Sex and Society: The Prehistoric Family


I said in my introduction to my blog that this wasn’t going to be a blog of opinion and analysis pieces. This will be the exception. Working with my friends at Left Flank, over the next 6 weeks I am writing a series of blogs on the history of sex and the family (you can see the first blog linked at Left Flank here). This series will explore how our ideas of sex and family developed in modern society. How did the modern family evolve? How did the oppression of women and sexual minorities come about and why are these groups still oppressed? What do we need to do to challenge sexual oppression?

This forms part of a lot of work I am doing at the moment and I hope it will be interesting.

To start we need to understand the history of the our most common form of sexual expression: the family. That’s where we will begin today. 


Mother duck, father duck, and all the little baby ducks. The family, ruled over and provided for by father, suckled and nurtured by mother seems to us inherent in the natural order.

—Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

We’ll start with what we can call the “standard narrative of human sexuality”. This narrative dominates our historical understand of sex and society and is based on one ideal: the nuclear family.

Think about how we picture ancient “cavemen”. We see Fred and Wilma Flintstone — a stable monogamous relationship built around a nuclear-style family. The man goes out to work, or hunt, while the woman stays at home. He is the head of the household and the breadwinner; she looks after the house and nurtures the children. Monogamy and the patriarchy are as old as society itself.

This picture is part of a larger social narrative largely based in biological assumptions about the “opposing genders”. On the one hand the standard narrative goes that women, who produce “unusually helpless and dependent offspring”, require the support of a man to bring up the family. On the other, men, who have an innate, biological need to dominate, are unwilling to provide that support unless they are assured a woman’s offspring is their own. Otherwise they are spending time and energy on the genes of another man. Men demand fidelity — an assurance their genetic line is being maintained. Monogamy and the patriarchy are a natural part of human society.

One element is missing from this story — other forms of sexuality. Apart from quiet discussions about the prevalence of homosexuality in ancient Greek and Roman societies, our history ignores other sexualities. We’ll just not that for this moment because we’ll discuss it a lot more in later blogs.

That is the dominant story. But there is another story — one that questions all of this. The most famous leaders of this alternate story is Friedrich Engels, who is best known for being Karl Marx’s right-hand man and a co-author of The Communist Manifesto. After Marx’s death Engels wrote his own masterpiece — The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State. The Origin draws primarily on the work of anthropologist Lewis Morgan, who studied the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York. Using Lewis’s work, as well as other examples from around the world, Engels argues that prehistoric societies lived in what he called “primitive communism”. Other anthropologists call this “fierce egalitarianism”. In primitive communism families were largely polyamorous and non-hierarchical. People lived in active equality (i.e. people worked hard to make sure everyone was equal) and women were given a high level of authority. Engels’s work has since been backed up by other anthropologists, who have found similar results around the world.

Let’s take a deeper look at these societies.

Canadian Iroquois women making maple sugar (illustration by François Latifau, 1724)
Canadian Iroquois women making maple sugar (illustration by François Latifau, 1724)

First, it is important to note that Engels did not argue that men and women had the same roles in these societies. In fact, quite the opposite: women were gatherers and carers of the home; while men largely hunted. However, in a system based on hunting and gathering, these roles had very different value to our societies today. Despite common pictures of the male heroically going out to provide all the food for the starving family, this was largely not the case. Hunting was a rather hit and miss game. It was women who provided the majority of the food — gathering berries, fruits, roots and other vegetables. It was the women who were the key breadwinners and providers and therefore importantly the “home” (which was very different to how we know it now) was the centre of economic and social activity. The home was the place of control. In 1724, Father Lafitau described the role of women when discussing the Iroquois Indians:

Nothing … is more real than this superiority of the women. It is essentially the women who embody the Nation, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the sequence of generations and the continuity of families. It is in them that all real authority resides: the land, the fields and all their produce belongs to them: they are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of peace and war.

Women were not desperately in need of ‘support’ from a child’s father. In fact they were the ones who held much of the influence and power. This is where polyamory comes into play. Different societies engaged in polyamory in different ways and for different reasons. For example, numerous societies in South America believed that babies were formed through the collective spermatozoa of different men. Babies would gain qualities from the different sperm provided. Women therefore needed to ensure they had sex with the smart man, the strong man, the fast man and the tall man to ensure their baby had the greatest attributes possible. When babies are born these different men then all play a role in bringing up the child.

The Mosua in China do it differently. While men and women in the Mosua engage in “marriages”, these are very different to way we think of them. Both men and women are free to lead polyamorous lifestyles, with no shame associated with sexual promiscuity. Children are not raised by fathers — in fact the Mosua have no word for “father”. Instead they are raised by mothers and their immediate family. Men are collectively known as “uncles”, with there being absolutely no shame in children not knowing which uncle is their genetic father.

These are just two of many examples, but one theme runs throughout — the need for strong community. This makes sense — hunter-gatherer communities were generally small, and therefore the strength of the community was essential. Everyone knew each other and everyone looked after each other. Polyamory helped foster this. It created strong networks where it became everyone’s responsibility to look after children and provide for the greater community. As Christopher Ryan, co-author of the book Sex at Dawn states: “These overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthened group cohesion and could offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.” This also meant societies were largely “matrilineal”, meaning the bloodline of the family passed on through mothers. In a world where there were no paternity tests, women were the only ones who could confirm the parenthood of their children. Women were the head of the family.

This is a very different story to the one we usually hear. Instead of the nuclear family we had families that were larger and were based on group marriages and polyamorous relationships. Women were given an equal or even higher status than men.

This does not describe all family systems in the prehistoric age, but it gives a broad understanding. While some societies still operate in this way, these systems, in reality, extinguished in most of the world many years ago. The monogamous patriarchy has reigned supreme since.

What these examples highlight, though, is that our narrative — that of sexual and family relationships based entirely on monogamy and patriarchy — is false. There is another story: one in which the oppression of women and other sexual minorities developed to suit particular economic needs. I will explore that story in my next piece.

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