The Origins of Human Society

This essay summarises the main thesis of the author’s book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (Yale University Press, 1991).

Every educated person since Darwin has labelled himself an ‘evolutionist’. But a real evolutionist must apply the idea of evolution to his own forms of thinking. Elementary logic, founded in the period when the idea of evolution did not yet exist, is evidently insufficient for the analysis of evolutionary processes. Hegel’s logic is the logic of evolution. Only one must not forget that the concept of ‘evolution’ itself has been completely corrupted and emasculated by university professors and liberal writers to mean peaceful ‘progress’. Whoever has come to understand that evolution proceeds through the struggle of antagonistic forces; that a slow accumulation of changes at a certain moment explodes the old shell and brings about a catastrophe, revolution; whoever has learned finally to apply the general laws of evolution to thinking itself, he is a dialectician, as distinguished from vulgar evolutionists.

Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism

Until the 1980s, ideas about human origins were for the most part gradualist. It was believed that a recognisably human lifestyle began emerging some two to three million years ago, in a drawn-out evolutionary process linked with the establishment of bipedalism and tool-making. According to this way of thinking, speech co-evolved with the making of simple stone tools, becoming increasingly complex as technology evolved. Art, ritual, the organisation of kinship and other aspects of culture became more complex in the same gradualistic, piecemeal way.

Such gradualism, although still defended, has recently become a minority position. It is nowadays widely acknowledged that those archaeologists who excavated early hominid sites in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and saw the beginnings of “home bases”, “language” and “a sexual division of labour” among these bipedal toolmakers were projecting assumptions and stereotypes derived from modern culture onto the distant past.

Over the past two decades, there has been a revolution in archaeology and palaeontology, leading to the view that the earliest tool-makers, while more intelligent than apes, were involved in essentially primate-style social and reproductive relationships. Admittedly, humans were co-operatively hunting large game animals by at least 500,000 years ago. But archaeologists have found no evidence for art, ritual or other “symbolic” behaviour at such early dates. Most archaeologists are now agreed that even large-brained humans such as the Neanderthals were not leading a recognisably human or “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle. The dominant view is that anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa around 130,000 years ago and then, some 60,000 years later, rather suddenly spread across the world in an explosive process known as the “human revolution”. It was during the earliest stages of this revolutionary process that symbolic art, ritual and language emerged.

Apart from one or two isolated possible art-objects, the earliest evidence for art has been found in sub-Saharan Africa, dated to around 130,000 years ago. The evidence is indirect: we don’t have the actual patterns or pictures. What we can examine are the crayons arguably used by the artists. Shaped rather like sticks of lipstick, these are brilliant red, being made of carefully selected ochres. From their shape and in the light of ethnographic parallels, it seems that they were used not for painting on rock surfaces but for body-painting.


Along with the crayons comes evidence that the same populations were mining and grinding ochre in considerable quantities, using it for a variety of decorative purposes. It seems that people were painting one another not just haphazardly but on set ritual occasions, in accordance with a predetermined schedule. Support for this interpretation comes from fragmentary notched bones, closely resembling less damaged, more recent “calendar sticks” from the same region as well as from other parts of Africa and from Europe. Archaeologist Alexander Marshack has interpreted the arrangements of notches—often numbering 28 or 29—as calendrical notations facilitating the tracking of days, years and especially moons. In Upper Palaeolithic traditions, there is a suggestion that the days around dark moon were especially important, the corresponding notches being heavily marked.

How are we to interpret all this? I have developed a model of social and sexual revolution which would predict findings such as these. I have gone beyond generalities concerning a “human revolution” and attempted to work out the details. Some may question whether this is possible in relation to events so far back in time. My point is that the key events occurred recently enough to have left a trace. Europe was populated by Neanderthals until a mere 40,000 years ago. If geologists can piece together the history of life on earth, and if astronomers can reconstruct the creation of the universe, can we not apply comparable principles and methods to the study of our own cultural past? Prehistory is not cut off from the present—it lives on in things which are observable today. In my book I focus on recurrent structures of hunter-gatherer myth, kinship and ritual. Like red shifts, fossils or tree-rings, I believe that these patterns are in principle information-rich. The challenge is to find ways of extracting that information.

Figure 1: Rock painting from Fulton's Cave, Giant's Rock, Lesotho
Southern San rock painting. Fulton’s Rock, Drackensberg Mountains, Natal (redrawn after Lewis-Williams, 1981). According to David Lewis-Williams, the central figure is a young enrobed woman undergoing her first menstruation ceremony in a special shelter. Circling her are clapping women, female dancers and (in the outer ring) men with their hunting equipment. Two figures hold sticks; the women bend over and display ‘tails’ as they imitate the mating behaviour of elands. Among living San, such rituals are intimately connected with success in hunting. Note that each male figure has a bar across his penis. This is probably the artist’s way of marking the marital abstinence associated with menstruation and valued as a condition of hunting luck.

We are fortunate in that the very region in which anatomically modern humans evolved includes the former range within sub-Saharan Africa of the Khoisan peoples, among whom ritual traditions have been preserved with exceptional fidelity. The Khoisan, often known as “Bushman” peoples, have continued to body-paint with red ochre up until the present. Among the greatest of their ceremonies is the “Eland Bull Dance”, performed to celebrate a young woman’s first menstruation. The ritual, timed by reference to the changing phases of the moon, is staged mainly by women, perhaps with help from a few older men; they dance in circles around the girl, who is secluded in a specially made hut. Paradoxically, the girl is now constructed as “male”, and said to be of an animal species—typically, she is the “Eland Bull”. Around her, the dancing women act out the mating behaviour of eland cows, pretending to copulate with the “Eland Bull” inside the hut. Like riotous, orgiastic carnivals everywhere, this dance is simultaneously sacred and hilarious, the performers frequently collapsing in laughter. The dance is these peoples’ major ritual, being regarded as essential to fertility and success in the hunt. An important point is that while “animal sex” is being acted out, ordinary human sexual intercourse is temporarily suspended.

During the celebrations, the menstrual flow of the secluded young woman is conceptualised as “bull’s blood”. The ochre body-paint used by the dancers is the same blood. Unity in such shared blood can be conceptualised as a form of “communion”. The flowing of “animal” blood which is simultaneously “human” finds expression in religious rituals the world over, an example being the divine sacrifice central to Christianity. Like members of ritual congregations everywhere, Khoisan women periodically assert that “some things are sacred”. To be precise, they declare themselves to be sacred whenever their “bull’s blood” is flowing. In my book, I have used the metaphor of “action on the picket-line” to explain how, back in the evolutionary past, rituals of this kind first arose.

Background to Revolution

A revolution does not happen unless there are forces resisting it. What could these have been? For certain academic Marxists, merely to ask such questions seems disturbing. There cannot have been a class struggle in this period, long before the emergence of classes. So how could there have been social conflicts intensifying to the point of culmination in revolutionary change?

The answer was hit upon long ago by Frederick Engels. Writing in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels argued that the dynamic driving the emergence of human morality and solidarity must have been sexual. Since his own words have been so comprehensively ignored, it is worth quoting Engels at length on this. Noting that in “animal societies”, wider forms of solidarity are recurrently undermined by male sexual possessiveness and jealous rivalry, Engels comments:

From this it becomes apparent that animal societies have, to be sure, a certain value in drawing conclusions regarding human societies—but only in a negative sense. As far as we have ascertained, the higher vertebrates know only two forms of the family: polygamy or the single pair. In both cases only one adult male, only one husband is permissible. The jealousy of the male, representing both tie and limits of the family, brings the animal family into conflict with the horde. The horde, the higher social form, is rendered impossible here, loosened there, or dissolved altogether during the mating season; at best, its continued development is hindered by the jealousy of the male. This alone suffices to prove that the animal family and primitive human society are incompatible things; that primitive man, working his way up out of the animal stage, either knew no family whatsoever, or at the most knew a family that is nonexistent among animals. So weaponless an animal as the creature that was becoming man could survive in small numbers also in isolation, with the single pair as the highest form of gregariousness, as is ascribed by Westermarck to the gorilla and chimpanzee on the basis of hunters’ reports. For evolution out of the animal stage, for the accomplishment of the greatest advance known to nature, an additional element was needed: the replacement of the individual’s inadequate power of defence by the united strength and joint effort of the horde. The transition to the human stage out of conditions such as those under which the anthropoid apes live today would be absolutely inexplicable. These apes rather give the impression of being stray sidelines gradually approaching extinction, and, at any rate, in process of decline. This alone is sufficient reason for rejecting all conclusions that are based on parallels drawn between their family forms and those of primitive man. Mutual toleration among the adult males, freedom from jealousy, was, however, the first condition for the building of those large and enduring groups in the midst of which alone the transition from animal to man could be achieved. And indeed, what do we find as the oldest, most primitive form of the family, of which undeniable evidence can be found in history, and which even today can be studied here and there? Group marriage, the form in which whole groups of men and whole groups of women belong to one another, and which leaves but little scope for jealousy.

For Engels, then, there are no parallels or continuities linking early human life with primate sexual politics. Rather, the relationship is one of negation and contradiction. Engels, like Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, was a dialectician, not a vulgar evolutionist. This has been forgotten by academic anthropologists as well as by Marxists for most of this century.

Following Engels, my book argues that genuinely human social relations could have been established only as primate-style male dominance and sexual monopolisation of females was resisted and eventually overthrown. The privatising strategies of males had to be curbed and transcended. The reproductive forces had to be emancipated—brought under collective self-ownership and control. This was eventually achieved, in a momentous process of revolutionary change leading to what Engels termed the “primacy” of fully human, fully cultural women in the “communistic household”.

In highlighting the contrast between genuinely human social life and the lifestyle of apes or of our precultural ape-like ancestors, Engels quotes the missionary Arthur Wright’s description of a communistically organised Iroquois (Native American) longhouse. Engels’ aim is to show how women, by living together and supporting one another, could exercise power in relation to their sexual partners:

Usually, the female portion ruled the house…. The stores were held in common; but woe to the luckless husband or lover who was too shiftless to do his share of the providing. No matter how many children, or whatever goods he might have in the house, he might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge; and after such orders it would not be healthful for him to attempt to disobey. The house would be too hot for him and… he must retreat to his own clan….

Women’s power, in this account, was based on their solidarity, enabling them to rupture their marital relations when this seemed necessary. This is the essence of sex-strike theory. The earliest culturally organised women were no-one’s private property. Even when married, they had sufficient autonomy to enable them to say “No”, rupturing the sexual bond.

It is important to understand the difference between a scientific theory and a description. A scientific theory is not an attempt to make a plausible story out of the known “facts”. Rather, a good theory, when it first hits the streets, seems bizarre and perhaps even crazy. It has little to do with “the facts” as previously understood. This is because the facts it relies on go well beyond the narrow range of familiar ones which have been selected for special attention by the older theories and debated again and again. When a scientific revolution occurs, “the facts” now brought centre-stage are those which previously seemed anomalous. Often, they come from disciplines earlier supposed to be unconnected. “The facts” as a whole are now reconstructed out of the novel theory, having been ignored previously or considered irrelevant because they didn’t fit. Regardless of whether it is correct or not, the “sex-strike” theory of human cultural origins is a model of this kind. It is not a description of facts generally known, but instead a surprising theory which, if true, would change the way we look at the whole of human history.

The theory was first outlined in my book, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, published in 1991. Some of it was wrong—particularly many details about dates and places, which are forever changing as new discoveries are made. In some respects, the theory itself was more fundamentally wrong, most notably in those passages where I discussed the biology of menstruation and its significance as a signal. In my book, I pictured menstrual bleeding as a biological “no”-signal; I now realise that this was a mistake, and that on Darwinian grounds we would expect menstruating females (as opposed to pregnant or breast-feeding ones) to be especially attractive to philandering males driven to maximise the number of females they can get pregnant. In view of all this, the theory has had to be substantially modified and improved; for this I am particularly grateful to my colleagues Ian Watts and Camilla Power of University College London. What follows is an abbreviated outline of our theory in its present form.

The Human Revolution

Symbolic culture was established as brain size maximised during the later stages of human evolution, from around 400,000 to 100,000 years ago. The contradictions which led to revolutionary transformation can be traced ultimately to the fact that complex learning depends on large brains; these need time to develop. Besides involving an unusual degree of infant helplessness following birth, such brains also need a prolonged childhood in which sufficient learning can take place. The evolution of large-brained Homo sapiens therefore brought with it dramatically intensified childcare burdens. If these were not to defeat the mothers who were primarily responsible, it was vital for evolving females to ensure that the opposite sex contributed more support than had ever been contributed by male primates, including hominids, before.

Unlike most other mammals including primates, the human female has evolved to resist the philandering strategies of dominant males. A successful male philanderer needs to “save time” on fertile sex with any one female, getting his timing right. In the human case, the moment of ovulation is concealed; a male cannot tell which is the correct time. However, in any group of a dozen females living in conditions of natural (that is, non-contraceptive) fertility, around three are likely to be cycling, signalling this by menstruating.

Sexual bonding with a cycling female, unlike sex with a pregnant or nursing mother, can result in a pregnancy. For this reason, a Darwinian would predict that philandering males would target cycling females, as opposed to pregnant or nursing ones. However, the same Darwinian theory would predict female coalitionary resistance to such philandering. Once a female is pregnant, she needs support, and especially provisioning support. We would expect her to resist male attempts to abandon her in favour of some cycling female in the vicinity. In fact, we would expect mothers to “gang up” to prevent the privatisation of menstruating (imminently fertilisable) females. Mothers, sisters and also male relatives should logically surround such females, bonding closely with them from the moment of menstruation onwards. Whenever one woman was menstruating, we would expect all the other women in the neighbourhood to join with her, displaying the same visible signal at the same time. This would amount to a simple form of “ritual” involving community-wide body-painting with blood or blood-substitutes on occasions when menstrual blood was flowing. Males attempting to privatise selected menstruating females would now be prevented from doing so. Using shared blood to indicate their unity and solidarity, women would resist male attempts to pick and choose between them.

Rock-engravings from Pilbara, Australia. Age uncertain but probably recent. Top: Upper Yule River. Figures dancing, with vaginal flows. Bottom: Cape Lambert. One of many Pilbara scenes of figures linked by genital streams. Here, both figures may be female and the stream conjoining them a shared menstrual flow (redrawn after Wright, 1968).
Rock-engravings from Pilbara, Australia. Age uncertain but probably recent. Top: Upper Yule River. Figures dancing, with vaginal flows. Bottom: Cape Lambert. One of many Pilbara scenes of figures linked by genital streams. Here, both figures may be female and the stream conjoining them a shared menstrual flow (redrawn after Wright, 1968).

Females were now in a position to put such blood-symbolised solidarity to good economic use. To appreciate the contrast with primate behaviour, it is worth recalling that when a male chimp has hunted and caught a prey animal, a female will often approach him and—if she is in oestrus—present her swollen hindquarters. If the male is interested, the female may obtain a share of his meat, which she will begin eating on the spot, perhaps while copulation is still proceeding. Naturally, if a second female arrives at the kill-site, she will be in competition with the first for the male’s favours. This strategy, which recalls “prostitution”, generates inter-female rivalry rather than solidarity; it also prompts males to compete against one another in using meat to entice females to approach for sex. Females who are pregnant or burdened with young dependents are left out in such a system: being relatively immobilised and also less attractive to males, they are not in a position to solicit meat in this way.

By contrast, once they had established their menstrual rituals, human females were in a position to begin transcending the logic of prostitution, replacing it with the beginnings of sexual morality—that is, collective determination of “right” and “wrong” in matters of sex. The strategy of bonding with menstruating females meant shielding such females, keeping males away from them. In effect, it meant forming a “picket line” around them. Whenever blood was flowing, it was as if all the females in each coalition were simultaneously menstruating and jointly signalling “no” to males. The result was that instead of chasing after meat-possessing males, females could begin making the meat come to them. The trick was in essence quite simple. Whenever blood was flowing, females signalled “No!”, sustaining such “strike” action until their sexual partners had made themselves useful by collectively going hunting and bringing back the meat. Any would-be dominant male who tried to obtain sex anyway, regardless of his efforts in the hunt, met with a wall of collective hostility, generated by the logic of the situation.

It was in this way that the figure of the dominant male philanderer was decisively overthrown and an egalitarian social and sexual order was established. As against male attempts at privatisation, females had now secured social ownership of their own reproductive organs, social control over their own bodies. The economic benefits were immense. From now on, mothers had no need to travel endlessly from site to site within a restricted range. No longer did they have to disperse in order to forage in small groups, each abandoning camp within a day or two once local resources had been exhausted. Many of the heaviest burdens of travelling and foraging had now been transferred to the opposite sex. With males now motivated to hunt over a wide range, mothers could rest more and co-operate more effectively in larger domestic units. Since well-provisioned camps could now be occupied for perhaps weeks or even months on end, it was worth investing time and energy in their construction—erecting shelters or complex dwellings, perhaps with elaborate, structured hearths. In the archaeological record, one of the most characteristic signatures of the “human revolution” is in fact just this—the novel appearance of well-defined base camps occupied continuously and ringed by far-flung specialised temporary activity sites such as quarries, butchery sites or hunting blinds.

Predictions of Sex-Strike Theory

To test the sex-strike theory of cultural origins, it is first necessary to elaborate its predictions. Females signalling ‘no sex’ to males would be expected to mobilise male kin (sons and brothers) in self-defence against any threat of rape or harrassment. Faced with outgroup male resistance, females should also augment any publicly displayed menstrual blood (real or cosmetic) with bodily displays of their inappropriateness as sexual partners for human males. Since courtship ‘ritual’ in the animal world involves signalling ‘right species/ right sex/ right (fertile) time’, we would expect systematic reversal of these signals as the signature of sex-strike. Females should therefore signal ‘wrong species/ wrong sex/ wrong time’. We would expect culture’s primacy over nature to be asserted through such reality-defying ritual ‘metamorphosis’.

It need hardly be stressed that for human females within coalitions to signal that they are in fact males, of a non-human species and all simultaneously menstruating will be a fantasy not easy to convey. To overcome listener-resistance, such signalling will therefore be amplified rather than “whispered”. Getting the message across will involve effort, repetition and explicit body-language or pantomime. Women will pretend to be what they are not—namely males, and animals. In our view, the construction of such “collective representations” involved asserting the potency of the first “gods”.

We must now ask: How could sex-striking females prevent males from secretly eating their own kills out in the bush? Drawing on the signalling configuration already in place to prevent such cheating, women could exploit the natural fact that hunted game animals visibly bleed. This would have been difficult without a previous history of ‘symbolic’ menstruation, establishing that red colorants of one kind could substitute for colorants of another. But given such a tradition, the blood of the hunt as a public, communal construct would have signalled ‘menstrual blood’, the symbolism of this prompting the same avoidance. In hunter-gatherer cultures to this day, women’s blood is recurrently considered to be mystically linked with the blood of game animals.

Women could benefit economically from blood taboos only if, with the hunt’s success, they could now remove visible blood from raw meat. Being focused around campsites, women were the most reliable custodians of cooking fire. With such fire under domestic control, women had an important resource complementing the efficacy of blood taboos. Men who had just killed a game animal were inhibited by the blood from eating it. To remove its ‘rawness’, they had to bring the meat home to be ‘cooked’—whereupon it passed into female hands. Given such arrangements, cheating by hunters should have been minimised, reliable provisioning permitting the formation of relatively large and stable residential groups.

To prevent highly mobile males from sexual cheating (pretending to go hunting while really looking for sex), we would expect females to maintain synchrony not just locally but across the landscape. Each strike, in other words, would have had to be a general one, implying phase-locking to a universally accessible external natural clock. The only clock of appropriate periodicity is the moon. This compounds the statistical ‘improbability’ of the sex-strike model, making it easier to test. The whole system can only work if collective hunting is a periodic work/rest activity governed by a monthly on/off rhythm, with the proceeds of each large, ceremonially prepared ‘special’ hunt augmented during the rest of the month with food from less organised kinds of foraging/scavenging.

Lunar time is most simply structured through bisection, yielding a waxing and a waning half of each month. A strike is an all-or-nothing event, either ‘off’ or ‘on’, giving two possibilities: ‘on’ during waning moon while ‘off’ during waxing, or vice versa. Action during waning moon would schedule the climax of hunting, butchering and transportation within the darkest portion of each month. Since this would limit the effective day length available to complete these activities, we predict the reverse polarity—strike action during waxing moon, climaxing with the return of the hunt by or around full moon. As ‘on’ switches to ‘off’ at this point, fires are lit, meat is cooked and marital relations resumed. Ritual signals cross-culturally should reflect this binary on/off logic, ‘on’ coinciding with crescent moon, ‘off’ with the moon’s waning.

A model Ice Age hunting community’s ritually structured schedule of work and rest. In addition to daily, seasonal, and other periodicities, life normatively alternates to a fortnightly rhythm, switching between a ‘production’ phase of ritual power (initiated by menstrual onset, continued into hunting, butchery etc. and terminated as raw meat is transformed into cooked) and a corresponding ‘consumption’ phase of surrender or relaxation (beginning with feasting and celebratory love-making, terminated as meat supplies run low and the next menstrual onset approaches). The thick black line signifies the dominance of blood-relations whilst blood of any kind is flowing. The switch to white at full moon connotes cooking fire’s lifting of the taboos associated with ‘rawness’ or visible blood, allowing feasting to proceed and marital partners to conjoin.
A model Ice Age hunting community’s ritually structured schedule of work and rest. In addition to daily, seasonal, and other periodicities, life normatively alternates to a fortnightly rhythm, switching between a ‘production’ phase of ritual power (initiated by menstrual onset, continued into hunting, butchery etc. and terminated as raw meat is transformed into cooked) and a corresponding ‘consumption’ phase of surrender or relaxation (beginning with feasting and celebratory love-making, terminated as meat supplies run low and the next menstrual onset approaches). The thick black line signifies the dominance of blood-relations whilst blood of any kind is flowing. The switch to white at full moon connotes cooking fire’s lifting of the taboos associated with ‘rawness’ or visible blood, allowing feasting to proceed and marital partners to conjoin.

Sex-strike theory in this way specifies mythico-ritual time as basically lunar; it also predicts periodic female inviolability as a discernible focus of early hunter-gatherer ritual traditions. Ritual potency more generally is predicted to display everywhere a characteristic signature, revealing its ancestry in menstrual inviolability. Power should be switched ‘on’ by one set of mutually interchangeable signals, ‘off’ by another:

Loud signals Weak signals
Waxing moon Waning moon
Seclusion Availability
‘Other world’ ‘This world’
Night Day
Wet Dry
Bleeding/raw Cooking/cooked
Hunger/being eaten Feasting
Flesh taboo Flesh available
Production Consumption
Kinship Marriage
Gender inversion Heterosexual sex
Animality Humanity

This is a tight set of constraints. It means, for example, that a menstruant (‘on’) may amplify ‘blood’ by signalling ‘hunger’, ‘kinship intimacy’, ‘gender inversion’ and/or ‘animality’ (all ‘on’). But she cannot enhance her potency by being seen in bright light, on dry ground, with her marital partner or by a cooking fire (all ‘off’). From one culture to another, political factors will naturally alter ideological meanings, that is, the positive or negative valuation of terms. Menstruation, for example, may appear as ‘supernatural potency’ or as ‘pollution’ according to women’s political status. But through all such variation, we expect ritual traditions relentlessly to define menstrual potency as incompatible with feasting, strong light, cooking or any other signal from the ‘off’ column. We term such formal consistency—unchanging across all cultures and all historical periods—the time-resistant syntax of symbolic ritual and myth.

We now have a testable model of the origins of symbolic culture. Find a single myth, ritual or system of religion from any part of the world which violates any of the above predictions, and the model falls. A culture which said that women should cook meat while they were menstruating would confront us with a problem: it should never happen. Likewise, we don’t expect anyone to believe that meat cooks well while loud noises are being made: noise, being linked with blood, should be bad for cooking. These are very precise predictions, albeit unfamiliar and seemingly bizarre. At the time of writing, this theory is becoming widely known and debated. Criticisms have been made, but no-one has been able to come up with evidence contrary to the model’s predictions. In fact, the evidence has been accumulating that the theory is right. Should this be confirmed, it would allow socialists to reiterate in a new way what many of us have suspected all along—that the picket line is the source of all human morality and culture.

Origins of the Sacred

A strike transcends the identity of those involved in it. Insofar as a sex strike can extend indefinitely—being as omnipresent as menstrual synchrony or the moon’s light—then in embodying this power, each woman stands for something transcendental. She stands for her sisters, who may be potentially limitless in number. And if men respect this power, then although they need acknowledge no divinity, there is present here at least something of the formal structure of religious deference to “higher beings”.

Let us re-examine the characteristics of these women. What powers do they really possess? And in what respects do these powers resemble or differ from those which, in more developed, complex social systems, will become thought of as those of “the gods”?

These women cannot magically strike men dead—but they can certainly exclude them from sex. To that extent, men can be rendered impotent at a stroke. No prayers are offered to these women, but men do strive to please and to be included when the time for love-making arrives. No-one offers them bloody animal sacrifices—but men do hunt and bring back game. While these women may not literally live in the sky or in the underworld, it is nonetheless true that when menstruating, they are in a world “set apart”. They may not literally be half-animal, half-human. But they dance as if they were animals, identifying their menstrual blood with the blood of the hunt. These women are not immortal—they do not die and then resurrect themselves, nor undergo reincarnation, nor flit between heaven and earth. But their strike is periodically renewed, as is their life-blood which flows from generation to generation. Moreover, in menstruating they do seem to accompany the moon to its own temporary death, moving into another realm from which they later return. Admittedly, these women are ordinary human beings. They are subject to gravity and to the other ordinary laws of physics. They cannot levitate, nor fly magically through the night, nor be in two places at once, nor have eyes which probe into all corners simultaneously. Yet during each menstrual ritual these women’s potency is indeed that of their strike—which, like any strike, does make its presence felt everywhere at once, transcending space, as if possessed of a thousand ears and eyes.

Dance and trance in San rock-art. Manemba, near Mutoko, Zimbabwe (redrawn after Garlake, 1978). Dance with apparently menstrual and perhaps lunar connotations. The distended stomachs indicate ritual potency, corresponding with the !Kung San notion of n/um. The figure releasing a flow may once have held a crescent-shaped ornament like that of her companion, but this area has now exfoliated.
Dance and trance in San rock-art. Manemba, near Mutoko, Zimbabwe (redrawn after Garlake, 1978). Dance with apparently menstrual and perhaps lunar connotations. The distended stomachs indicate ritual potency, corresponding with the !Kung San notion of n/um. The figure releasing a flow may once have held a crescent-shaped ornament like that of her companion, but this area has now exfoliated.

There is much, then, that is “goddess-like” about the menstrual sex-strike. Admittedly, to use such language is to apply a later cultural category—that of developed religious ideology—to a situation in which it is not yet applicable. It can be conceded that to begin with, there are no shamans, no priestesses, no temples. The social world is not divided into mortals and immortals, nor are humans divided into lay people and those who are “set apart”. Unlike in developed religions, there are no specialists in the sacred life: all humans are involved in the solidarity of the sacred community during one phase of the lunar cycle, and then released from it in the next. All take turns in being “set apart” and reunited, in “the other world” and in this. If there are priests and priestesses, everyone is such—at least for a part of each month. If there are goddesses and gods, everyone can at the appropriate time participate in their identity and power—which is no more than the “sacred” strength and solidarity of human beings themselves. Each of these points of contrast is significant, and each underlines why it would be confusing to speak of “religion” as present already when symbolic culture first emerged. But it would be an over-simplification to state simply that sex-strike theory has no room for religion—that humans initially acknowledged no transcendental power. What we can say is that men and women initially respected no power other than the moon-linked, blood-washed, periodically-asserted sanctity and inviolability of menstruating women linked in solidarity with one another and with their offspring. This gives us a springboard from which the world’s religious and magical traditions can be derived.

Myths and Fairy Tales

In all the world’s magical myths and fairy tales, the culture-generating picket-line can be discerned as the central motif, albeit coded in a variety of ways. The stories tell of “death” followed by “rebirth”. The “death” in question is of a special, magical kind, interpretable as the taking of strike action while menstrual blood is flowing.

In addition to explaining “death” and “rebirth”, sex strike theory allows us to account parsimoniously for the remaining themes and motifs central to magical myths and fairy tales the world over. Among the best-known are the following:

  1. Marriage to animal brides or bridegrooms;
  2. Metamorphosis or “skin-change”;
  3. Dragon-slaying;
  4. The stealing of ritual power from ancestral women;
  5. The stealing of ritual power from monsters, giants or dragons.

In male initiation rites—which have often been described as rituals of “male menstruation” —men violate women’s menstrual space, take over their sex strike and “steal” from women the symbolic potencies associated with their blood. Dragon-slaying myths mirror the same theme. That is, the “dragons”, “giants” or “monsters” which mythological culture-heroes slay and from whom they steal their power are code-terms for the “many-headed” menstrual sex strike which men succeed in vanquishing. The myths exactly mirror the rituals. This explains why dragon-legends are so bound up with themes of fire and blood, birth and rebirth, marriage and threats to marriage, masculine sexual potency and the origins of male ritual power.

In other words, although women’s sex-strike can be viewed positively—as a manifestation of “goddess-power” (the relevant goddesses usually being associated with snakes)—it can also be viewed negatively. Under such circumstances, it takes the form of many-headed monsters, giants, ogres, gorgons and so forth. The sex-strike’s dependence on menstrual bleeding then appears as the monster’s thirst for “blood”. Its incorporation of women and children into its own sphere of blood-solidarity becomes the monster’s “swallowing” of its helpless victims. Entry into the sex-strike and subsequent emergence from it becomes coded as “death” which is followed by “rebirth”. “Wrong species” pantomime, linking menstrual blood to the blood of game animals, becomes coded as “marriage” to an animal bride or groom. Emergence from the sex strike, followed by marital love-making, then becomes coded as the “animal bride’s” slaughter or loss of power—or, sometimes, as its sudden skin-change or metamorphosis. In such stories, as the spell is broken, the loathsome “frog” or “beast” or “monster” to whom a young woman has been wedded is at last revealed as a handsome prince.

In many stories, the most fearsome of all the monsters is a many-headed, blood-red, coiling, woman-loving “snake” or “dragon”. Continuous, undulating, flowing like a stream, all-swallowing, death-dealing and, finally, skin-changing and death-defying, this monster is a paradoxical creature. Like the moon as it waxes and wanes, it is a unity of opposites—arguably the oldest symbol of world-changing revolutionary potency and dialectical unity to have been preserved. It lives in deep waters, yet travels through the sky. It is the lowest of creatures, yet darkens the heavens with its immense wings. It is reptilian in form, yet lusts after human brides. It is of uncertain gender—sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes both at once. It demands periodic sacrificial tribute in the form of animals or marriageable virgins. When angered, it sends floods, spits lightning and blasts or devours whole communities. It is cyclical, coiling around its victims. It may have many heads—perhaps seven, a hundred or a thousand. It guards an immense treasure—gold, silver, the moon, a magical spring, a beautiful princess. It withholds this treasure from men until it is slain. But it is ultimately impossible to kill—it has numerous “heads” or “lives”, or it keeps resurrecting itself, or it joins together its severed parts. It is linked (especially in eastern traditions) with weather-change, and particularly with storms and thunder. It represents the “dark” forces, as opposed to those of “light”. It is the enemy of romantic love, carrying off virgins to the world beyond.

Cyclicity, alternation between opposite phases or states, periodic emergence from a watery abode—such are obvious characteristics of the menstrual stream. A snake’s claimed ability to escape death by changing its skins is linked in primitive cosmologies with menstrual “skin-changing” as an indicator of womankind’s fertility and child-bearing “immortality”. The dragon’s many heads, its immense size and its winged, serpentine form nicely capture the essence of any flying picket. Its uncertain gender matches the fact that women are anything but “feminine” when on strike; for the duration of the action, sexual distinctions are transcended in the union of all blood-kin, whether male or female. The dragon’s association with eclipses reflects the normative dark-moon moment for menstruation to occur. The accompanying storms, thunder and floods speak of women’s bloody repudiation of marital relations at this time. The demand for tribute echoes the basic point of going on strike—which is to secure tribute from men in the form of game animals. The periodic seizure of maidens followed by their withdrawal from marriage needs no special explanation. To all this, it should be added that even when claimed to be dead, the world-dragon should still be feared. It may be merely sleeping, its coils embracing the globe, vengefully biding its time. According to one rumour, it is not extinct but awaiting the Millennium—whereupon it will stir with the force of an earthquake to reclaim its legacy.

In The Sleeping Beauty, the picket line takes a slightly different form. In place of a dragon coiled around a princess, we encounter a thorny hedge which performs the same function. The decisive action is triggered as Beauty reaches puberty, whereupon she “pricks her finger”. As her magical blood flows, she “falls asleep”. Thorns grow up around the whole palace and its grounds, encircling and secluding Beauty for a hundred years. All within the kingdom fall under the same spell; it is as if time itself stood still. Within the palace grounds, every gardener, footman, cook, scullery boy and stableman is, like the princess, on strike. Ardent young men attempting to penetrate through the barrier of thorns fall victim to the same witches’ “curse”. Impaled on the spikes, their pallid bodies serve as a lesson to others: Never cross a picket line! Only at the turn of the century is the action called off, whereupon the thorns turn to fragrant flowers and the hedge spontaneously parts, revealing a wide path. At this moment, young men are at last allowed through. Stepping over the sleeping palace staff, the first lucky suitor makes it to the princess. He kisses her on the lips, awakening her. As she rubs her eyes, her parents and the entire population wake up at the same time. There are joyful celebrations—and, throughout the kingdom, normal duties including marital relations are at last resumed. They all lived happily ever after.

This tale, then, like its numberless counterparts, is information-rich. Properly decoded, it tells us about the origins of culture. Whenever menstrual blood was flowing, women went “on strike”, obtaining backing from their male kin and remaining on strike until their demands had been met. In my book, I show how even to this day, all collective hunting among hunter-gatherers has to be preceded by a period of ritual celibacy which it is women’s duty to enforce.

Conclusion: The World’s First Picket-Line

The central message of anthropology, interpreted in this way, is that music, dance, art, religion and indeed all symbolic culture was born on the picket line. Mobilised through body-painting, dance and song, solidarity in strike action enhanced men’s and women’s consciousness, as if making them more intelligent. Action on the picket line produced new forms of intimacy, bringing the participants’ cycles into synchrony, enabling women to experience their body-clocks as a source of collective strength. “Females” became “women” when, supported by their sons and brothers, they established their own pride, their own dignity, their own power. Signalling defiance in their own shared blood, they asserted the principle, central to all the world’s religions, that some things are sacred. But this was not religion as it is known in class societies. Instead of being communicated via a priesthood, divinity was first established by ordinary women, backed by their male kin. “God” was the potency of the culture-generating strike—the inviolability and transcendental force of the world’s first picket-line.

A possible problem for Marxists is that neither Karl Marx nor Frederick Engels said that all culture was born on the picket line. This is true. Having said that, it is remarkable how much of the theory was anticipated by the founders of Marxism over a century ago. Sex-strike theory locates the origins of culture in the emergence of labour. It says that without strike action, there was no labour in the human cultural sense. Using a stick to fetch berries into one’s mouth is not labour. Eating berries is consumption—not production. Production of food means that others are doing the eating—there has to be circulation and exchange. Suppose there was a primitive “society” in which males went out hunting but ate the meat selfishly out in the bush, leaving females and their dependents to fend for themselves. No matter how complicated the hunting weapons used, this would still be “consumption”, not production. An implication of sex-strike theory is that weapon-use became “labour” only at that point when collective “sex-strike” action took effect. It was this which ensured that the meat obtained through hunting was rendered “taboo” to the hunters themselves, entering into a system of circulation and exchange.

In the course of cultural origins, the rule against rape was to a genuinely human lifestyle what the inviolability of the picket-line is to revolutionary communism. It was the first cultural rule, the one to be established at all costs, and the foundation on which all other rules were to be built.

I make no apology for drawing on the findings of “selfish gene” Darwinism in order to arrive at such conclusions. Marx did the same thing in his own time: he took classical political economic theory—which was clearly being used to justify the existing system of class oppression—and instead of ignoring it, looked into its internal contradictions. He was able to make revolutionary use of it. Modern Darwinism looks at human sociality in the pre-cultural period and sees parallels everywhere with bourgeois economics. It is powerful precisely because of this—because it claims to show that the predatory and competitive realities of contemporary capitalist society are rooted in “nature”.

My view is that behaviour motivated by the requirements of “selfish” genes really is what drives Darwinian evolution. There is no point in denying that. The important thing is that our species became human by transcending that logic of nature. The chief value of the study of human origins, from this perspective, is that it enables us to challenge that popular prejudice according to which revolution is futile because “you can’t change human nature”. Anthropology demonstrates, firstly, that early life was communist. Secondly, it teaches us that revolution lies at the very heart of what we are. Far from it being the case that “no revolution can change human nature”, everything distinctively human about our nature—above all, self-consciousness, speech-competence and our capacities for symbolically regulated co-operation—are precisely the products of that immense social, sexual and political revolution out of whose travails we were born. Culture, based on solidarity, reconstructed our “nature” completely. That is what the human revolution achieved, and why it is so important to claim it as the beginning of our revolutionary heritage. We won the revolution once. We can do it again.