The best-known Hongshan site is Niuheliang, a 5,500-year-old religious complex excavated from 1983 to 1985 by Guo Dashun. The complex contained a three-tiered, pyramidal, artificial hill; a 159 x 175 meter walled platform that may have been the foundation of a large building; and, atop a mountain ridge, what Chinese archaeologists called the “Goddess Temple”—a semi-subterranean structure containing fragments of female figurines up to three-times life size, including a life-sized head with jade eyes.
The head may have depicted Nüwa, the oldest known Chinese deity, who seems to have developed from the Paleolithic Goddess. According to the oldest of China’s three main creation myths, Nüwa created both the universe (through "transformation") and people (with clay and river water); liking the people’s laughter, she formed the sexes and taught them to love and reproduce.
A later myth stated that when male deities of fire and water fought at some point in prehistory, causing earthquakes, floods, and fires, Nüwa emerged from her home underground to repair the world. This myth seems to encode the Younger Dryas reset, the fall into domination, and a potential, anticipated recovery.
It’s unknown why the Hongshan culture ended, but in the 800 years between its dissolution and the start of the first Chinese dynasty, Chinese society deteriorated to an increasingly dominator-oriented patriarchy, according to The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture. Unlike in the West, no evidence of nomadic invasions has been found. The change seems to have happened gradually, through a series of internal, plundering wars that rapidly increased the wealth gap.
The Xia Dynasty, the first dynasty, began 4,100 years ago. It initiated the male hereditary principle, in which the ruler’s eldest son became the next ruler, and replaced the dictum “All things belong to the public” with “All things belong to the ruling family,” but remained influenced by its partnership ancestors. The Xia government and people favored the black (the most modest, inclusive color), promoted compassion and benevolence, placed rewards and harmony ahead of punishments and conflict, worshipped Nüwa, and probably practiced an early form of Daoism.
According to scholar Ellen Marie Chen, Daoism evolved from the prehistoric Goddess religion. Dao, she wrote, was originally represented by an empty circle, which “as the Great Round is a familiar symbol of the Great Mother,” before differentiating into yin, a feminine principle, and yang, a masculine principle. Daoist ideas, like resisting worry, excluding no one, developing without dominating, emphasizing the feminine, and following nature, may have appeared in Old Europe on vases, jewelry, walls, and temple models five millennia before appearing in China on bamboo strips.
After the Xia Dynasty, society further deteriorated. In the Shang Dynasty, 3,600 to 3,050 years ago, female infanticide began. To “make people forget goddesses and the partnership between the sexes,” wrote Min Jiayin, the anthology’s main editor, “a religious myth of a god in the form of a male” was promoted in the West while “a philosophy of exalting yang and degrading yin” spread in China. In the Zhou Dynasty, 3,050 to 2,250 years ago, the I Ching reversed the order of the divinatory hexagrams (placing the male hexagram first), and the government instituted the Rites—a set of rules that banned women from politics and stated that women belonged to men.
Confucius—who “despised women indiscriminately,” according to the anthology—was born around 2,570 years ago. He compiled the Book of Songs, an anthology of poetry which was distributed by the government and contained these lines: “Disasters did not stem / from Heaven, but from women.” Confucius’ own writings, which expressed similar ideas, “played a role similar to that of the Bible in the Indo-European culture in setting up an irrational, unequal gender relation.”
But in the centuries after Confucuius died, Daoists texts revived partnership ideas. The Daodejing, which is attributed to Laozi (and was written on bamboo strips bound with string and rolled up like scrolls) but is more fittingly, in Chen’s view, called “the old wisdom,” promoted a return to a former egalitarian society, emphasized and honored the feminine, praised humility and gentleness and yielding, and called Dao the deeply mysterious mother of the world.
In Sapiens, Harari asked, “If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius—who knew everything there is to know—were unable to abolish famine, disease, poverty and war from the world, how could we expect to do so?”
Maybe by looking further back: Confucius and Laozi both said they went by the ancients, but Confucius looked back to merely the Eastern Zhou, 2,500 years ago, while Laozi, who seems to have found Daoism in ancient texts while working as a government librarian, promoted a return to the Xia, 4,000 years ago, and Laozi’s student, Zhuangzi, praised an even earlier time, when people “knew their mothers but not their fathers” and “had no thought in their hearts of harming one another.”
In the Han Dynasty, 2,230 to 1,790 years ago, the “supreme value for men” was “meritorious deeds on the battlefield,” women were barred from education, and Nüwa appeared on temple walls as the co-creator of the world with the male deity Fúxī, losing her status as an independent creatrix. The demotion was another incremental shift, among thousands over millennia, in “the suppression of female power in China,” wrote Donna Carey in a paper in Oriental Medicine Journal. The shift, as in the West, was fractal, with simultaneous threads of counter-revolution.
There was a partnership resurgence in the Tang Dynasty, 1,400 to 1,100 years ago, with Wu Zetian, the only Chinese empress, initially a concubine of an emperor, stably reigning for over ten years; two other women almost becoming empress; and one emperor, Li Shimin, promoting Daoism, resulting in the ancient religion, whose texts can be viewed as Goddess texts rewritten across languages and millennia, being “ranked above Confucianism for a considerably long period.”
But in the Song Dynasty, which began 1,000 years ago, Zetian was viewed as “evil” and foot-binding (a “notorious practice that cruelly injured women for hundreds of years”) became customary, and during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, from 650 to 100 years ago, women weren’t allowed to leave their homes; husbands striking wives was, according to the anthology, “generally accepted” as “required for good housekeeping”; and, for a time, “literary works with love as the theme” were banned.
The Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, affirmed in 1924 and 1926 that there should be gender equality in law, marriage, wages, employment, education, inheritance, and social issues. Confucianism was abandoned, and most women stopped binding their feet, but inequality and other dominator problems continued through habit and momentum, with, among other imbalances, only 12 percent of the National People’s Congress being women in 1954.
However, the CCP’s stated goals of social and sexual equality—reiterated when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949—have gradually partnerized Chinese culture. By 2021, women made up 25 percent of the NPC, and China still retains many partnership ideas. Guanyin, Māzǔ, Xihe, and other non-male deities remain popular. White, the color of metal and bone, still symbolizes death in China, as it had throughout Eurasia in the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic. Chinese people wear white at funerals, and ghosts in Chinese movies are white.
Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Vietnamese women retain their surnames upon marriage, and Mandarin—Asia’s most-spoken language—has a gender-neutral pronoun, tā (他), prioritizing our underlying humanity over our sexes and genders. In English, “human” and “woman,” and “female” and “male,” are built on the words “man” and “male,” while in Chinese there are nǚ (女, female) and nán (男, male) rén (人, people). These linguistic differences, rather than being trivial, as many people seem to assume, inevitably affect how we view reality, consciously and unconsciously.
Spoken Chinese, which probably developed during times of partnership, is remarkably unsexist. But written Chinese—which, like most-to-all modern scripts, developed within dominator culture—contains many inherent biases, with “large number of characters containing the female radical (女) with negative connotations,” according to a paper by David Moser called “Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese.” The word for “evil” (姦) is comprised of three females, for example.
It seems that China, like the West, fell deep into domination, fluctuated for millennia, and in the past century has arguably become somewhat more partnership, despite major setbacks, like the World Wars.
After World War II, the U.S. emerged as the dominant military power. Its strategy for retaining this position was to increase its military dominance. This strategy, which seems to be the only option within the dominator model, continues to this day. In 1992, the U.S. military released a document called "The Defense Planning Guide," which stated that “we must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”
Despite being highly successful at this goal (much more successful than we’re made to believe, as admission of success would lead to decreased support for an ever-increasing military budget), the drive towards total domination has continued into the 21st century. In 2000, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote that the U.S. military’s vision for 2020 was a joint force capable of “full spectrum dominance.”
War doesn’t seem to have decreased since World War II; rather, it has become increasingly covert and one-sided. Millions of Koreans were killed in the early 1950s. Tens of millions of citizens died in U.S.-led invasions in Vietnam, Central and South America, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The time and resources that once went into worshipping nature now goes into destroying other countries.
Out of every human endeavor, the military-industrial complex is most responsible for polluting and destroying nature, argued Catholic nun Rosalie Bertell in Planet Earth (2000). Militaries occupy large areas of land, water, and sky for secret and public bases, testing sites, waste dumping, motor repair pools, and other “environmentally contaminating activities.” Constantly practicing their war tactics, militaries engage in a kind of non-stop war on nature, using bombs, missiles, planes, tanks, etc., in exercises, drills, research projects, and simulated missions.
The military-industrial complex is “brilliant at externalising their costs to the environment,” observed Bertell. The militaries of the world, like the corporations of the world, do not pay for the environmental and health effects of nuclear radiation, toxified skies and waterways, and obliterated land masses. Instead of receiving money to heal ourselves, we the people pay our governments to build, stockpile, test, and use known and secret weapons on domestic and foreign populations.
People don’t like engaging in war. At the end of World War II, a U.S. Army brigadier general polled around 60,000 infantrymen. “He found that only 15 to 20 percent fired their weapons in combat, even when ordered to do so,” wrote John Horgan in The End of War. To deal with the natural human reluctance to kill others, the U.S. Army intensified its training. “Drill sergeants started ordering recruits to chant ‘kill, kill, kill’ while exercising. Shooting drills conditioned soldiers to fire instantly and repeatedly at targets.” The new training methods increased “firing rates” among infantrymen to 55 percent in the Korean War and up to 90 percent in the Vietnam War.
In Rosalie Bertell’s view, we should take “emergency action” to “terminate the military” by “freezing” and then gradually reducing the planet’s military budgets.
Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948, diverting its resources to education, healthcare, environmental conservation, and tourism. The Central American nation of around five million people has thrived while most of its neighbors have experienced civil wars and other conflicts. Costa Rica ranked seventh out of 160 countries for 2010 to 2019 in a Dutch project called “World Database of Happiness.”
Using Costa Rica, Greenland, Iceland, and the twenty-plus other countries without militaries as models, the Armed Forces and Intelligence Communities of the world could be reformed as organizations designed to study, praise, rejuvenate, and safeguard our lands, seas, and skies. Our most advanced technologies could be unweaponized into inventions for healing our planet, neutralizing cosmic impacts and pole shifts and other civilization-resetting events, and providing everyone with clean, free energy.
We could live in self-sustaining villages and small towns, caring about our own lives and communities instead of watching the “news.” We could work on our spiritual development and our health instead of struggling to earn money, find meaning, and avoid pain. We could learn from nature instead of destroying it. Over decades and centuries, we could shift toward what Riane Eisler calls “partnerism.”
There could be partnership capitalist societies and partnership communist societies. Neither capitalism nor communism seem to be the cause of war, inequality, or intolerance. It’s dominator versions of these forms of government that don’t work. A partnership capitalist society would balance the existential drive of corporations toward ever-increasing profits with tight restrictions and by supporting independent businesses, while educating its population on partnership values.
Dominator cultures devalue the important behavior of caring for ourselves, our children, our elders, our planet, and future generations of life, wrote Eisler in The Real Wealth of Nations (2007). Dominator cultures hoard money and resources, grow monopolies, create and perpetuate artificial scarcities and needs, plunder nature, encourage secrecy and corruption, and neglect human qualities like patience, commitment, long-term thinking, sharing, equality, and empathy.
We are all victims of dominator culture, and we also all are dominator culture. Many of us exist in what McKenna called “the self-created hell of a dominator society of one,” constantly oppressing ourselves and others. “To be an oppressor is as dehumanizing and anti-human in nature, as it is to be a victim,” wrote bell hooks in Ain’t I a Woman (1981). In hooks’ view, men in dominator culture are denied “the emotional life that would act as a humanizing, self-affirming force in their lives.”
Our global culture is very dominator-oriented, but individual cultures exist all along the continuum, which means we can find partnership models among ourselves. The U.S. can look to Europe, which can look to its Scandinavian countries, where the rich are heavily taxed, new parents get months of paid leave from work, and women comprise around half of parliament. Scandinavia can look to surviving ancient gylanies, like the Mosuo, who still worship a supreme female deity.
While trying to shift mainstream culture back to the partnership system, we can continue, as Eisler, Gimbutas, Mellaart, and others have done since the Second World War, to develop a fuller, more accurate version of our past, allowing us to reconceptualize human history from an always-violent, linear advancement to a generally peaceful process in which we’re working on recovering from an anomalous, increasingly dangerous period of domination.
Sapiens contains a sentence that Gimbutas or Eisler could have written: “We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.” But Harari gave only one example, an obvious one—that “studying how Europeans came to dominate Africans” helps us understand “there is nothing natural or inevitable about the racial hierarchy."
This essay offers a deeper lesson: Studying prehistory helps us understand that long-term peace is both possible and arguably hereditary. Eisler wrote, “99% of the human genus’ past was spent in small-band hunter-gatherer bands who represent a partnership system that fosters cooperative, generous and largely peaceful persons.”
Many thinkers throughout history, lacking full knowledge of human history, have elaborated bleak philosophies to contend with dominator culture. Schopenhauer concluded that life on Earth had reached its climax because it had begun—wisely, he felt—to turn back into itself, with entire religions, like Buddhism, promoting asceticism, a turning away from life. Existentialists stated that we have to make their own meaning because, as Sartre wrote, “nature is mute.”
Researchers who are better informed on history have different opinions. Stone wrote, “I personally think of nature as the Scriptures of the Goddess, and I believe that the organic process of every tree, river, mountain and all else that is natural, can tell us what we need to know at any given moment.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead, citing groups like the Eskimos who lack war, even “defensive warfare,” argued that war was not a biological necessity but “only an invention,” which could be replaced with something better, similar to “trial by combat” being replaced with “trial by jury.”
Our efforts at reversing the fall into domination could fail. We could succumb to environment change (pesticides, radiation, malnutrition, etc.), another World War, or the accidental or intentional use of classified weapons that are orders of magnitude more destructive than nuclear bombs. We could run out of time, and be obliterated by natural catastrophes before unweaponizing our secret technologies into defensive tools.
We could succeed. Maybe we have been succeeding. Maybe dominator culture nadired with Yahweh, 3,500 years ago, and has been slowly and inconsistently becoming more partnership since in a partnership-dominator-partnership waveform.
In the past few centuries, many equal rights and other partnership movements, including ones by the abolitionists, feminists, pacifists, and environmentalists, have worked on reversing our irrational biases. But challenges to dominator traditions have often focused on the top of the hierarchy, so that “the foundations on which this pyramid rests, and continually rebuilds itself, were not sufficiently modified,” wrote Eisler.
To change society, we need to change ourselves. If we change how we relate to one another, treat our family members and fellow humans, and behave in our overlapping communities, if we are careful with our language and actions, staying conscious of our harmonious beginnings, society will also change.
This is good news. Ending war and domination is a personal process that we’re all involved in. We all play a role in human history, whether we want to or not.
Maybe in the year 2600 we will look back—after a century of peace—with relief and gratitude that we woke from a 6,500-year nightmare.