Sex and society (1): The prehistoric family

by · May 7, 2015


Simon Copland is a freelance writer specialising in sex, culture and the environment. He previously wrote for Left Flank on the Left and Tony Abbott’s “inevitable downfall”. This is the first post in a six-part series examining the history of sex and the family. These posts and other work from Simon are available on his blog:

This blog series will explore how our ideas of sex and family developed in modern society.

How did the modern family evolve? How did the oppression of women and sexual minorities come about and why are these groups still oppressed? What do we need to do to challenge sexual oppression?

To start we need to understand the history of our most common form of sexual expression: the family. That’s where we will begin today.


Mother duck, father duck, and all the little baby ducks. The family, ruled over and provided for by father, suckled and nurtured by mother seems to us inherent in the natural order.

—Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

We’ll start with what we can call the “standard narrative of human sexuality”. This narrative dominates our historical understand of sex and society and is based on one ideal: the nuclear family.

Think about how we picture ancient “cavemen”. We see Fred and Wilma Flintstone — a stable monogamous relationship built around a nuclear-style family. The man goes out to work, or hunt, while the woman stays at home. He is the head of the household and the breadwinner; she looks after the house and nurtures the children. Monogamy and the patriarchy are as old as society itself.

This picture is part of a larger social narrative largely based in biological assumptions about the “opposing genders”. On the one hand the standard narrative goes that women, who produce “unusually helpless and dependent offspring”, require the support of a man to bring up the family. On the other, men, who have an innate, biological need to dominate, are unwilling to provide that support unless they are assured a woman’s offspring is their own. Otherwise they are spending time and energy on the genes of another man. Men demand fidelity — an assurance their genetic line is being maintained. Monogamy and the patriarchy are a natural part of human society.

One element is missing from this story — other forms of sexuality. Apart from quiet discussions about the prevalence of homosexuality in ancient Greek and Roman societies, our history ignores other sexualities. We’ll just not that for this moment because we’ll discuss it a lot more in later blogs.

That is the dominant story. But there is another story — one that questions all of this. The most famous leaders of this alternate story is Friedrich Engels, who is best known for being Karl Marx’s right-hand man and a co-author of The Communist Manifesto. After Marx’s death Engels wrote his own masterpiece — The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State. The Origin draws primarily on the work of anthropologist Lewis Morgan, who studied the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York. Using Lewis’s work, as well as other examples from around the world, Engels argues that prehistoric societies lived in what he called “primitive communism”. Other anthropologists call this “fierce egalitarianism”. In primitive communism families were largely polyamorous and non-hierarchical. People lived in active equality (i.e. people worked hard to make sure everyone was equal) and women were given a high level of authority. Engels’s work has since been backed up by other anthropologists, who have found similar results around the world.

Let’s take a deeper look at these societies.


Canadian Iroquois women making maple sugar (illustration by François Latifau, 1724)


First, it is important to note that Engels did not argue that men and women had the same roles in these societies. In fact, quite the opposite: women were gatherers and carers of the home; while men largely hunted. However, in a system based on hunting and gathering, these roles had very different value to our societies today. Despite common pictures of the male heroically going out to provide all the food for the starving family, this was largely not the case. Hunting was a rather hit and miss game. It was women who provided the majority of the food — gathering berries, fruits, roots and other vegetables. It was the women who were the key breadwinners and providers and therefore importantly the “home” (which was very different to how we know it now) was the centre of economic and social activity. The home was the place of control. In 1724, Father Lafitau described the role of women when discussing the Iroquois Indians:

Nothing … is more real than this superiority of the women. It is essentially the women who embody the Nation, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the sequence of generations and the continuity of families. It is in them that all real authority resides: the land, the fields and all their produce belongs to them: they are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of peace and war.

Women were not desperately in need of ‘support’ from a child’s father. In fact they were the ones who held much of the influence and power. This is where polyamory comes into play. Different societies engaged in polyamory in different ways and for different reasons. For example, numerous societies in South America believed that babies were formed through the collective spermatozoa of different men. Babies would gain qualities from the different sperm provided. Women therefore needed to ensure they had sex with the smart man, the strong man, the fast man and the tall man to ensure their baby had the greatest attributes possible. When babies are born these different men then all play a role in bringing up the child.

The Mosua in China do it differently. While men and women in the Mosua engage in “marriages”, these are very different to way we think of them. Both men and women are free to lead polyamorous lifestyles, with no shame associated with sexual promiscuity. Children are not raised by fathers — in fact the Mosua have no word for “father”. Instead they are raised by mothers and their immediate family. Men are collectively known as “uncles”, with there being absolutely no shame in children not knowing which uncle is their genetic father.

These are just two of many examples, but one theme runs throughout — the need for strong community. This makes sense — hunter-gatherer communities were generally small, and therefore the strength of the community was essential. Everyone knew each other and everyone looked after each other. Polyamory helped foster this. It created strong networks where it became everyone’s responsibility to look after children and provide for the greater community. As Christopher Ryan, co-author of the book Sex at Dawn states: “These overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthened group cohesion and could offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.” This also meant societies were largely “matrilineal”, meaning the bloodline of the family passed on through mothers. In a world where there were no paternity tests, women were the only ones who could confirm the parenthood of their children. Women were the head of the family.

This is a very different story to the one we usually hear. Instead of the nuclear family we had families that were larger and were based on group marriages and polyamorous relationships. Women were given an equal or even higher status than men.

This does not describe all family systems in the prehistoric age, but it gives a broad understanding. While some societies still operate in this way, these systems, in reality, extinguished in most of the world many years ago. The monogamous patriarchy has reigned supreme since.

What these examples highlight, though, is that our narrative — that of sexual and family relationships based entirely on monogamy and patriarchy — is false. There is another story: one in which the oppression of women and other sexual minorities developed to suit particular economic needs. I will explore that story in my next piece.


Discussion8 Comments

  1. Polly says:

    Of course the lie of the nuclear family is not only one about previous societies, it is a lie about the present as well. We do not, on the whole, live in the nuclear family as presented to us in our dominant cultural forms. The lie is not just about the past, but about now as well. This is an important point to make if we are to truly understand the extent of the ideological and repressive role of this myth: because people are trying to live up to, and/or benefit from, a social norm that is unreal, both in terms of possibility, but also actually.

    Also is Friedrich Engels REALLY the most famous person to advocate an alternative view to the one that the nuclear family as always existed? Today still? What about all of the feminist, queer and post colonial theorists and activists that have written over the last forty plus years? I am surprised they are not even mentioned. To me they are particularly important because of their connection to and influence from the social movements that have made clear the lie of the nuclear family and pushed back against it. Not to mention also pushing back at the sometimes romanticised and orientalised view of family in ‘primitive’ society.

    I do understand the wish to simplify an argument. However, I think that much of the evidence for the ideological role of the idea of the nuclear family is to be found in contemporary societies and also written about in much more depth by contemporary or recent writers.

    • Simon Copland says:

      Heya Polly,

      Thanks for the comment.

      To answer all in one I think it is easiest to say “watch this space”. This is part one a 6-part series. The first two parts have a historical bent to them and then the final four are going to be more contemporary. That is where I will bring in discussions about this being a modern myth, as well bring in more contemporary writers. I wanted to use Engels here as I think he is the most relevant in terms of this part of the discussion (and the next part I will tackle next week) but I will definitely be bringing in more work from other thinkers.



  2. Jasmina Brankovich says:

    Hi Simon, and thanks for this entry.

    Before I go on with the more substantial points of critique of the major works you use to demonstrate your case (notably, substantial criticisms of Engels’ work), I would really appreciate it if you could address the issue of ‘women and other sexual minorities’, which underpins your theoretical standpoint.

    It makes me rather uncomfortable to read about ‘women and other sexual minorities’, and I don’t think this is just a rhetorical faux pas when it comes to over 50% of the planet’s human population. For indeed, you set the agenda of subsuming women into ‘sexual minorities’ right from the start. Women’s role in the family, the dominant sexuality, (hetero)sexual relationship forms such as monogamy vis-a-vis polyamory, are conceptually conflated, to the point where referencing a few anthropological case studies to explain how the normative dictat of the nuclear family came about to become the social norm, is rather unconvincing.

    Perhaps an initial entry clarifying the key concepts and the way they should have been understood in this series, may have been in order? I don’t know. One thing I know for sure, is that ‘women’ and ‘other sexual minorities’ should be kept poles apart.

    Thanks, Jasmina

    • Simon Copland says:

      Hi Jasmina,

      I appreciate what you are saying in you’re saying and I certainly do see ‘women’ and ‘other sexual minorities’ (using the inverted commas there to separate the groups) as being very different and having very different issues.

      So a couple of points. First, I think it is appropriate to put women in the context of a minority, at least in this series. While not making up a physical minority (as you said they are 50% of the population), when it comes to power that is unfortunately where women still stand — particularly when it comes to sex and the family. So my use of the term there was in relation to power relationships, not physical realities.

      Yet, at the same time I completely see your point on lumping two groups together, and in fact I personally have issues with lumping everyone else under ‘sexual minorities’. In this case it was done as a way to introduce the series — I wanted to outline the discussion I was going to have in these posts. I will be endeavouring to delve into the specifics for the different groupings (as much as I can with limited words) in later blog posts, but in this instance I felt required to provide a cover all to get us started. There is nothing really more to it than that.

      One point on terms etc. I can appreciate what you’re saying in regards to terms being conflated — it is certainly difficult to cover off all the definitions of terms as well as their different meanings in different places and times in the space of a 1,000 word blog post. That is the unfortunate nature of writing in such short form. I am happy to discuss the use of different terms in different places and hopefully that can spark a discussion.

      Finally, happy to discuss substantial critiques of Engels work. I am obviously aware of them and agree with some and don’t agree with others. I clearly still think there is value to much of his work and am happy to discuss and debate.

  3. Jasmina Brankovich says:

    Hi Simon

    a bit of a belated response, but I took some time to give real consideration to this entry, because I think it is thoroughly worthwhile. So, thank you for the effort you are putting into writing all six pieces.

    I was quite intrigued by your explanation around relegating women to the ‘sexual minority’ status. Taking into account the word limit (which is perfectly understandable), I am still at pains to understand ‘women’ as subsumed under ‘other sexual minorities’, even when taking the power relations into account.

    Talking about ‘women’, means talking about gender. Gender, however, is not a synonym for women. Talking about ‘sexuality’ introduces a range of variables that are not necessarily reducible to gender, but are, at the same time, irrevocably inclusive of it.

    What are we talking about when we talk about ‘gender’? This entry decides to accept that there are irrevocable gender markers, including biological markers of parenthood, as decisive in demarcating social roles of women and men.

    Aside from the fact that Engels’ writings were not just critiqued, but utterly defeated, in the thesis of ‘matriarchal societies’ (distinct from matrilineal societies), I think that there are a lot of ‘known unknowns’ requiring clarification, before we can meaningfully proceed towards delineating the economic basis of the current gender order. In no particular order: there is no evidence, so far as we know, that matrilineal societies guaranteed anything resembling of power, to women. In other words, while evidence of matrilineal societies abounds, there is very little to show that ‘women were indeed heads of families’.

    What exactly do we mean by ‘heads of families’, in a cross-cultural, hyper-historical context? Lineage is an insufficient one, really: even the super-patriarchal societies of the Dark Ages worried about lineage, but its meaning is thoroughly contested. And are things ever so neat that we should think about ‘lineage’ as a deal breaker?

    Are there any more significant markers than lineage, such as cultural or religious origin? Class identity, perhaps?

    What we really need a methodological approach to how our societies came to be what they are. I am in full agreement with you, regarding the ideological basis of patriarchal, monogamous, nuclear family. But we need to build a much better argument around its claim for dominance and control, and how it came to be. An argument based on clear conceptual frameworks, solid historical evidence, and sound methodological analysis. This is what we are missing.


    • Simon Copland says:

      Hi Jasmina,

      Thanks again for the considered reply.

      There is a lot to deal with in this comment, and I apologise that I am not going to be able to tackle it all in one go.

      First, there is clearly an issue of the clarification of terms we need to deal with. I want to start off by saying that I don’t think I subsumed women under ‘other sexual minorities’. I think I clearly separated the two as being very different, although often overlapping groups. I agree there are different issues facing these groups across different cultures and times and that is why I have (and will continue) to aim to deal with them separately.

      I also wanted to comment on your discussion about my use of “irrevocable gender markers.” I think it is important to note the difference between what are my particular views on how the world should work, versus my discussion on the way the world does and has worked in the past. You state that “This entry decides to accept that there are irrevocable gender markers, including biological markers of parenthood, as decisive in demarcating social roles of women and men.” I think it is impossible to argue that women, in general, have not been given particular social roles due to their biological ability to give birth to children. That, to me, should be largely uncontroversial — it is a phenomenon that continues until this day. My piece however was not designed to argue that is the way it should be, but just rather the way it was and still is. I hope we can delve into that issue more in future posts.

      Finally, I of course acknowledge that there are huge variances in terms across cultures, times, places and individuals. It is impossible to cover all of these variances. We all understand these terms very differently, and I have written this blog post from the perspective of a Western white gay man, and acknowledge that brings different biases and understandings of these terms.

      However, at the same time I think we have to be careful getting caught in endless debates about terminology. They are of course important, yet I fear they could lead us down a rabbit that avoids the debate on the broader issue I want to discuss: the history of the nuclear family. You said in your comment that Engels has been “utterly defeated”, yet so far you do not provide evidence to back up that claim. I am aware of the critiques of Engels, but would love to hear your views on this. I obviously don’t think many of these critiques stack up, but this is the very debate I wanted these blogs posts to open up, so would love to hear more from you on that point.

      • Jasmina Brankovich says:

        Hi Simon,

        thank you for your response.

        I’ll try, as much as time allows me, to respond to your comment, before I move on to your second post.

        For the sake of brevity, I will try to keep this very short 🙂

        I think it was de Beauvoir who first published an eloquent critique of Engels, albeit within her working existentialist framework, but one which nonetheless demonstrates the limits of his analysis (and evidence to support it): she notes that Engels is “disappointing–the most important problems are slurred over. The turning-point of all history is the passage from the regime of community ownership to that of private property, and it is in no wise indication how this could have come about.”

        Engels’ conception of the consignment of women to servitude through the social relation of private property does not adequately answer why such a relation is necessary to capital, and instead insinuates such without determining why, for instance, women are produced as such because of the economic modes.

        Heidi Hartmann’s work in imperative in this regard too. Indeed, even Shulamith Firestone, whose work was totally grounded in historical determinism, recognised the vulnerabilities of reducing gender to biological determinism. In the first place, Firestone’s analysis places the case for this tendency to manifest itself in her claim that the ultimate causes of women’s oppression are biological differences between women and men. That women bear and nurse children makes necessary a basic family form in which women are fundamentally dependent on others in a way in which men are not. This power imbalance between women as a class and men as a class is replicated by a similar imbalance between children and adults. From such biologically based imbalances result the imbalances of power which have marked all human societies. However, for Firestone, biology need not be destiny. Technological developments in the reproduction of children conjoined with cultural changes in child-rearing would end the so far universal “tyranny of the biological family”.

        Which brings us, in some way, to the issue of “irrevocable gender markers”, where, it seems, biology is destiny. Whether or not women have children, their *capacity* to have children, is what determines their social roles, or so the ideology says.

        I don’t think so.

        What is forgotten is that women’s *capacity* to have children depends, at least in half, on the male capacity to produce the cells necessary to conceive children in the first place. But, somehow, the biological capacity of birthing children is, in this view, solely, a female burden; in this view, the capacity of having a uterus and Falopian tubes = all of the world’s insinuations about what it means to be a ‘woman’! why is it , when we talk about ‘irrevocable gender markers’, that gender really means ‘women’?

        I don’t think this is solely about terminology. It is about concepts as well.

        With that in mind, I look forward to reading your second post,


  4. Simon Copland says:

    Heya Jasmina,

    So very sorry for the delayed reply. This last couple of weeks have been very busy and I’ve been working busily away on the next post.

    I think, for me, I find many of the analyses by the theorists you note disappointing in themselves. I think there is a lot of value that people like Simone De Bouvier and Heidi Hartmann provide to the debate, yet at the same time I find some of it lacking.

    De Bouvier argues that Engels is ‘disappointing’ as he does not answer some of the most complex questions. Obviously some of that is true, and much of Engels anthropology has certainly been questioned. Yet at the same time I don’t find a reasonable alternate explanation.

    Much of the discussion of the patriarchy argues that men have oppressed women eternally, and that differing economic circumstances have just provided the opportunities for them to do so. Yet, I struggle to answer the key question, why? Many point to an innate biological need for men to dominate, or alternatively that men have used their physical advantages to get together to gang up on women to their own benefit. The case in point of women’s capacity for childbirth is a good example of this — it is seen by many as giving men an innate advantage of women over men.

    Now, I do not deny the role of childbirth in the oppression of women. I certainly think it has been used — as you note childbirth is seen solely as the role of women and it defines the “irrevocable gender markers”, which allow people to see biology as destiny. Yet, I struggle with any belief that it is because men have used this to gang up on women to oppress continue their oppression. Rather, I think it makes more sense that in a system of capital, in which surplus, growth and class, are seen as key to our society, women’s capacity for childbirth puts them at a disadvantage. The issue here is that women have been stuck nurturing the child, primarily because of a historical positioning within the household. The problem is that this position has been immensely de-valued to the point where women have lost all power in society.

    I think what I struggle with is a picture of women’s oppression that gives it this endless roots, which I think can only in the end result in biological determinism. This is what many in the standard narrative already advocate and I really struggle with this. I’m hoping to get a post on this up early next week, so hope to continue the discussion then.