Sex at Dawn makes a well-documented case that for a million years or more, our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved with an easy-going, egalitarian, polyamorous approach to sex and relationships.
Women in these prehistoric communes were supposedly sexually liberated. A journalist interviewing the author of the book (Christopher Ryan) observes that:
your depiction of early human female sexuality is a radical departure: you depict early hunter-gatherer women as sexually bold, confident, autonomous, and novelty-seeking.
Such claims have consequences. Christopher Ryan has an agenda, which is to portray modern monogamous marriage as both unnatural and harmful. He prefers the option of polyamorous marriage, in which there would be "social monogamy" (couples staying together) but not sexual monogamy.
I'll agree with Christopher Ryan on one thing. What we now call traditional marriage is not the only arrangement that has been known throughout history. We do need to recognise this within our own understanding of anthropology.
But what about Ryan's claims of an easy-going, egalitarian hunter-gatherer prehistory in which women were sexually autonomous?
The evidence from Australia doesn't really match this. The Australian Aborigines lived a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle remote from the influence of other societies. Yet to the early European settlers relationships between Aboriginal men and women seemed relatively brutal and unequal.
Keith Windschuttle devotes seven pages of his book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, to this issue (specifically to the situation in Tasmania). I can't reproduce all of the evidence here - the following sample will have to do:
The first European observers called the men 'indolent' and 'extremely selfish' and said they treated their women like 'slaves' and 'drudges' ... In 1807, the French anthropologist Francois Peron observed twenty women deposit the results of their fishing at the feet of their men. Although the women had not eaten, the men:
immediately divided it up, without giving them any; they proceeded to group themselves behind their husbands, who were seated on the back of a large sand-bank; and there, during the remainder of the interview, these unfortunates dared neither to raise their eyes, speak, nor smile.
... there is abundant evidence of the violent nature of relations between the sexes ... In November 1830, on Swan Island ... Robinson observed the Aboriginal men forcing the women to their beds at knife-point. He wrote:
Informed that Mannerlelargenner had cut Tencotemainner with a knife because she would not stop with him. The aboriginal females came to my tent and informed me that several of the men had concealed themselves in the bush and took knives with them, and when night came they meant to cut the women. And why would they do so? Because women no marry them.
...Aboriginal women who rejected advances from amorous males put their lives in danger. Tasmanian marriage was largely monogamous but murder of women because of insult, jealousy and infidelity was common. The Big River Chief, Montpeliatter, killed a 'tall, fine young woman' because she did not like him. Out of jealousy, a man named Nappelarleyer killed 'quite a young girl' on Robbins Island 'spearing her in both her sides and in her neck.' The murderer was himself then killed by another man.
... This endemic violence left women in a state of fear during courtship, lest they offend their suitor
... the biggest single cause of internecine warfare between the Aborigines was the custom of bands raiding one another to abduct women, a practice that sometimes led to all the men on the losing side being killed. (pp. 379-382)
It seems that brute force was often used to decide matters. Perhaps you can get away with this when society is still pretty basic (small nomadic bands who survive by hunting and gathering). It would be difficult to sustain a more settled, large-scale society on this basis, though.
And using brute force to settle matters certainly seems to have given men an advantage over women. Tasmanian Aboriginal society was not, therefore, easy-going and egalitarian and nor were the Aboriginal women sexually bold, confident and autonomous.
I suspect that Christopher Ryan might have things the wrong way around. He believes that it was the lack of property in hunter gatherer societies that meant that women were not treated as sexual property. In fact, Aboriginal men in Tasmania were known to trade their women to European sealers in return for dogs.
It's more likely that it was the development of property when humans began to settle in one place and develop agriculture that led, for a time at least, to women having more sexual autonomy. I'll explain why in the next post.