How Women and Paternity Became Private Property along with Everything Else (Love vs Sex 233)

Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.

“The origins of farming,” says archeologist Steven Mithen, “is the defining event of human history—the one turning point that has resulted in modern humans having a quite different type of lifestyle and cognition to all other animals and past types of humans.” The most important pivot point in the story of our species, the shift to agriculture redirected the trajectory of human life more fundamentally than the control of fire, the Magna Carta, the printing press, the steam engine, nuclear fission, or anything else has or, perhaps, ever will. With agriculture virtually everything changed: the nature of status and power, social and family structures, how humans interacted with the natural world, the gods they worshipped, the likelihood and nature of warfare between groups, quality of life, longevity, and certainly, the rules governing sexuality. His survey of the relevant archaeological evidence led archaeologist Timothy Taylor, author of The Prehistory of Sex, to state, “While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturalist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild,” he concludes, “farmers set out to destroy it.”

Land could now be possessed, owned, and passed won the generations. Food that had been hunted and gathered now had to be sowed, tended, harvested, stored, defended, bought, and sold. Fences, walls, and irrigation systems had to be built and reinforced; armies to defend it all had to be raised, fed, and controlled. Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.

But the standard narrative insists that paternity certainly has always been of utmost importance to our species, that our very genes dictate we organize our sexual lives around it. Why, then, is the anthropological record so rich with examples of societies where biological paternity is of so little or no importance? Where paternity is unimportant, men tend to be relatively unconcerned about women’s sexual fidelity.

Sex at Dawn

Ryan and Jethá          2010

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