Thursday 2 February 2012

More on Neolithic Culture

Still thinking about how Neolithic culture would have actually been.  I’ve read Margaret Mead’s theory of a female-oriented society where everything is shared and war is non existent.  I’ve read a book called Eve’s Seed, which takes a guess at the impact of the agricultural revolution and the realization that men were responsible for conception.  I’ve also read a lot of articles about archaeological evidence and watched a lot of Discovery channel specials because different cultures and the past interest me.

Now I think the idea of a non-violent peaceful pan-European community is garbage.  Humans have never been peaceable creatures.  We even have evidence that chimpanzees go on what can only be described as organized war parties where they silently infiltrate another chimp group’s territory and kill lone chimps.  We feel very strong bonds for our immediate families and kin groups but it is also very easy for us to dehumanize outsiders and attack them.  I doubt that’s a recent phenomena. 

It’s not just my opinion.  The Iceman, a frozen mummy discovered in the Alps, was killed by an arrow wound.  Now, maybe it was an accident but the fact that he crawled away and hid in the mountains is more suggestive of someone escaping an attack.  Cracked skulls of local and non-local residents have been found in burial grounds and disposal pits in Neolithic villages.  It’s not definitive, but it suggests warfare and attack were not unknown to our ancestors.

The idea of a matriarchal society with matrilineal descent makes sense.  I could see our ancestors venerating women as the creators of new life, particularly when they didn’t know men were also involved.  Having a creator Goddess as a deity also makes sense and is supported by many carvings of ample women, such as the Venus of Willendorf.  Matrilineal descent is a feature of many ancient cultures given that it is impossible to be certain who the father of any given child is but the mother is always known.

In a hunter-gatherer culture, the women collect the majority of the food that sustain the group.  That would give them powerful status in a group on the edge of starvation.  Hunting is exciting but it’s a crap shoot on whether or not an animal will be killed.  I could see hunters being more like local star athletes, garnering a lot of attention, particularly from young men and women, but they aren’t the ones who actually run society.

The book Eve’s Seed makes several interesting points that I think make sense.  When cultures shifted from nomadic gathering to agriculture, there was a dramatic upset in the culture.  The men who had been venerated for their hunting prowess would now be less important because the tribe is no longer wandering.  Archaeological evidence suggests that animal husbandry likely came before agriculture, so they’re not going out and hunting wild meat but rather having to put in the day to day drudgery of caring for plants and animals in a single location.  This would have caused a dramatic re-engineering of the male role and they found a new calling in protection.

Not all tribes would have settled at once and it’s a lot easier to raid a settlement for their produce than to grow it yourself.  The men could put their hunting skills to protecting the group, re-earning the respect of the group.  But in order for it to be really effective, the ability of women to protect themselves had to be downplayed, beginning the tradition of the helpless woman who needs a man to protect her.

The protection of women becomes even more restrictive as society begins to really understand the implications of the male role in conception.  If a man wants to be sure babies are his, he has to ensure the fidelity of his mate.  (This has been historically proved to be an ineffective strategy but they keep trying).  Cultural restrictions on men and women interacting probably began and were made easier by the fact that everyone is in one place.  One sad but true fact, a woman who is dependent on a man for her welfare and the welfare of her children is more likely to restrict her actions to avoid displeasing him.  It probably didn’t take them long to figure that out.  An independent woman can tell an overly restrictive mate to shove off and leave her alone.  One who needs him to survive, can’t.

It’s an interesting thought experiment but I still think it likely took a few generations for the less pleasant implications to seep through to general awareness.  When you have a big shock and a complete paradigm shift in knowledge, the shock itself keeps people from understanding it fully.

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