Essays Matriarchal Family

by Tarun

In the mountains near Lugu Lake in the high-country of China, a phenomenal community of people exists under completely different societal norms and familial structures. The Mosuo are known to be the last true matriarchal society in existence today, and have both matrilineal and matrilocal practices. What truly make this society unique are the coming-of-age traditions of young women and men. Upon reaching maturity at 13 or 14, girls undergo a “skirt ceremony”[1] in which they are given a room with private street access. Mosuo girls have complete autonomy over who enters their “flower room”; the only strict rule is that guests must be gone by sunrise. “There is no expectation of commitment, and any child she conceives is raised in her mother’s house, with the help of the girl’s brothers and the rest of the community.”[2]. To the Mosuo people, marriage doesn’t exist, only relationships of the “visiting kind” where there is no exchange of vows, property, the care of children, or expectations of fidelity.

Communities like the Mosuo where women enjoy high status and respect are very different from many familiar Western cultures. For example, Steven Goldberg, an American sociologist and author, argues that patriarchy has and always will be the way societies are structured.[3] This male-dominated, nuclear approach to the family unit contrasts the communal approach like that of the Mosuo. Feminist anthropologists would relate these differences to the gendered natures of those societies. The ‘traditional’ nuclear American family may have a skewed gender balance leaning toward masculine authority [i.e. men supporting the household both socially and financially], and strongly associates shame with promiscuity/sexual freedom especially amongst women. The Mosuo family unit is quite the opposite and could be interpreted as having a more equal gender balance. Gender and sexuality within the community is more open than in American culture, which shows a connection between predefined constructs of the sexes and the sexual practices without the constraints of monogamy.

Practice theorists would have taken a different approach, focusing more on the matriarchal vs. patriarchal hegemonic power structures associated with the Mosuo and Western societies. Anthropologists may explain that in Western culture, infidelity within the nuclear family is a way of liberating agency in the socially acceptable structure of a monogamous, patrilineal society. The Mosuo, however, may find agency elsewhere. For example, maintaining a frequent sexual relationship with an individual is abnormal and may express love and desire for monogamy where that culturally doesn’t exist. The Mosuo, a deeply complex culture, give Western anthropologists across fields a unique picture of what a liberated American culture might look like. With contemporary movements toward open relationships, this could be the future of the nuclear family.


[1] “Mosuo.” Wikipedia., accessed 12 November 2015.

[2] Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 128.

[3] Christopher Ryan et al., Sex at Dawn (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 132.

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“The great antiquity of mankind upon the earth has been conclusively established”, wrote the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in the opening preface of his pioneering work Ancient Society, published in 1877. The revolutionary ideas contained in this book represented a complete departure in this field of human development and served to found a materialist, evolutionary school of anthropology. It was on the basis of this work that Frederick Engels wrote his masterpiece, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Today, there have been numerous attempts to discredit the work of both Engels and Morgan, alleging that the evidence on which they developed their theories was either unreliable, outdated or even false. There is no evidence, they say, for their “outlandish schema” in establishing stages in the evolution of the family, linked to the development of society. They point to the research done on present-day hunter/gatherer societies as proof of the errors of the Engels-Morgan thesis.

Although evidence from hunter/gatherer societies is obviously extremely important in understanding the early period of humanity, it certainly does not exhaust the question and is only one of a variety of sources that needs to be taken into consideration. While these societies contain characteristics of primitive social relations, they have also evolved and come into contact with other more developed cultures, which have affected them to one degree or another. To piece together life in primitive society requires other evidence from a wide range of sources, not least from mythology and classical literature.

Astonishingly, modern anthropologists seem to  dismiss these sources as “unreliable” and even “unscientific”. While there needs to be a certain degree of caution in analysing such material, these do contain important glimpses and fragments of extinct ancient cultures. To ignore this evidence is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Those who base themselves on a narrow orthodox conception of anthropology are not able to appreciate the important wealth of material that exists in other areas, which, if treated with due respect, can illuminate the pathways to our distant ancestry. This was understood by both Morgan and Engels, and provided them with a far greater understanding of prehistoric society than many modern anthropologists.

Morgan had come very close to Marx’s conception of historical materialism in his investigations into early human society. “Inventions and discoveries stand in serial relations along the lines of human progress, and register its successive stages,” he stated, “while social and civil institutions, in virtue of their connection with perpetual human wants, have been developed from a few primary germs of thought. They exhibit a similar register of progress. These institutions, inventions and discoveries have embodied and preserved the principal facts now remaining illustrative of this experience. When collated and compared they tend to show the unity of origin of mankind, the similarity of human wants in the same stage of advancement, and the uniformity of operations of the human mind in similar conditions of society.”1

For the first time, a revolutionary materialist outlook embraced the new field of social anthropology, which regarded human evolution as a series of separate but interlocking stages: savagery, barbarism and civilisation, each of which had its own characteristic modes of production and superstructure. In drawing conclusions about the state of society in these separate stages, Morgan broke from the narrow empirical outlook and pragmatism of his contemporaries and unconsciously applied the method of dialectical materialism to the understanding of early human development.

Morgan’s research and scientific outlook constituted as much a revolution in anthropology as Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology.

Regarding the origins of the family – as with property relations in general – Morgan linked their evolution to the various stages of human society. “The family has passed through successive forms, and created great systems of consanguinity and affinity which have remained to the present time,” wrote Morgan. However, he was careful not to fall into oversimplified conclusions and vulgar “unilinearism” – allegations that were falsely made against him. “In speaking thus positively of the several forms of the family in their relative order”, explains Morgan, “there is a danger of being misunderstood. I do not mean to imply that one form rises complete in a certain status of society, flourishes universally and exclusively wherever tribes are found in the same status, and then disappears in another, which is the next higher form…”  Morgan realised that while there were different stages through which social forms evolved, historical development was very contradictory – containing both combined and uneven elements. His approach represented a profound break with the old nineteenth century outlook and launched anthropological study on a radically different basis.

This radical approach also opened up a new understanding about women’s oppression and how it arose historically with the end of the primitive communist communities and the development of private property. Such a conception challenged the whole edifice of the so-called eternal patriarchal family and the “natural” inferiority and subordination of women.

Science allows us to understand the world in which we live. It has allowed us to build up a picture of the past, and even permitted us to understand the origins of our own species. However, as in all fields of scientific study, there is a continuing conflict of outlook and method among the schools of anthropology about how the past should be interpreted. One is broadly based upon a materialist, evolutionary approach, while the other attempts to approach the past through the narrow prejudices of present day class society, helping to reinforce the notions of “natural” inequality, male domination and class rule. The latter are linked to the socio-biologists, who regard human beings as the “naked ape”, whose instincts are determined genetically, and where culture plays a very limited role in determining what qualities makes us human. This reactionary, anti-evolutionary school of thought – which is false to the core – is also represented by modern day “functionalism”, and epitomised by the writings of Talcott Parsons, Bronislaw Malinowski and Raddcliffe-Brown.

Marxism, with its own scientific world outlook, has a special interest in this field of human development. In fact, both Marx and Engels acquired a profound personal interest in the latest discoveries of science, which confirmed their own philosophical materialist outlook. Only dialectical materialism can explain the laws of change, which sees the world not as a state of ready-made things, but made up of complex processes, which go through an uninterrupted transformation of coming into being and passing away. With this method, they were also able to explain and deepen the advances of scientific research, not only in history but also in nature, as can be seen from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.

The discoveries of Charles Darwin, despite some of his crude formulations, were heralded by Marx and Engels as a revolutionary breakthrough in the field of biology and evolution. Marx himself wanted to dedicate his book Capital to Darwin, but the latter turned down the offer, fearing too close an association with the German revolutionary and his ideas. Nevertheless, while criticising any regressive ideas, Marx and Engels trumpeted the advances of modern science at every stage.

“According to the materialist conception”, wrote Engels, “the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a two-fold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of the development of labour, on the one hand, and the family, on the other.”2 In other words, how people live is determined by the stage of development of the productive forces on the one hand and the organisation of the family on the other.

Lewis Henry Morgan

Marx and Engels saw the confirmation of their materialist outlook in the striking discoveries, not only of Charles Darwin, but also the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. “For Morgan in his own way had discovered afresh in America the materialistic conception of history discovered by Marx forty years ago, and in his comparison of barbarism and civilisation it had led him, in the main points, to the same conclusions of Marx”, states Engels.3

So impressed was he with the work of the American anthropologist, that between 1880 and 1881 Marx had copied and summarised lengthy extracts of Morgan’s Ancient Society in his notebooks, later published as his Ethnological Notebooks. Marx had intended to write about Morgan’s discoveries, bringing out their full significance, but with ill-health and then his death in 1883, he was not able to fulfill this ambition. This task was left to his friend and collaborator Engels, which he managed to complete within a year of Marx’s death with the publication of his The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.

While Marx had reached his own conclusions about the evolution of society from the historical evidence of class society, namely slavery, feudalism and capitalism, Engels based himself on Morgan’s work (“as important as Darwin is in biology”) to elaborate the materialist view on humankind’s earliest period of existence - the epoch of primitive communism and the later emergence of class society. In his work Engels took over Morgan’s historical classifications of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation, which were also divided into lower and upper stages. It is within the first two social classifications, primarily the epoch of pre-class society, that The Origin is concerned, tracing the break-up of primitive communism, the emergence of private property and the state, as well as the victory of the patriarchal family over “mother right.”

According to the famous materialist archaeologist Professor V. Gordon Childe, “The latter (Morgan) had collected data of just the kind suited for illustrating the Materialist conception of history. The criteria he used for distinguishing between savagery, barbarism, and civilisation, if not precisely ‘forces of production’ – still less ‘modes of production’ – at least approximated more closely thereto than the criteria expounded by any other school at that time.” Childe concludes: “In the end Engels succeeded brilliantly in correlating the transition from one ‘status’ to the next in Morgan’s scheme with changes in the productive forces at the disposal of society.”4

The earliest epoch described by Morgan, savagery, is based upon a food-gathering economy. This provided for some 98% of human existence on the planet, and covers the whole of what archaeologists call the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age, and geologists classify as the Pleistocene.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, some societies around the “Fertile Crescent”, where the climate and resources were favourable, increased their food supply through plant cultivation and the breeding of animals, opening up a new stage in social development. This represented the birth of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the emergence of stable village communities. This new food-producing economy was identified by Morgan as the stage of barbarism, and is presented by archaeologists as the Neolithic or New Stone Age. With the emergence of agriculture, the nomadic life of hunting and gathering, which had dominated existence for more than two million years, rapidly went into decline. Although these are generalisations and need to be qualified, they are important classifications that allow us to understand the evolution of society.

The next stage outlined by Morgan was that of civilisation, born in the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and the Indus, with the development of surplus foodstuffs used to support the growing urban life. The first two thousand years of civilisation coincide with what archaeologists call the Bronze Age. It represented the economic basis of what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production (in Egypt, China and Mesopotamia), as well as slavery (in Greece and Rome), and heralded the emergence of class society. It was a revolutionary transformation, in so far as it freed a tiny privileged proportion of the population from the burdens of work, allowing them time to develop culture, science and art to the full.

With regard to our own human origins, the transition from ape to man may have occurred as long ago as six million years, with the emergence of the first hominids. This was the beginning of savagery, and the infancy of the humanity. Engels was able to explain our origins in his brilliant essay, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, written in 1876, five years after the appearance of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and only twenty years after the discovery of the first ever Neanderthal remains. Amazingly, Engels, using the method of dialectical materialism, was able to explain the evolutionary process despite very limited fossil evidence. “Labour is the source of all wealth, the economists assert”, wrote Engels in its opening lines. “It is this – next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is also infinitely more than this. It is the primary basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”5

Engels recognised that the erect posture in walking represented “the decisive step in the transition from ape to man.” This allowed the hand to be free and could “attain ever greater dexterity and skill.” Thus states Engels, “the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.” He then went on to explain that this had further revolutionary consequences. “But the hand did not exist by itself. It was only one member of an entire, highly complex organism. And what benefited the hand, benefited also the whole body it served.” He explained how the first upright posture freed the hand for using tools, which in turn increased intelligence (brain size) and later developed speech. Tools were first made two and half million years ago, while Homo sapiens evolved some 100,000 years ago.

While these elements in human evolution were mentioned by Darwin, Engels changed their order of appearance in a decisive way. Darwin assumed that the brain, and therefore intellect, had grown up prior to bipedalism and the use of the hands in tool-making, whereas Engels saw the development correctly in reverse order. The idealism of Darwin was placed on its materialist head.

How these humans lived is extremely difficult to piece together. Scientists from various fields – zoology, anthropology, paleontology, and archaeology – are involved in such a reconstruction. Man is a social animal. Early humans banded together for protection and survival. Cooperation was therefore an essential ingredient in the shaping of human society. “I should regard the social instinct as one of the most essential factors in the evolution of humans from apes”, explained Engels.6 While life in this early human band can only be guessed at, given the scarcity of evidence, paleontologists and anthropologists have provided us with important clues. And yet, how this information is interpreted is vital in understanding the lives of early humans.

It is clear that the period of savagery – which accounts for the vast majority of our existence on the planet – was dominated by a hunter/gatherer way of life. There is evidence of hominid campsites, which reveal that our ancestors lived in social groups. Stone tools were manufactured and used to dig roots, scrape skins, and hunt with. Scavenging was also an important element in our early development. At this stage, there were no such things as private property, classes, money or the state. In fact it was, to use Marxist terminology, a period of “primitive communism”, an egalitarian society where everything was produced and consumed in common and where women were held in high esteem. Up to the present time, this notion was vigorously opposed by every leading school of anthropology. The very idea of a communistic way of life was ruled out. Such a view conflicted with the prejudices of class society, which reflected the outlook of present-day anthropology.

The nineteenth century anthropologists, Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States and Edward Tylor in England, pioneered a materialist view of anthropology, despite their limitations and short-comings, and made a profound contribution to this field of human knowledge. This was recognised by Marx and Engels. However, rather than build upon their achievements, there has been a deliberate attempt to discredit them. In the same way as the modern bourgeois economists have sought to discredit the classical economists for basing themselves upon a labour theory of value, today’s orthodox anthropologists have turned their backs on Morgan and Tylor. That is why it is important to come to their defence as genuine scientists in this field and oppose the reactionary tendencies represented by the functionalist school, who have an abstract unhistorical view of “culture”.

Nevertheless, given the overwhelming evidence from hunter/gatherer societies, this notion of primitive communism is now increasingly accepted by a growing number of anthropologists. “Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality”, states Richard Lee, “people lived for millennia in small scale kin based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relative egalitarian political relations.”

The orthodox anthropological view of this period, not only rejected the concept of “primitive communism”, but put forward the image of a primitive, brutal, violent, male-dominated society. “Man is man, and not a chimpanzee, because for millions and millions of years we alone killed for a living”, states Robert Ardrey. Raymond Dart, after discovering the first Australopithecine remains, and describing it as “the predatory transition from ape to man.” Yet this view has been has been challenged and discredited by recent evidence from gatherer-hunter peoples. Basing themselves on observation of the !Kung San of northern Botswana and other peoples, Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, came to the conclusion that the current evidence “points to such cooperation between large groups of hunters as a key element in the emergence of human characteristics… Cooperation must be a very basic motivation in human nature.”

Egalitarian relationship

In a separate study, Patricia Draper shows the cooperation and equality that exists between the sexes. She states that “!Kung women impress one as self-contained people with a high sense of self-esteem.” They are “vivacious and self-confident.”7 !Kung women contribute equally, if not more than men to the food supply. They also retain control over the food they have gathered. Gathering is considered women’s work, as in most hunter/gatherer societies, while men hunt. However, men also gather at certain times, and collect water as well.

The network that holds these societies together, both within the clans and between them, is kinship. Both Morgan and Engels recognise not only cooperation in these early hunter/gatherer societies, but as all food, the basis of such life, was communally collected, shared, and consumed, there was also an equality of relations between men and women.

“Many of the basic organising features of this hunting and gathering group contribute to a relaxed and egalitarian relationship between men and women,” states Draper.8 Morgan fiercely challenged the assumption that these early societies were “patriarchal” or male dominated, which was the orthodox view at the time. He felt, on the contrary, a view also endorsed by Engels, that primitive society had a high regard for women. This observation was based upon Morgan’s close study of the North American Iroquois, where women had a powerful position within the tribe. This is confirmed by ample contemporary studies. As the above description of the !Kung illustrates, the status of women is equal to men, and their communal economy is based upon production for use. The land is “owned” by the group and passed from one generation to the next. While there is a division of labour, there exists no exploitation, no surplus value, no domination or class-based relations. Consequently, there is no competitive zeal as in capitalist society, and no “dog-eat-dog” mentality. In its place is cooperation, sharing and general reciprocity.

“The Indians,” says Heckewelder, “think that the Great Spirit has made the earth, and all that it contains, for the common good of mankind; when he stocked the country and gave them plenty of game, it was not for the good of the few, but of all. Everything is given in common to the sons of men. Whatever liveth on the land, whatever groweth out of the earth, and all that is in the rivers and waters, was given jointly to all, and everyone is entitled to his share.”9

During the state of “original promiscuity”, to use Engels’ phrase, where within the tribe every women belonged to every man, and every man to every woman, some kind of “mother right” inevitably existed. As all certainty of paternity was excluded in this situation, descent or lineage could only be reckoned through the female line. This must have been universal. Given that mothers were the only ascertainable parents of the children, women were treated with a high degree of respect, and even reverence. This revolutionary view originated in a study of the family by the German historian Bachofen in his book entitled Mother Right in 1861, which Engels described as a “complete revolution.”

Shoshoni tipis in the 19th century“Bachofen finds evidence in support of these propositions in countless passages of ancient classical literature, which he had assembled with extraordinary diligence,” states Engels. Bachofen’s interpretation of the Oresteia of Aeschylus shows the struggle between the declining mother right and the rising victorious father right in the Heroic Age. Today, such valuable insights and evidence would be treated as “unscientific” by many anthropologists. However, it is with such observations, carefully interpreted that a real picture can be built up. Engels himself states that “ancient classical literature teems with traces of a condition that had in fact existed before monogamy among the Greeks and the Asiatics, in which not only a man had sexual intercourse with more than one woman, but a woman had sexual intercourse with more than one man, without violating the existing custom.”

Morgan put forward the view that the earliest form of family was the communistic household, a communal property-owning grouping – the gens or clan – which he had observed first hand amongst the North American Indians. This he saw was based upon mother right or matrilineal descent, at it is known, and preceded father right, which only appeared at a much later stage. This constituted a revolutionary break through in the scientific understanding. Modern anthropologists now use the term “lineage” group for gens or clan. Within the gens there was equality in decision-making, and a cooperation between all, based upon the production for use. Sexual taboos must have developed early on to preserve order within and between the families.

Following the “promiscuous” stage, in the earliest “consanguine family”, humans banned sexual relations between parents and children, but permitted relations between brothers and sisters and cousins within the gens. This was later prohibited in the “punaluan family”, where joint marriage was practiced between groups and between different kin groups. “It is thus clear that”, wrote Engels, “wherever group marriage exists, descent is traceable only on the maternal side, and thus the female line alone is recognised.” Only with the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops, according to Engels, does the “paring family” emerge, where one man lives with one woman.

While modern anthropological evidence does not bear out this sequence, demonstrating a far looser form of relations within and between bands, Engels’ view cannot be easily dismissed. Certainly group marriage was possible in certain societies, and extended families exist today. We cannot say that Engels’ sequences are completely ruled out for very early hominids – the evidence is simply not available. In any case, given the influences of capitalism and imperialism, present-day hunter/gatherer societies are not necessarily the same as those at the dawn of humanity.

Lewis Henry Morgan believed that the term “family”, derived from the Latin for servant, was not appropriate in understanding the kinship arrangements of prehistoric times. In fact the modern family must have evolved in some way from the clan structures of the past. He explained, and the same point was repeated by Engels, that it was kinship, the notion of common descent and ancestry, that lay at the root of social relationships. Kinship is not easy to understand and has given rise to widespread controversy as it uses various systems and rules in a complex fashion. Morgan used the term gens to characterise his analysis of kinship. As Morgan and Engels clearly saw kinship and territory are the foundations of all societies before the rise of the state.

Female Descent

Given the type of family that would have existed, it would be uncertain who was the father of a child; but it was certain who the mother was. “It is therefore clear”, writes Engels, “that in so far as group marriage prevails, descent can only be proved on the mother’s side and that therefore only the female line is recognized. And this is in fact the case among all peoples in the period of savagery or in the lower stage of barbarism.”10 Modern anthropologists term this matrilineal. Engels gives the credit for this discovery to Bachofen, who uses the term “mother right”. However, Engels, while using this term for brevity, believes it “ill-chosen, since at this stage of society there cannot yet be any talk of ‘right’ in the legal sense.”11

“Where descent”, writes Morgan, “is in the female line, as it was universally in the archaic period, the gens is composed of a supposed female ancestor and her children, together with the children of her female descendants, through females, in perpetuity; and where descent is in the male line - into which it was changed after the appearance of property in masses – of a supposed male ancestor and his children, together with the children of his male descendants, through males, in perpetuity. The family name among ourselves is a survival of the gentile name, with descent in the male line, and passing in the same manner. The modern family, as expressed by name, is an unorganised gens; with the bond of kin broken, and its members as widely dispersed as the family name is found.”

Morgan himself had lived among the Iroquois tribes, which had matrilineal descent. Social fatherhood existed even where the father is not known. This appears to be widespread amongst the North American Indians, although not all. In the Northwest Coast, the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit, as well as the Haisla, employed the principle of matrilineal descent. The same was true of the Western Apache, the Navaho, Mandan and the Zuni. In the Natchez, Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek, as well as in much of the Southeast, relationships were matrilineal. Residence was largely matrilocal, where men after marriage had to move into the household of their wives.

“The position of women in Navaho society is unquestionably a very strong and influential one, and they play an important part not only in social and economic life, but also in political and religious affairs. Women control a large share of the property, which is usually inherited by the female descendants, thus keeping it in the matrilineal family line.”12

In regard to the Iroquois, Spencer and Jennings make an interesting point: “The role of the females in selecting the nominee (to the sachem) and in acting as regent on occasion gave them particular power and importance in these societies, a fact which has led to the designation of the Iroquois as resembling a matriarchate.”13  This we will return to later.

The authors give a detailed description of the Mandan Indians.

“In Mandan society, descent was traced unilineally and residence after marriage was with the family of the wife’s mother. The household group which occupied the earth lodge consisted of several nuclear families related through the females, and earlier writers indicate that each lodge held from 20 to 40 persons. This matrilineal extended family was the functioning economic unit, as the women of the household cooperated in working the cultivated fields and the men hunted together. The household as a unit controlled the garden plots but it did not own them in the sense of being able to buy and sell the land. The land was held by groups of related matrilineal extended families grouped into larger kin units which are known as lineages. The right to land within the lineage was based on the principle of the usufruct, which simply means that the family controlled and worked the gardens as long as they had enough women to cultivate the land. If family fortunes fell and the family diminished in size, the lineage assigned some of the garden space to other families.

“Each lineage and the extended families which composed it were self-sufficient economic groups. They were grouped into larger kin units, however, which had greater functions. These larger groups were organised on the same principle as the lineages were, in that they were composed of several lineages related through maternal lines. This matri-sib, or female clan as it is frequently called, was a corporate group with an organisation and formalised leadership. Older men were the dominant figures with the matri-sibs, but these men were not associated with the households within the sib. Marriage was exogamous for sib members, which meant that each member of a particular sib had to marry someone from another sib. Membership in a lineage and matri-sib was determined at the time of birth, for one automatically belonged to the lineage and sib of his or her mother. This affiliation never changed during one’s lifetime. At marriage, then, the man married a women from another lineage and sib and moved to the household of his wife. His children belonged not to his lineage or sib, but that of their mother.”14

“This kind of social organisation was found among the Mandan and the Hidatsa and among the nomadic Crow as well. The Crow had split recently from the Hidatsa, and their matrilineal organisation was retained, although it did conflict with their new way of life and was in the process of change. The Mandan social system offered a cohesive kin group and a regularized system of descent and inheritance. The latter is particularly important in a horticultural society where stability and continuity in the system of land use and property distribution is necessary. The unilineal system of organisation with the associated corporate kin groups is found among all of the sedentary tribes of the Plains and varies only in the emphasis on matrilineal or patrilineal descent.

“The Mandan kinship system is classed as a ‘Crow’ type which emphasizes the maternal relatives. Kinsmen of the maternal side of the family differ from those of the paternal side where only two basic kin terms apply. These terms for father’s kinsmen have no equivalent in English but mean male of my father’s matrilineage or female of my father’s matrilineage. The two basic terms apply to males or females without regard to age or generation differences. Kinsmen on the maternal side of the family are distinguished as there are separate terms for mother, mother’s brother, maternal cross cousins, children and grandchildren.”15

In the early hunter/gatherer societies, a division of labour developed between the sexes, where women concentrated on food gathering, while men concentrated on hunting. This appears to be a feature of all hunter/gatherer peoples of today, and is likely to have existed from the beginning. The !Kung divide their activities so that men hunt and women gather nuts, roots, and other plants and vegetables.

“On average adults work for between 12 and 19 hours a week, a devotion to the food quest that can hardly be termed excessive! Although girls may begin an adult life at around 15 years of age, boys commonly do not step into the adult world until they are at least 20. And by the time people reach 60 they generally ‘retire’ and are then cared for, respected, and fed for the rest of their days: the old are greatly valued for their experience and wisdom. Childhood and old age are therefore free of stress and obligation in the !Kung society.”16

The authors Leakey and Lewin ask: “What kind of society is it, then, where working life begins at 15 years at the earliest, and finishes at 60, with an average of about two and a half hours labour each day in between? American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins describes it as the original affluent society, where finite needs are satisfied with a minimum of effort. Certainly it doesn’t appear to be a recipe for an existence that is nasty, brutish, and short.”

Childlike Simplicity

Once again this confirms Engels’ view about the communistic and egalitarian lifestyle of the hunter/gatherer people. “This gentile constitution is wonderful in all its childlike simplicity! Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes or police; without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned – the gens or the tribe or the individual gentes among themselves… Although there are many more affairs in common than at present – the household is run in common and communistically by a number of families, the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the household – still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required...

“There can be no poor and needy – the communistic household and the gens know their responsibility towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war. All are free and equal - including the women. There is as yet no room for slaves or, as a rule, for subjugation of alien tribes…

“This is what mankind and human society were like before class divisions arose.”17

This is a fair description of present day hunter/gatherer societies. Although a division of labour emerged between the sexes, it is certainly not one based upon domination or exploitation, but on mutual respect and cooperation. In the societies based upon “primitive communism” there was no such thing as “domination” or “power”, which are concepts associated with class society. “The communistic household implies the supremacy of women in the house,” states Engels, “just as the exclusive recognition of a natural mother, because of the impossibility of determining the natural father with certainty, signifies high esteem for the women, that is, for the mothers. That woman was the slave of the man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions that have come down to us from the period of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Women occupied not only a free but also a highly respected position among all savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages and partly even of the upper stage.”

Of course, there are roles and responsibilities based upon lineages, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with class-based relationships.

In regard to the !Kung responsibilities, Lee explains that “Whatever their skills !Kung leaders have no formal authority. They can only persuade, but never enforce their will on others… None is arrogant, over-bearing, boastful or aloof. In !Kung terms, these traits absolutely disqualify a person as a leader… Another trait emphatically not found among traditional camp leaders is a desire for wealth or acquisitiveness.”

As regards the sexual division of labour, there is nothing unequal about this, and neither was it regarded as such. There is tremendous skill required in gathering as there is in hunting. For gathering, efficient and extensive mental maps are required, knowledge of the seasons and the cycle of plants are also invaluable. Hunting requires a fundamental understanding of animal behaviour.

The reason for the division of labour lies with the woman’s reproductive role. !Kung babies feed from their mother for at least two and a half years. Whenever women collect food, babies are carried on their backs. !Kung women usually walk around 3,000 miles every year on trips and moving camp. Childbirth is therefore spaced out about once every four years, with only half of the children likely to survive. It should therefore come as no surprise that abortion and infanticide are common parts of hunter/gatherer life, and must go back to its origins.

Engels has been attacked and maligned for his theories on the origins of the family. Of course there are flaws contained in a work written as long ago as 1884, given the limited anthropological evidence at the time. In the Preface to the fourth edition of The Origin, he himself states “our knowledge of the primitive forms of the family has made important advances. There was, therefore, plenty to do in the way of improvements…” If Engels was alive today, he would, basing himself upon the latest discoveries, certainly make changes and modifications to his original thesis. However, those who attack him, are attempting to attack and discredit his scientific method, the method of dialectical materialism, as part of a general attack on Marxism.

There is an ongoing debate over whether a “matriarchal” society ever existed or matrilineal descent was ever universal. “There is in fact no true ‘matriarchal’, as distinct from ‘matrilineal’, society in existence or known from literature, and the chances are that there never has been”, states Katherleen Gough.18  “This does not mean that women and men have never had relations that were dignified and creative for both sexes, and technology of their times.” Even in the Iroquois tribes, the closest to a matriarchy, Morgan admits that women were subordinated to men.

The overwhelming majority of today’s anthropologists believe the idea of a matriarchy is false. Those who attempt to ascribe the idea of a matriarchy to Engels – which seems a common accusation - are barking up the wrong tree. This also applies to those who broadly accept Engels’ analysis, such as Evelyn Reed, the feminist anthropologist who fiercely defends the existence of matriarchy. Engels never held this view or even mentioned the term. What he and Morgan believed was not in matriarchy, but that matrilineal descent at one time was universal. From the point of view of method, and also current information, everything tends to point in this direction.

Mother Right

Both Morgan and Engels held to the belief that the era of  “primitive communism” was dominated by “mother right”. This view was built largely upon the evidence of Morgan and his close association with the Iroquois. This tribal society was certainly matrilineal, the descent through the mother, and had an exceptionally high regard for women. Women had a large say in the government of the longhouse or household of the matrilocally extended family. However, this does not mean that this society was the mirror opposite of a patriarchal, male dominant, male oppressive society. As already stated, Engels was not even happy with the concept of “mother right”, but accepted it as a term of shorthand. Nevertheless, it is certain that there was no female oppression in these early societies. This arose with the development of private property and the division of society into classes and, in the words of Engels, “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”

The emergence of class society changed everything, including the position of women. Men now wanted to pass on their property to their male heirs. While under primitive communism descent was traced through the female line, now inheritance began to be traced through the male line. “The reign of mother-right implied communism; equality for all; the rise of the father-right implied the reign of private property, and, with it, the oppression and enslavement of women”, states August Bebel.19

This transformation marks the change from savagery to barbarism. It was christened the “neolithic revolution” by Gordon Childe.

Next Higher Plane

We will leave the final remarks to Morgan, who presented an overview at the end of his book, Ancient Society. “Since the advent of civilisation, the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, it uses so expending and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of people, an unmanageable. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation. The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property, and define the relations of the state to the property it protects, as well as the obligations and the limits of the rights of its owners. The interests of society are paramount to individual interests, and the two must be brought into just and harmonious relations. A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been of the past.

“The time which has passed away since civilisation began is but a fragment of the past duration of man’s existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come. The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.”

This article has been published in the latest issue of the In Defence of Marxismmagazine.


1. Morgan, Ancient Society, New York, 1877, pp. vi.

2. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, p. 448, Marx and Engels Selected Works.

3. Engels, The Origin, Penguin edition, p. 35.

4. Childe, Social Evolution, p.10

5. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, p. 279, Lawrence and Wishart 1946.

6. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 45, p. 109.

7. Towards an Anthropology of Women, p. 83.

8. Ibid, p. 94.

9. Quoted in The Evolution of Property by Paul Lafargue, p. 18.

10. Engels, The Origin, p. 71, Selected Works.

11. Ibid, p. 72.

12. Spencer & Jennings et al, The Native Americans, p. 327.

13. Ibid, p. 387.

14. Ibid, pp. 345-6.

15. Ibid, pp. 346-7.

16. Richard Leakey & Roger Lewin, People of the Lake, p. 88.

17. Engels, The Origin, pp. 519-20, Selected Works.

18. Towards an Anthropology of Women, p. 54.

19. Bebel, Women Under Socialism, p. 30.

20. Morgan, Ancient Society, p. 552.


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