Review of Chris Knight's "Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture"

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In WR 309, we published a contribution from one of our close sympathisers (‘Baboon'):  ‘Baboon's revenge: marxism versus feminism on the origins of humanity ', a report of a meeting presented by Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group at the Anarchist Bookfair in London last October.

In our introduction we said that we felt that Baboon's contribution raised some interesting questions about human origins and early human society and that we hoped to come back to this at a later date.

Baboon's article is very critical of Knight's basic thesis, rejecting it as anarchist and feminist. Having recently read Chris Knight's major theoretical work Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of Culture (Yale University press, 1991), I feel that his work deserves rather more consideration, even if some of Baboon's key criticisms certainly express valid concerns.

Before saying anything about Knight's theory, some points about his political background. Knight is not as far as I can see an anarchist - rather he is basically a Trotskyist in political outlook. However, we should also bear in mind that he is a professional anthropologist and his work as such cannot be mechanically reduced to his politics. Furthermore, Knight does not espouse an overtly feminist ideology but sees his work in direct continuity with that of Marx and especially Engels. And while we are talking about general, historical questions, it is perfectly possible for academics who hold leftist views on more immediate political issues to make worthwhile contributions to marxist theory provided these contributions are evaluated in a critical manner from a proletarian perspective.

The basic problem raised in Knight's book is the role of woman in the transition from nature to culture. An important point of departure is Knight's rejection of the dominant trends in official anthropology, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, which for a long time has been dominated by functionalist, empiricist and relativist theories which have moved very far indeed from the evolutionist spirit of early anthropological studies, which saw the study of ‘primitive' and ‘exotic' human societies as a key to understanding the origins of humanity and its basic cultural institutions. These later schools tended to focus instead on the workings of particular social groups and aimed to understand their cultural forms (myth, ritual, kinship, etc) purely in terms of the ‘function' they perform for that particular group. The avoidance of ‘grand theories of origins' and of ‘sweeping generalisations' about human society, as Knight points out, was particularly useful for colonial administrators (and the anthropologists employed by them) who had to ‘deal' with tribal groupings and only sought to understand their institutions as a means to controlling them for the economic and political benefit of the Empire. We could add that this retreat into the small and the immediate is a reflection of a general trend in the bourgeoisie's thinking about society and history in its epoch of decline, since any genuine historical and social clarity can only remind the ruling class of the limitations and unavoidable demise of the mode of production it serves. In any case, Knight makes no apology for returning to the fundamental issue of the ‘transition from ape to man' and the origins of culture, which had been of such central interest both to the founders of scientific socialism and to the early pioneers of anthropology[1].   

At the same time, Knight's thesis is to some extent a riposte to the theories of the French structuralist Levi-Strauss, who represents a school of thought that is less coy than the Anglo-Saxons about posing the question of origins. According to Levi-Strauss, culture emerges from nature through a kind of social contract among the males in early or proto-human society: it is the men who agree among themselves to exchange females in a manner regulated by custom rather than simply imposing a hierarchy of physical force to establish access to the females. Following Engels, Knight argues that ‘woman' in the earliest human societies was not a mere passive object, a simple instrument for the satisfaction of male desire. In fact, Knight sees the transition from primate to human culture in an act of conscious social rebellion by the female of the species, the ‘sex strike', through which the females overturned the rule of the tyrannical male who had hitherto won the ‘right' to enjoy his female through his monopoly of physical force - a right which was not accompanied by any ‘duties' such as the provision of females with meat or a settled space to look after their young, since females were obliged to follow the male hunters, carrying their young with them, in order to then compete for sexual favours in exchange for a share of the kill. In Knight's ‘myth', the origin of human culture lies essentially in the discovery of the power of solidarity, through the females' collective refusal of sex until the males had brought home the bacon; in doing so, Knight speculates, the females won over the less dominant males, previously excluded from the ‘harem', who could more readily understand the value of forgoing the immediate satisfaction of consuming the product of the hunt.

Furthermore, Knight argues, the sex strike was reinforced by the ability of the human female to synchronise menstruation and establish it as a ‘period' in which sexual relations are banned, enabling the men to go off and hunt without fear of the females being enjoyed sexually by rival males. The idea is that this synchronisation was timed by the 29.5-day cycle of the moon, which in turn regulated the period of the hunt.

Alongside the whole complex of moon and menstruation myths and rituals, Knight refers to a number of very widespread institutions and beliefs which for him are an echo of this formative ‘event' (or rather, transformative process) in human history. Particularly important is the ‘own kill' rule which appears as a crucial basis for the distribution of the products of the hunt in numerous hunter-gatherer societies. According to this rule it is expressly forbidden for the hunter (almost invariably a male) to consume, either in part, or wholly, the products of his own kill (or at least certain forms of kill, usually the larger animals). These products must then be returned to the community through a variety of often extremely complex totemic/kinship laws[2].    

Knight also talks about the ubiquitous ‘myth of matriarchy': according to many hunting peoples, there was once a time when the women had the monopoly over the tribe's sacred rituals, until the men rebelled against this state of affairs and appropriated control of the sacred for themselves. In Australia, these myths are connected to the symbol of the Rainbow Serpent and to the practise of male incision and circumcision. For Knight, who does not doubt that tribal mythologies (especially in a society with such a vast period of continuity as that of the Australian aborigines) contain an important germ of historical memory, all these symbolisms are a remnant of a phase in which female power played a crucial role in the formation of culture, and represent a real attempt of the men to reappropriate control over social life: in later myths and rituals, the androgynous Rainbow Serpent may be presented as a power that punishes females who break tribal taboos, while practises which draw blood from the penis are seen as an attempt to gain the power of female menstruation by imitating it. Indeed, Knight talks about a male ‘counter-revolution' which at some point followed the ‘human revolution' led by the females. He even constructs a possible scenario in the case of Australia, in which this process corresponded to the transition away from the hunting of large animals who were becoming extinct as a result of climate change and human predation.

The principal merit of Knight's book, in my opinion, is that by seeking to return to the question of the origins of culture it offers an alternative to the dominant trend of blinkered anti-theoretical empiricism in anthropological theory. Knight sees himself as a sociobiologist, but one who has tried to take the findings of this approach out of the hands of those who have used it to develop deeply reactionary arguments about the ‘territorial imperative' and the inevitability of male domination. He does this by emphasising the central role not only of women but of solidarity in the evolution of the modern human being.

This said, Knight's book is stimulating as much for the arguments that seem convincing as for the questions it does not seem to pose or to answer satisfactorily. Some examples:

  • - for Engels, the "world historical defeat of the female sex" which he talks about in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State takes place as a result of the rise of private property and the gradual emergence of class divisions. For Knight, there is already a ‘male counter-revolution' at the most primordial level of human culture (as in the ‘paleolithic' culture of Australia, for Testart the epitome of primitive communism). The material basis of this counter-revolution is only partly dealt with and there is no attempt to explain why his views differ substantially from Engels on this point. Furthermore, Knight does not explain why different hunter-gatherer societies do not have the same degree of male monopoly of social life or the sacred as they do in the Australian tribes (although there as well there are many counter-tendencies to this);
  • - One of Baboon's most important criticisms of Knight's thesis is that, apart from a couple of references in the book that are not followed up, he seems to show no interest at all in what for Marx and Engels was an absolutely central element in the emergence of the specifically human consciousness of the world: not only the question of reproduction, but the question of production, of labour, and the social relations which permit its development. Indeed, when Baboon raised the question of tool-making as a factor in the evolution of human consciousness, Knight described this as an "anti-woman" approach (as though the use of tools were the exclusive privilege of males). It is here that Knight seems to slip into a purely feminist approach, as there can hardly be a serious marxist account of human origins that doesn't at least acknowledge and assimilate the contribution of Marx, Engels, Pannekoek and others on "the role of labour in the transition from ape to man";
  • - Baboon also takes exception to Knight's view of primate existence, challenging his tendency to see primate society as a ‘war of each against all'. In fact, marxist theorists have always see the existence of certain social instincts inherited from our animal ancestors as playing a key part in the development of human solidarity and moral feelings. Also questionable is Knight's view that human culture, with its characteristic elements of art, language, symbolism, etc, only emerged relatively recently (around 70,000 years ago, perhaps less), excluding previous forms of homo sapiens including the Neanderthals. A number of paleoanthropologists would not agree that Neanderthal man was totally devoid of culture;
  • - One final point, although there could be many: Knight notes certain similarities between his scenario and Freud's ‘revolt against the primal father'. But he does not follow this up. For Freud, the inauguration of human culture also coincided with the inauguration of guilt and repression, a problem that Knight does not consider at all, at least not in this work. In my opinion (and however ‘symbolic' Freud's scenario in Totem and Taboo may be) a serious attempt to understand humanity's origins cannot do without a thorough engagement with the questions that Freud posed.

This text is an individual contribution, as was Baboon's, and I hope it will provoke further discussion of these issues.  

Amos 4/10/08

[1] In doing so, Knight is aware that in a certain sense he is constructing a myth or ‘Just-So' story, rather in the manner of Freud with his idea of the rebellion of the young males against the ‘Primal Father' who held the monopoly over the females, as expounded in Totem and Taboo. We are not asked to take Knight's scenario literally but as a model to be examined. 

[2] In his work Le Communisme Primitif (1986) the French anthropologist Alain Testart takes the own kill rule, or the rule of ‘what is mine is not mine but yours' as the key to understanding the social relations of primitive communism. Knight acknowledges Testart's work, particularly his investigation of the "ideology of blood" in primitive society, although he finds his ultimate explanation for this ideology "disappointing". I would agree with this; but it is unfortunate that Knight doesn't seek to investigate the key question posed by Testart's book - the definition of primitive communism as a mode of production. Knight uses the term in a rather loose manner throughout Blood Relations



I think that our pre-human ape ancestors were probably a lot more like bonobos than other modern ape species. Bonobo society is unique among apes because of the equality of the sexes (actually the females are very slightly more dominant). Bonobo society is not very hierarchical, and sex is used as a means of social cohesion. They even practice face-to-face sex, oral sex, tongue kissing and female-female sex.

In terms of their genes they are just as close to us as are chimpanzees, but their morphology is closer to ours. They stand up straighter than their cousins do too.

If my assumption is true that the social organization of our ape ancestors was like that of the bonobos and not like those of chimps and gorillas, then Knight's theories don't hold any water.

See these articles:

I'm about to read Chris

I'm about to read Chris Knight's book, but like A above I already have some doubts about his analysis and therefore examples from animal behaviours. At the meeting where he was speaking he suddenly attacked baboons for their male aggressivity but baboon society is a matriarchal society par excellence with very complex inter-relationships.

I've read the preface to the paperback where he says: Simplistic, sexual stereotypes on the model of "Man the Hunter" or "Man the Toolmaker" contravene Darwin's theory and females "pursue their own independent reproductive strategies".
Homo habilis (skilful man), Homo ergaster (man the toolmaker), heidelbergensis, erectus, neandertalis,sapiens are fundamentally well-founded and important classifications of these more or less closely related species. While they could be open to abuse it is well understood that these are classifications of a very interesting series of speciations, transitions you could say, and not a description of the roles of the male and female of the species (where there's certainly a division of labour in all these species). The idea that women wouldn't have hunted, wouldn't have made, fashioned and used tools, wouldn't have been a full part of society (and we can talk about society, see below) is so unlikely, so preposterous that it can only be an expression of sexism in itself.

Our Astralopithicus ancestors, 3 to 4 million years ago, had a sexual diamorphism (the difference between the male and female of the species) of around 2 to 1 in size and 6 to 4 in weight. By the time of Homo ergaster, 1.8 -0.6 million years ago, the sexes did not exhibit any major diamorphism with broadly the same proportions as today (Scarre, 2005). Brain volume increased rapidly at this time. The very least this tells us is that women increased in physical stature and, like the male, increased brain capacity. I think it also tells you very much more. Stone tools had been made and used half a million years before ergaster but underwent productive developments which points to wider and deeper social movements. It happened with Homo habilis 2 million year ago and certainly happened with Homo ergaster 1.6mya emphasising a major transitions period for the species. A quote from Deacon, 1997:
"The introduction of stone tools and the ecological adaption they indicate also mark the presence of a socio-ecological predicament that demands a symbolic solution. Stone tools and symbols must both, then, be the architects of the Astralopithicus-Homo transition and not its conssequence. The large brains, stone tools, reduction in dentition, better opposability of the fingers and thumbs and more complete bipedality found in post-astralopithicine hominids are the physical echoes of a threshold already crossed."

I haven’t yet read Chris

I haven’t yet read Chris Knight’s book “Blood Relations” but see he uses the idea of “memes”, which, as far as I understand it, means the spread of something through example and imitation. No doubt that this phenomenon exists, but it’s a crude tool to explain any development and it is inadequate to explain to the development of production. Agriculture appeared independently in about 8 regions of the world. Also in prehistory, metallurgy made independent appearances. Sendentism, which came thousands of years before agriculture, in fact laid the basis for it, was also a universal development. Belief systems, religions are also global, adapted and expressed locally, but coming from a universal mind. The development of all the means of production was also universal, if tempered and sometimes accelerated by the forces of nature. So I don’t agree with the sole explanation of “memes” to account for any general development within society.
But the purpose of this post is to give what I think is an interesting quote from the latest book by a cave painting expert Dr. David S. Whitely, in order to possibly highlight some connection with ancient beliefs (the book is “Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit”). It’s part of Whitely’s description of what he saw in Chauvet cave. Chauvet, in the Ardeche region of France, is the oldest known cave art site with paintings 26 and 33 thousand years old. The paintings are magnificent and many aspects of them, along with surrounding phenomena, underline their spiritual nature. This find also underlines and reinforces the importance of the cognitive approach to cave art. Anyway, the quote:
“Despite the likely hallucinatory origin for the Chauvet art, an intentional structure to their layout also seemed possible, and this made me thing of Leroi-Gourhan and his earlier structuralist interpretation of Paleolithic art. Compositional intent at Chauvet was suggested most strongly by the two main concentrations of paintings, both located toward the rear of the cave and called, respectively, the Panel of the Horses an the Panel of the Lions. What unites them is not their overall imagery. As their names imply, the first was dominated by a series of horse heads, arranged in near-vertical echelon, with a variety of other animals (rhinos, aurochs, ibexes, etc.) nearby. The second had a large number of lions accompanied by rhinos, a mammoth and other creatures. But each concentration was spread on either side of similar, very distinctive and natural feature of the cave walls. These were clefts or niches, naturally shaped like an inverted V, roughly six feet high and four feet deep, with undulating walls. Painted slightly off-centre in each was a single horse, as if moving from right to left. And each horse, when viewed from directly in front, seemed literally to be walking out of the cleft in the wall – emerging through the parted veil that separated the interior of the cave from the interior of the rocks themselves. It was a stunning and magical visual effect that not photograph could possibly capture.
Larry, Jim and I experienced the power of this composition first at the Panel of the Horses where I was, upon first sight, left slack-jawed and slightly dumbfounded. Jim, a sober scientist not particularly prone to flights of fancy, unknowingly came to my rescue: “My God”, I remember him exclaiming, “if this isn’t sexual symbolism, I don’t know what is”. For there, at the base of the vaginally shaped cleft (with its undulating folds there is no other way to describe it) was a blood red deposit of clay, the existence of which reflected the fact that this spot was one of the seeps in the cave – places that, about eighteen hours after it has rained outside, start to weep water, like small springs. This is due to percolation through the limestone rocks. I had been reluctant to state the obvious; Jim was less reticent in voicing what we all throught.
At the end of the Panel of the Lions, which Jean took us to next, the same performance – for that is the only way I could react to it – repeated itself. There the red clay stained the wall of a very similar cleft, rising up as if to obscure the legss of another horse. Perhaps because of this fact, the painted horse seemed to float, etherally, as I moved back and forth in front of the cleft to gain different perspectives on the panel. To this day, my time in this part of the cave has the quality of a dream – a reaction that prompted me to verify my visit there with my friends.”

On the G20 meeting in London

On the G20 meeting in London and possible violence, the Observer reports today on the "anti-capitalist"groups involved: Chris Knight, of the leading protest group Gevernment of the Dead, warned: 'the revolution is coming. This is our time, and I honestly believe that the army, the police, will be so intent on keeping the ExCel centre they will lose the City of London'.

This is the same guy isn't it.

Yes, indeed it's him. He was

Yes, indeed it's him. He was on Channel 4 news tonight threatening to take on the forces of the state and threatening bloodshed. He's also proclaimed that every light in every house must be out after dark on the night of the demonstration or else!