Blood Relations

Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture

Chris Knight
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 592
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    Blood Relations
    Book Description:

    The emergence of symbolic culture is generally linked with the development of the hunger-gatherer adaptation based on a sexual division of labor. This original and ingenious book presents a new theory of how this symbolic domain originated. Integrating perspectives of evolutionary biography and social anthropology within a Marxist framework, Chris Knight rejects the common assumption that human culture was a modified extension of primate behavior and argues instead that it was the product of an immense social, sexual, and political revolution initiated by women.

    Culture became established, says Knight, when evolving human females began to assert collective control over their own sexuality, refusing sex to all males except those who came to them with provisions. Women usually timed their ban on sexual relations with their periods of infertility while they were menstruating, and to the extent that their solidarity drew women together, these periods tended to occur in synchrony. The result was that every month with the onset of menstruation, sexual relations were ruptured in a collective, ritualistic way as the prelude to each successful hunting expedition. This ritual act was the means through which women motivated men not only to hunt but also to concentrate energies on bringing back the meat. Knight shows how this hypothesis sheds light on the roots of such cultural traditions as totemic rituals, incest and menstrual taboos, blood-sacrifice, and hunters' atonement rites. Providing detailed ethnographic documentation, he also explains how Native American, Australian Aboriginal, and other magico-religious myths can be read as derivatives of the same symbolic logic.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18655-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-x)
    Chris Knight
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-49)

    Humanity now has the power to destroy not only itself but most of the more complex forms of life on earth. No one can measure the scale of threat posed by our unplanned global economy as it hurtles along on its present course. What seems certain is that the future of our planet now depends on conscious planning decisions which we do not yet know ourselves to be capable of taking.

    No scientific story about our distant past can avoid this troubling fact about our present, nor escape being shaped by it. Western scientific/industrial culture now holds the rest of...

  5. Chapter 1 Anthropology and Origins
    (pp. 50-70)

    The question of human origins has always held a central place in Marxist theory, and for a good reason. Marx aimed to unite the natural with the social sciences, and was aware that an understanding of our origins was an essential precondition. As ‘everything natural must have an origin’, he wrote, ‘so man too has his process of origin, history, which can, however, be known by him and thus is a conscious process of origin that transcends itself’ (Marx 197la [1844]: 169). By knowing our process of origin, we know what we were, are and must become, and this knowledge...

  6. Chapter 2 Lévi-Strauss and ‘the Mind’
    (pp. 71-87)

    Until recently, Claude Lévi-Strauss was the dominant figure in post-war western social anthropology. His contribution was to make imaginative thinking, speculation and theory building respectable once more. His first major work was an ambitious world survey of kinship systems designed to revolutionise our understanding of human culture as a whole. He remains to this day the only eminent cultural anthropologist to have based his analyses upon a theory of how human culture originated.

    Lévi-Straussian methodology was to an extreme degree mentalist and idealist. Its most significant findings were restricted to the cognitive level, whilst even these still cry out for...

  7. Chapter 3 Totemism as Exchange
    (pp. 88-121)

    In hisTotemismandThe Savage Mind,Lévi-Strauss approached the study of ritual only to dissolve it into a kind of psychology – an investigation into the nature of ‘the mind’. In effect, by subsuming most forms of ritual action under the heading, ‘totemism’ – which he then described as essentially imaginary – he avoided having to construct a theory of ritual action at all. Instead, he simply conjured the problem away.

    Lévi-Strauss finding that ‘totemism’ is simply ‘imaginary’ has been widely accepted. For over twenty years, the verdict of many scholars has been that the whole issue is now closed. In this...

  8. Chapter 4 The Sex Strike
    (pp. 122-153)

    I now want to address a question which Chapter 3 implicitly posed but left unanswered. Granted that ‘totemism’, ‘sacrifice’ and other rituals seem to have emerged through a historical process of transformation of the hunters’ ‘own-kill’ rule –where did this rule itself ultimately come from?

    Rather than keep my reader guessing, let me anticipate the conclusion and then set out my reasons for arriving at it. My answer is not difficult to state. Since mothers and their offspring must always have been the main beneficiaries of the ‘own-kill’ taboo, since men probably had no ‘natural’ (as opposed to cultural) inclination...

  9. Chapter 5 Origins Theories in the 1980s
    (pp. 154-199)

    Until the 1960s, no section of the scientific community was devoting itself in any consistent way to unravelling the mysteries of human social origins. Like Freud before him, Lévi-Strauss with his peculiarly sex-oriented theory was an isolated figure; he was interested in neither archaeology nor evolutionary biology, and despite his immense influence worked very much on his own. His social anthropological colleagues had eschewed ‘origins’ for fifty years, for reasons which were discussed in Chapter 1. Meanwhile, although scientific books and papers on human origins were still being published, they did not even claim to deal with the social aspects...

  10. Chapter 6 Solidarity and Cycles
    (pp. 200-222)

    It has been a consistent implication of my argument that for this restructuring to be accomplished, women had to take the power. As members of the oppressed sex, they had to develop their coalitions, curb internal rivalries, stand by one another regardless of reproductive condition or personal circumstance – and compel males to bring meat on pain of exclusion from sex.

    There was no way that males could adequately transform their behaviour whilst females were still colluding in their own oppression. As we will now begin to see, the evolving human female therefore had to define her own space, enforce respect...

  11. Chapter 7 The Shores of Eden
    (pp. 223-255)

    Paul Turke’s ovarian synchrony model not only helps explain the human menstrual cycle. It also sheds unexpected light on some central problems of human biosocial and cultural origins. It enables us to appreciate that the final, culture-inaugurating phase of the human revolution – the phase during which the male sex was at last forced to abandoned its former sexual competitiveness and assist females in accordance with new, solidarity-based rules – was in a profound sense ‘nothing new’. Underlying it was a logic of intensifying sexual synchrony and control which had roots deep in the past, when the basic features of modern human...

  12. Chapter 8 Between Water, Stone and Fire
    (pp. 256-280)

    The emergence of human culture was a revolutionary event. To say this is not new: a succession of authoritative writers have spoken of ‘the human revolution’ in this context (Hockett and Ascher 1964; Montagu 1965; Holloway 1969; Collins 1976; Mellars and Stringer 1989). Until very recently, however, the idea has seemed less than convincing. The concept of revolution has seemed to be belied by the extreme gradualism of the prevailing palaeontological and archaeological scenarios (Chapter 5). If a human way of life began to be established in the Plio-Pleistocene, yet was still being established two million years later towards the...

  13. Chapter 9 The Revolution
    (pp. 281-326)

    Evolving ice age woman solved her problems not by setting out into uncharted territory. She had only to discover a new, intensified application of the strategies inseparable from her entire previous evolution. Her secret was to extend, intensify and add a new cutting edge to the sexual techniques discussed in Chapters 6 and 7. Raising ovarian synchrony to new and unprecedented levels, she established a movable but semi-permanent base camp which was so well-provisioned by the opposite sex that it could be situated almost anywhere, no longer depending for its existence on the localised foraging relations or produce of females...

  14. Chapter 10 The Hunter’s Moon
    (pp. 327-373)

    As periodic female non-availability assisted males in concentrating on hunting, menstrually scheduled sex strikes would have begun to last for three, four, six or more days. In cold, sparsely vegetated regions necessitating heavy dependence on meat, male hunting expeditions would have become more extended and well organised in proportion as female sexual pressures became intensified. Weak or short spells of celibacy would have meant ineffective, brief hunting forays; extended forays would have been undertaken in those regions where female pressures and capacities for sexual self-control developed furthest.

    Extensions of female pressure would have involved longer periods of withdrawal and the...

  15. Chapter 11 The Raw and the Cooked
    (pp. 374-416)

    Culture – if the preceding arguments are accepted – originated under pressure from what for millennia must have been the most reproductively burdened and oppressed sex. When women as a gender group finally brought such pressures to a head, developing sufficient internal solidarity to enable them to assert a monthly ‘strike’, they thereby established the basic categories and distinctions of the cultural domain. We will see in this chapter how such action involved, among other things, distinguishing raw meat from cooked, imposing a taboo upon raw meat, tying feast days and therefore cooking to specific lunar phases, and integrating the raw/cooked opposition...

  16. Chapter 12 The Reds
    (pp. 417-448)

    Blood taboos, ritualistic cooking prohibitions and lunar/solar cosmological beliefs, then, are not mere inexplicable manifestations of primitive irrationality. Neither were they invented by men as instruments for oppressing women. They arose out of and expressed a definite mode of production, distribution and exchange. They constitute some of the ‘unsurmounted remains’, to use Marx’s expression, of those ancient institutions of human gender solidarity with which culture began, and which have been ‘dragged along’ uncomprehendingly by many of us in cultures right up until the present.

    In being ‘dragged along’, however, these institutions have changed. Much has happened to traditions everywhere since...

  17. Chapter 13 The Rainbow Snake
    (pp. 449-479)

    In Australia as elsewhere, the end of the ice age brought with it a wave of extinctions of the very large game animals on which hunters had probably to an extent depended since the earliest occupation of the continent. The giant marsupials, Flood (1983: 147) points out, would have been relatively slow-moving, vulnerable to human hunters until they had learned to adopt defensive strategies. It may be significant that in the areas where the earliest occupation has been found, such as the Willandra Lakes and Perth region, the megafauna apparently disappeared earliest. Megafauna are absent from both Koonalda and Allen’s...

  18. Chapter 14 The Dragon Within
    (pp. 480-513)

    The rainbow-snake complex as a rock-art motif extends back in northern Australia for at least 7,000 to 9,000 years, making it ‘probably the longest continuing religious belief documented in the world’ (Flood 1989: 293). Several authorities (Chaloupka 1984; Lewis 1988) have suggested that the post-glacial sea rise between about 9,000 and 7,000 years ago inspired many of the images; floods and tidal waves may have been conceptualised as an immense ‘Snake’ submerging much of the Aborigines’ former land. Many contemporary Aborigines in coastal regions still see ‘the Snake’ in something like this way. The Great Snake Thuwathu of the Lardil...

  19. Chapter 15 Becoming Human
    (pp. 514-534)

    Marx argued that social science could be true to itself only when based on the interests of the working class. This work has been conceived and written in an explicitly Marxist mould, and this could lead to the suggestion that I, too, have produced a model which is politically biased.

    My model suggests, however, that culture itself emerged from a comparable bias, having been based on the interests of the most reproductively burdened, materially productive sex.

    I would not accept that this makes either Marx’s or my own model politically suspect. The only ‘bias’, as far as I am concerned,...

  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 535-565)
  21. Author Index
    (pp. 566-568)
  22. Subject Index
    (pp. 569-581)