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Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight

A Review by Rootsie
April 30, 2005

"...Male dominance had to be overthrown because the unending prioritizing of male short-term sexual interests could lead only to the permanence and institutionalization of behavioral conflict between the sexes, between the generations, and also between rival males. If the symbolic cultural domain was to emerge, what was needed was a political collectivity-an alliance-capable of transcending such conflicts." (514)
In Knight's view, somewhere along the line females banded together and said "no." They would have had to act in concert, for if one female said no while the next said yes, well...

Upon this "no" hinges all distinctly human development.

Knight proposes that primordial females organized 'sex strikes' which coincided with synchronized menstruation. The relationship between 'menses' and 'moon', and the identification of women as being moon and tide-driven are most ancient concepts, and appear the world over, particularly in symbolic culture and ritual. It seems natural that coastal and riverine people would come to use the moon to mark time. The mtDNA evidence shows that humans migrated about 90,000 years ago out of the lake district of Africa along the coasts all the way to southern China in a mere 10,000 years. They did not move into the interior of Asia until 40-45,000 years ago. (Oppenheimer)

In order for Knight's thesis to have any validity, there would need to be widespread evidence of female solidarity among our earliest ancestors. There is, and it is encoded in the remarkably consistent preoccupations of symbolic culture among hunter-gatherers from the most ancient times to this very day. There is indeed a world song. It is a song of blood.

Over the history of humanity and across the planet, hunter-gatherer communities share a constellation of practices, rituals, and rules which revolve around sexual morality, blood initiation, the hunt for meat, and an observance of cyclical time, most often represented by the moon.

Hunter-gatherer cultures did and do:
  • Practice menstrual avoidance
  • View sexual avoidance as necessary for success in hunting
  • Link abstinence with sexual avoidance
  • Draw a sharp distinction between raw and cooked
  • Make mythological/metaphorical connections between female blood and the blood of game animals
"Selection pressures in favor of heavier menstrual bleeding resulted in part from women's need for visible signals to help keep track of their own and one another's cycles. The use of blood in this context also meshed with a focus on blood spilled periodically by men in the hunt, an idea which ties in with the view of classical scholars that the first true 'contracts' had always to be 'signed' in blood. The result was a blood-centered symbolic system which linked game animals and the female body into a tightly integrated web of meanings which generated the stylistic characteristics and distribution of much early Upper Paleolithic art. These characteristics included periodic notation systems, the use of ochre as a blood substitute, the recurrent association of vulva engravings with those of animals, figurines which emphasize the female reproductive organs-and, more generally [what has been described as]...the art's suggestively lunar/menstrual as well as seasonal or 'time-factored' internal logic.

...Just as females collectively synchronized and extended their receptivity to motivate male provisioning, so-by the same token-they collectively refused sex whenever meat supplies were exhausted or men attempted to approach without meat...The need to signal 'no' in visually and physiologically emphatic ways would explain both the biological accentuation of menstruation and its associated symbolic negativity." (282-83)
"No meat, no sex." That is the first rule.

The dark moon in hunter-gatherer cultures is associated with menstruation,sexual abstinence, 'rawness', 'wetness', while the full moon is marked by cooking fires, male/female sexual bonding, music and dance. How could primate sex with its constant undercurrent of coercion have evolved into a joyful liberatory activity marked by feasting, drum, and dance? The obvious answer is that there was a break in the continuity of male dominance, an idea that runs counter to the assumptions of European anthropology.
"'I believe', wrote Sir Edmund Leach (1962)...that we social anthropologists are like the mediaeval Ptolemaic astronomers; we spend our time trying to fit the facts of the objective world into the framework of a set of concepts which have been developed a priori instead of from observation.'" (528 )
Europeans wanted to see male-dominance and capitalism when they looked at hunter-gatherer cultures. Claude Levi-Strauss's voluminous compilation of myths and their common motifs from across the globe actually contradicted his own insistent conclusions. His assumption was that:
"One group of males 'gave' its females to another, trusting that the recipients would reciprocate in kind. This was the quantum leap in which culture was born. Gift-giving on such a level was the ultimate in generosity, for a woman was the most precious of possible gifts. From this point on, the daughters and sisters reared in each group were valued as potential gifts, to be used by their male kin in order to make social relationships with other groups of men." (p.75)
Females are commodities. Human society is based on the exchange of said commodities. No consideration is given to the possibility that women as active agents might have something to do with the roots of human culture.

This despite the fact that the first religious symbols are fecund and even bleeding women. There is in addition the 'negative evidence', the widespread menstrual and childbirth taboos that enforce the isolation and demonization of women, the common practice in hunter-gatherer cultures of 'male menstruation', and the paranoid stories of women as oppressors who 'had the power but abused it.' Rather than looking at the content of these stories, Levi Strauss's 'structuralism' insists that the only important thing to be learned from myth is that a 'universal structure' of binary pairs can be perceived (wet/dry, raw/cooked, light/dark), and this points to some mystery of the human brain. There are even testimonies from males themselves like the one I quoted at the start which anthropologists have disrespectfully ignored. "Women's business" was in all likelihood the regulation of communal and ritual life through what Knight calls 'the sex strike.'

Levi-Strauss of course held a different view:
"So it is as periodic creatures that women are in danger of disrupting the orderly working of the universe. Their social insubordination often referred to in the myths, as an anticipation in the form of the 'reign of women' of the infinitely more serious danger of their physiological insubordination. Therefore women have to be subjected to regles. And the rules instilled into them by their upbringing, like those imposed on them, even at the cost of their subjection, by a social order willed and evolved by men, are the pledge and symbol of other 'rules', the physiological nature of which bears witness to the correspondence between social and cosmic rhythms." (quoted in Knight, 511)
Levi-Strauss assumed that the first rules arose from the male attempt to rein in the 'disruptive' tendencies of women, that the move towards human culture had to be a move away from 'ungovernable nature,' embodied by females. It really has to be asked what would suddenly cause males to master their impulses and become inspired to give their females away in hopes of future reciprocity from other males. Is it the deep-seated human capitalistic instinct, the urge to commodities-trading and speculation? And what would explain the "own-kill" rule?
"When sex is used not just reproductively but politically-as a way of negotiating one's way through a conflict-ridden political landscape, or as a way of acquiring privileges or food-then this results in selection pressures placing sex increasingly under cortical rather than hormonal control." (532)
This is, in a nutshell, the 'human revolution.' Certainly, it is not males who would have to organize themselves to acquire privilege and food.
"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 to abide by it, and since men's rewards for compliance appear to have been overwhelmingly marital and sexual- avoiding one's own kill must in some sense have been motivated and established by women." (124)
The own-kill rule points to a very profound concept which to this day regulates economic life in all hunter-gatherer traditions. One's own flesh, meat, blood, are associated with one's self, one's essence. Your self does not exist for you. "It is for others to enjoy." (108 ) In the vastly later development of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as in widespread mystical traditions, the problem of the ego, or personal self, is seen as the primary stumbling block to spiritual development. It is interesting that, among those who are perceived as the most 'primitive' and 'backwards' among us, the same issue was recognized and so realistically reconciled, woven into the fabric of daily life and conduct rather than being left to a few eccentric 'mystics.'


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