But this she argues is because a matriarchy will not be based on domination by any gender, but upon maternal values which will exhibit as caretaking and nurturing negotiation-oriented communities, with complementary equality for women and men alike.
So understood, she has found “abundant evidence” for the existence of many matriarchal societies, to be found today in Asia, America, and Africa. All, she notes, are “gender egalitarian societies, and many of them are fully egalitarian”, with “no hierarchies, classes, nor domination of one gender by the other”. Most academics exclude egalitarian societies from the concept of “matriarchy”. In my view, they are mistaken in doing so.
Egalitarian Societies verses Patriarchal and Matriarchal Societies
Consistent with the well documented egalitarian structure of the world’s oldest continuous culture, that of Australian Aboriginals, a 2015 study reported in Science of contemporary hunter gather communities (in the Congo and the Philippines) also found them to exhibit egalitarian social structures. Indeed, this study has merely confirmed numerous previous findings. Dr. Peter Gray has commented that:
“During the twentieth century, anthropologists discovered and studied dozens of different hunter-gatherer societies, in various remote parts of the world, who had been nearly untouched by modern influences. Wherever they were found - in Africa, Asia, South America, or elsewhere; in deserts or in jungles - these societies had many characteristics in common. … In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.”
Savanna Pumé couple on a hunting and gathering trip in the llanos of Venezuela. While the man hunts, and the woman gathers does that denote an equalitarian society? (Ajiimai / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Importantly, the 2015 study also supported the evolutionary advantage that ancient hunter gatherer societies would similarly have enjoyed with egalitarian social structures, providing “the selective context for expanded social networks, cumulative culture, and cooperation among unrelated individuals.” It is with the subsequent transition to agriculture and pastoralism that humans see the emergence of gender inequality, and the domination of patriarchy that now characterizes our Western society.
Venus Figurines – Do They Imply Matriarchal Rule?
In my view, ancient hunter gatherer communities were very likely egalitarian, and so matriarchal. In support of this conclusion, Dr. Simon Butler has noted that “[a]n apparent dominance of female representation in prehistoric art has been equated by some with female dominance or power in society, and to the existence of wide-ranging matriarchal or matrifocal societies prior to the emergence of patriarchies”.
Amongst this prehistoric art, there are more than 200 representations of women in what are commonly described as “Venus figurines”. Found mostly in Europe and generally dating back to the Paleolithic era, as much as 40,000 years ago, he comments that they “have been variously interpreted as fertility symbols, lucky charms or toys, or as images of goddesses, priestesses, worshippers, ancestors or matriarchal rulers”.
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Venus of Hohlefels, the earliest Venus figurine, Paleolithic period, mammoth ivory, female representation in prehistoric art has been equated by some with female dominance or power implying a Matriarchy Society. (Ramessos / CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of the more controversial claims is that they demonstrate the worship of a mother earth goddess, and in doing so support the view that these ancient cultures were matriarchal. Generalizations are of course dangerous and probably no single interpretation of their function would be true of all of the figurines. Moreover, Dr. Butler has correctly observed that in any event “any sacred status as goddesses does not necessarily imply increased social status for women.”
However, whatever the ultimate merits of this claim, more significant to my mind is that these mostly palm-sized figurines commonly exhibit heads devoid of detail, but with large breasts, buttocks, hips and thighs, and legs that taper to a point at the feet. Dr. LeRoy McDermott has suggested that “these anatomical details do not add up to an accurate image of the human figure” simply because they reflect “the fixed angle of self-regard which accounts for both the odd ‘realism of parts considered independently one from another’ … and … [the] conclusion that the figures appear ‘centered on the torso, breasts, thighs, and abdomen,’ with the rest ‘attenuated’ or ‘dwindling away’ above and below”. In other words, in at least some cases the woman represented has carved the figurine herself, looking from her own perspective down upon her body.
While not without its critics, this interpretation of the origins of at least some of the figurines is to my mind quite compelling. Of course, as Dr. McDermott has recognized, “[i]dentifying where the artist stood when creating a representational work does not tell us what it meant to its creator or how it was used or seen by others”, but in my view it does say something about the place of women in that community. It challenges the common assumption that these prehistoric figurines were carved only by men. It reflects a community in which women also enjoyed a role in its artistic life, whatever symbolic or other function/s the figurines otherwise had within the community.
Cave Art – Was it Matriarchal?
This is also supported by research that has suggested that women may be responsible for much ancient cave art. While human handprints (positive images) and human hand stencils (negative images) occur in cave art on every inhabited continent, the largest (and arguably most well-known) form part of the Upper Paleolithic cave art concentrated in southern France and northern Spain, generally dated to the period between 40,000 and 12,500 years ago. A study by Dr. Dean Snow, comparing hand size and finger lengths, has disproved the traditional assumption that this cave art was produced mainly, if not exclusively, by men. Indeed, to the contrary, Dr. Snow found that those who made the hand stencils in the caves were predominantly women.
Cueva de las Manos located Perito Moreno, Argentina. This cave art dates between 13,000–9,000 BC. The hand stencils in the caves were made predominantly by women. (Marianocecowsk / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Stone Tools – Made by Women
Similarly, stone tool production has generally been assumed to be an exclusively male activity in ancient communities. However, as early as 1991 the late Dr. Joan Gero concluded that women in prehistory “can be suspected of making as many stone tools as men”. This conclusion has been supported by a more recent University of Florida study of an extant Ethiopian community where women were found to dominate the making of stone tools, and which the authors of the study consider suggests that women in prehistory probably similarly had an active part in creating stone tools.
While none of these studies in or of themselves tells us the nature of the gender structures of prehistoric hunter gatherer communities, they each show female participation in the economic, social, and cultural life of these communities in areas traditionally understood to have been the province solely of men. Taken together, they are at least suggestive of an egalitarian social structure in these communities.
Tools from the Stone Age, whether in a Matriarchy Society and Patriarchy Society, it is determined that women were found to dominate the making of stone tools. (ExQuisine / Adobe)
Animals Represented in Paleolithic Art
It is interesting too that the animals represented in Paleolithic art are not identical with those animals most economically important or hunted. Rather, Dr. Walpurga Antl-Weiser has noted that species were chosen to be represented not merely because of their economic value but because they had a deeper meaning to the community. While there are regional choices as to which animals are represented, he identifies mammoths as having a supra regional importance throughout the Upper Paleolithic, while other animals represented included bison and lions.
In the modern world, elephants (with whom it appears mammoths shared a similar social structure), (North American) bison and lions are all matriarchal. As Dr. Antl-Weiser concludes that “[w]e can be rather sure that people reflected on the abilities and qualities of animals and compared some of these qualities with their own”, it might legitimately be asked whether it was the matriarchal qualities of these species that inspired their representation, even if only in respect of some of the representations.
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Drawings from the ceiling of Altamira cave in Spain, bison and lions are considered matriarchal. (bereta / Adobe)
Venus-Style Figurines Pre-Dating Homo Sapiens
It is also interesting that other Venus-style figurines of an age pre-dating homo sapiens have been found in Israel and Morocco. The Venus of Berekhat Ram and the Venus of Tan-Tan have been claimed to be the earliest representations of the human form, dating to between 230,000 and 700,000 years ago and between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago respectively. Given their age, it is recognized that they would have been made by Neanderthals or perhaps even predating Neanderthals, being created by an earlier hominid like Homo erectus. In that regard, it may be noteworthy that Neanderthal communities are considered to have shared many of the basic social and demographic characteristics of modern hunter gatherer communities and indeed have been suggested to have been matriarchal.
"Venus of Tan-Tan" (left) and "Venus of Berekhat Ram" (right), Museum of Human Evolution, Spain. (Dbachmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)
On balance, there are strong grounds for concluding that the communities of our ancient hunter gatherer forebears were likely egalitarian in nature and so matriarchal in their social structures. Such societies are based upon maternal values, exhibiting as caretaking and nurturing negotiation-oriented communities, for women and men alike; a reality giving substance and form to the maligned mythology of a Golden Age of Matriarchy. Which only begs the question – What would our society be like if only we could escape the domination of patriarchal rule?
Top image: Matriarchal woman Source: wichansumalee / Adobe Stock
I would like to thank my friend and writing colleague, Ms. Marianne Schmidt, for her insightful comments in the development of this note.
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