Caroline Humphrey

Caroline Humphrey lectures in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of King’s College.

Rituals of the Full Moon

Caroline Humphrey, 27 February 1992

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.

Sister Ape

Caroline Humphrey, 19 April 1990

Most people, without thinking about it very much, elide sexual differences between men and women with gender, the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity. Surely, one might imagine, the more scientists discover about the former, the more refined and true will the latter become. These two books undermine that view. People are aware that non-Western cultures have different ideas about gender from our own, but no one is disturbed by that for a moment: their ideas, we say to ourselves, are based on ignorance and strange religions and values. We think we are different: we have science, which is gradually and inexorably analysing those difficult questions which lie in an unsorted jumble at the back of our minds – ideas of natural propensities, hormones, the left and right sides of the brain, feminine nurturing or, even more hazily, genetic programming for differences between the male and female brain. These books do not deny that science is making advances, but in different ways make the point that we need to be able to stand back some way in order to know how to think about them.

Culture and Personality

Caroline Humphrey, 31 August 1989

There is a popular vision of the anthropologist as figure-of-fun which an allegorical ‘Margaret Mead’ is coming to represent: the blunderer into tribal life, dupe of the primitives, the self-dramatiser, spinner of graceless and unlikely theories. Another version of the anthropologist is the philosopher of culture and society in all its variations, one who understands humanity in some broad, if rather intuitive and dreamy way: Ruth Benedict, though her work is deeply unfashionable today, has this kind of position. Though both of these visions of the anthropologist have a certain plausibility, they hardly justify the tendency of recent biographies, particularly of Mead, to create retrospective stereotypes. Such books neglect the historical complexity and the difficulties of coming-into-being of anthropology as a subject. Neither Benedict nor Mead were like these types, but their life-stories do show not only how they were able to generate new ideas but also how easily – and this is really a matter of how anthropology is written – an idea could be taken up and somehow slip over the line into caricature.’

The Good Old Days: The Dacha-Owning Classes

Sheila Fitzpatrick, 9 October 2003

Who could ever forget everyday life in the old Soviet Union? The sheer oddness of the way the place functioned, the incongruity between functioning and pretension. The discomfort and...

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Communism and Shamanism

Maurice Bloch, 15 September 1983

Most of us have very little idea of what life is actually like in the Soviet Union for ordinary people. We are so bombarded by various kinds of propaganda that the Communist world becomes a...

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