Rituals of the Full Moon
- Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight
Yale, 581 pp, £40.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 300 04911 0
Most people, including most social anthropologists, have only a hazy idea about the origins of human culture. For decades the whole treacherous territory has been avoided, and anthropology has come to construct itself in such a way that the subject is indeed unknowable. But here is a book which calls discretion’s bluff. Chris Knight has come up with a new and startling theory: human culture originated with a sex strike by female primates, a revolutionary act of collective solidarity which transformed ‘females’ into women. Culture came into being, Knight says, when evolving human females decided to control their own sexuality, allowing access only to males who provided them and their offspring with meat from the hunt. The ban on sex coincided with menstruation, women’s infertile period, which they now all synchronised with one another. Culture was, in effect, the social ritulisation of the rules consequent on the sex strike. Males had to forgo the consumption of their own kills and feed them to their sexual partners. Females had to prevent the advances of non-hunter males, including their own adolescent sons. Thus appeared the first taboo, against eating meat killed by oneself, and the first human social group, the matrilineal coalition or clan.
Vol. 14 No. 6 · 26 March 1992
In her generous review of my Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (LRB, 27 February), Caroline Humphrey commends me for the ‘daring’ of my argument that women created culture. Her worries focus less on my data than my logic. In a lion pride, she objects, the numerous females synchronise their oestrus periods yet – in apparent contradiction of my theory – get themselves impregnated by a single dominant male. I restrict my response to two points. Unlike evolving human females, lionesses require sperm from males but little else, being physiologically well-equipped to do their own hunting for themselves. Correspondingly, in permitting impregnation a lioness insists on little sexual time from her consort, releasing him to move from one female to the next in quick succession. Reflecting this, lionesses lack the continuous sexual receptivity, oestrus-concealment and other time-consuming features so intriguingly characteristic of human female reproductive physiology and sexuality. My book argues that human female ovulatory synchrony just wouldn’t have worked without these additional features, which emerged all together as a package.
An incoming lion in the situation Humphrey describes stimulates the synchronised receptivity of his newly-monopolised females by killing their existing cubs (carriers of the genes of his defeated rival). Once these ‘unwanted’ cubs are dead, the mothers stop lactating and in consequence come jointly back into heat. Had your reviewer mentioned this detail, I doubt whether her logic would have seemed more compelling than mine. Lion sexual politics are fascinating, but no school of palaeoanthropology, to my knowledge, holds that evolving human females could have tolerated such a wastage of pregnancies and maternal energies in the interests of ‘paternal certainty’.