When Men Ruled the World

A Short History of Patriarchs

Posted Jun 15, 2014

Marc Chagall/Wikiart
Source: Marc Chagall/Wikiart

Most of history is about patriarchs. The pages of antiquity are full of names like Genghis and Atilla, Pericles and Constantine. Women’s names are fewer and farther between.

But for thousands of years before history was written, women made names for themselves. And that’s happening more and more often, now.

There aren’t many women in the Bible. We know the names of a few wives. There’s Adam’s wife, Eve—the fit helper God made from Adam’s rib; and there’s Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and his maid, Hagar, and his other wife, Keturah—who bore all of 8 named sons. Sarah’s son, Isaac, would go on to have twins; and Isaac’s son, Jacob, would have 12 sons of his own.

But most of their daughters were forgotten. None of Adam’s daughters, or Abraham’s daughters, or Isaac’s daughters, are mentioned in the Bible. And only one of Jacob’s daughters gets any press. Her name was Dinah, and she was seduced by a Hivite prince. So her brothers came upon his city unaware, and killed all the males (Genesis 34:25).

So it went in pretty much every other history, for a few thousand years. In Egypt, places were saved in the tomb of Rameses II for his dozens of named sons. In the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit classic written at India’s great Maurya and Gupta courts, descendants of The Great Sun have 10,000, or 10,000 x 10, or 10,000 x 10 x 10 sons. No daughters are mentioned. And in China, the importance of being a boy was established as early as the Shi jing odes. Sons slept in cradles, and played with jade scepters. “He shall be the lord of a hereditary house.” Daughters slept on the floor, and played with loom shuttles. “She shall not cause trouble to her parents.”

But it was otherwise before history was written. For upwards of 100,000 years, hunter-gatherer daughters were probably as likely to inherit property, as likely to decide where to raise their families, and as likely to make a name for themselves as their forager brothers. We know that, because foragers are like that now.

On the Kalahari, for instance, just 40% of !nore waterholes, a most valuable resource, are passed on from father to son. The rest are inherited from mothers, from neither parent, or from both.

In Paraguay, newlywed Aché are much more likely to set up housekeeping near a wife’s family (16 cases) than near a husband’s family (2 cases) or neither’s family (2 cases).

And across hunter-gatherer cultures, descent is less often through mothers than it is through fathers—but not uncommon through mothers, who give children their names about a third of the time.

In sum: Egalitarianism and sexual egalitarianism correspond. Women are all but invisible in the polygynous despotisms of history. But in most hunter-gatherer societies, they're as well-known as men. And they're well-known in our own.