PARTNERSHIP BEFORE SEXISM AND WAR
*This was published in Tank Magazine in 2021. It got paywalled, so I expanded/updated it and published it here. It argues that humans were peaceful and egalitarian, without war, classes, or sexism, until around 6,500 years ago. This version of history conflicts with the one we're taught in school and that's in the book Sapiens (2014).
Born in Austria in 1931, Riane Eisler fled from Nazi invaders in 1939 to Cuba—the only country at the time besides China that was open to Jewish refugees. She and her parents lived in an industrial slum in Havana for seven years, then moved to Miami, New York, Chicago, and, finally, Los Angeles. Eisler married, had two daughters, earned a law degree from UCLA, divorced, practiced family law, published two books (one on divorce, one on the Equal Rights Amendment), and then, in her fifties, returned to a question she’d had as a child, when most of her relatives had been killed: are intolerance, violence, and war inevitable?
In The Chalice and the Blade (1987), her third book, she argued that the two underlying forms of society are not capitalist and socialist, religious and secular, or patriarchal and matriarchal, but “partnership” and “dominator.” I liked her new terms because they seemed deeper and more inclusive and unitive—instead of divisive—than established polarities like right/left, primitive/civilized, political/apolitical, East/West, masculine/feminine. Everyone embodied both partnership and dominator qualities—anarchists, Marxists, Christians, Daoists, CEOs, shamans, nonbinary people, women, children, and men. The partnership-dominator continuum provided direction—towards more partnership—that many disparate groups could support.
Eisler viewed inequality, “beginning with the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female,” as the main characteristic of dominator societies. In partnership societies, the sexes are linked in a complementary way valuing diversity; in dominator societies, the sexes are ranked in an irrational bias that infects all other relationships, resulting in racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other intolerances. Sexism is the primary, underlying intolerance, wrote Eisler, because it begins within families. If daughters, sisters, and mothers are treated unfairly, the same will be done to other people, leading, ultimately, to war.
Eisler additionally argued in The Chalice and the Blade, which has sold more than 500,000 copies and been translated into around 25 languages, that humans exemplified partnership, living in peaceful, egalitarian, nature-worshipping societies, until only around 6,500 years ago, when we fell to the dominator side of the continuum, where we remain—war-addicted, misogynist, stratified, nature-destroying, short-term-focused, materialistic, oppressive, unbalanced, and unsustainable.
Before reading The Chalice and the Blade, I wasn’t sure what most people thought about history. I’d forgotten most of what I’d read in school. From Eisler, I learned that high school and college textbooks teach that prehistoric humans were “bloodthirsty” and “warlike,” that humans have always fought wars and been ruled by men, that civilization began around 6,000 years ago, and that the time before 6,000 years ago is called “prehistory.” In other words, dominator culture—which we’re all embedded in—views the start of its history as the start of history itself.
From 2014 to 2022, I read around 40 more books on human history, including ones by Eisler’s sources and critics. The most popular book I read was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (2014), an international bestseller recommended by Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, and Bill Gates. I will reference Sapiens, which restates what we were taught in school, in this essay as dominator culture’s model of history.
After eight years of research, Eisler’s model has continued to seem more accurate, complex, helpful, and hopeful than the prevailing model. Zooming out to include prehistory and women, Eisler’s perspective recasts the human story from “confused struggle in a grim world” to “possible recovery toward a former harmony.”
In the earliest human religion, we worshipped nature as a female deity, according to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. The Goddess religion, as she called it, seems to have predated Homo sapiens, going back at least 500,000 years to the Acheulian culture of Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, who’d sculpted pubic triangles, mother images, and women birthing. “We actually cannot answer today the question, ‘When is the beginning?’” said Gimbutas in a 1990 lecture. “Maybe it is one million years.”
Humans viewed nature—which, being anything not made by humans, comprised almost everything—as female because only women give birth and because the male role in reproduction probably hadn’t yet been understood, Gimbutas and others theorized. That God used to be a woman—initially a bizarre-seeming idea—has made increasing sense to me. Like female mammals, Mother Nature creates and cares for new life, nurturing and sustaining it with her body.
By 40,000 years ago, the primitive sculptures had become detailed statuettes—the so-called Venus figurines. The oldest known of these, the Hohle Fels figurine, 35,000 to 40,000 years old, was found in Germany in 2008. Instead of a head, the fig-sized, mammoth-tusk sculpture had a polished ring, probably indicating it had been suspended as a pendant. Gimbutas wrote in her posthumous book The Living Goddesses (1999) that none of the 3,000 or so statuettes found in Eurasia from the Upper Paleolithic were explicitly male; all were female or genderlessly zoomorphic, partly shaped like snakes, birds, pigs, and other animals.
In Sapiens, Harari doesn’t mention the female figurines from the Upper Paleolithic; for sculptures from then, he cites only an androgynous piece, calling it a “‘lion-man’ (or ‘lioness-woman’)”; this seems like a major omission, considering that Sapiens starts its history of humans around 70,000 years ago. When dominator culture does acknowledge the figurines, it reductively views them as pornography or evidence of a primitive fertility cult. The Economist called the Hohle Fels figurine “smut carved from a mammoth tusk”; Nature called it a “35,000-year-old sex object.”
I first consciously encountered the female figurines in the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), in which Werner Herzog filmed 30,000-year-old art in Chauvet Cave in France. The documentary showed a replica of a limestone figurine with a characteristic hexagram of bulges around a pregnant belly, and Herzog said, “There seems to have existed a visual convention extending all the way beyond Baywatch.” At the time, lacking a better theory, I thought that maybe the figurines really were sex objects. Today, it seems more convincing to me that, as Gimbutas wrote, “a woman’s ability to give birth and nourish children from her body was deemed sacred, and revered as the ultimate metaphor for the divine Creator.”
It’s unknown how advanced humans became during the Upper Paleolithic. Graham Hancock and others have argued that at least one advanced civilization, on the level of our civilization in the late 1700s, was destroyed by global catastrophes 12,800 and 11,600 years ago, caused probably by cosmic impacts. In Timaeus and Critias, Plato wrote that Atlantis, one of the possible civilizations, was destroyed around 11,600 years ago. The lost culture(s) may have been anywhere on the partnership-dominator continuum. They probably developed, like us, out of the older, wild stratum of humans—the hunter-gatherers who made the female figurines.
Sapiens doesn’t mention the global catastrophes—even though the Younger Dryas impact theory was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007, and has since gained mainstream acceptance. The omission allowed Harari to promote the “overkill theory,” blaming aborigines for the extinction of more than 70 percent of the megafauna in the Americas during the Younger Dryas—the period of time from 12,800 to 11,600 years ago. “Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature,” wrote Harari.
According to Tending the Wild (2013) by M. Kat Anderson, though, Native Americans followed harmony-promoting, long-term-focused rules when hunting and gathering, like “Do not needlessly kill” and “Leave some for other animals.” When Europeans arrived in California in the sixteenth century, they found massive, park-like gardens in which flora and fauna were unnaturally abundant. Natives had “knit themselves to nature through their vast knowledge base,” wrote Anderson. It was the same, I’d read elsewhere, when Europeans reached Australia. Our ancestors seem to have naturally stewarded their environments into fecund forest-gardens.
Whatever happened during the Upper Paleolithic—whether one or two or more advanced civilizations were destroyed—it seems that the Goddess-worshipping cultures, whose figurines have been found all across Eurasia, survived and passed on their way of life, because after agriculture developed (or, more likely, redeveloped) around 12,000 years ago, people kept making Goddess symbols, ranging now up to statue-sized, and remained peaceful for at least 6,000 years.
Sapiens devoted only 239 non-consecutive words (less than a page) to the period from 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, not enough to say that every culture known from then, from Europe to China, seems to have exemplified the partnership system. The lacuna allowed Harari to conclude that “patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious cycle” and that “there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood.”
It was during this period, from 12,000 to 6,000 years ago, when peace and equality were mainstream, that most of the technologies of civilization (farming, stockbreeding, megalithic architecture, urban planning, wheeled vehicles, writing, etc.) were invented or reinvented. Eisler called this “one of the best kept historical secrets”—that war isn’t necessary for technological advancement.
In 1952, 35 years before The Chalice and the Blade was published, archaeologist James Mellaart noticed a giant mound in the distance while scouting Turkey for sites to excavate. From 1961 to 1963, over three seasons, Mellaart and his team excavated around 3 percent of the 33.5-acre mound. Digging through twelve levels of buildings, they found 900 years of continuous peace; the earliest known mirrors, metallurgy, pottery, textiles, and wood vessels; evidence of matrilineal (inheritance through female line) and matrifocal (husband moving to live with wife) organization; and that, based on sculptures and other art, “The principal deity was a goddess.”
Mellaart and his team had unearthed Çatalhöyük, the most advanced Neolithic settlement, estimated to have existed from 9,100 to 7,500 years ago. Çatalhöyükans hunted birds, bears, wolves, leopards, and other animals; raised cattle and goats; grew grains and vegetables; gathered fruits and nuts; sculpted figurines from terracotta, chalk, pumice, alabaster, limestone, and volcanic rock; and painted colorful art on their walls—women carrying fishing nets, flowers with insects, hunting scenes, an erupting volcano. Due to recurring patterns and repaintings of complex scenes, Mellaart suspected they had books of drawings, probably on cloth or felt.
Çatalhöyük’s U.S.-level racial diversity (59% Eurafrican, 24% Alpine, 17% Mediterranean) “must have contributed greatly” to its “extraordinary vitality”, wrote Mellaart in The Archaeology of Ancient Turkey (1978). A fertility rate of 4.2 children per woman, combined with a relatively stable population, meant “a constant stream of emigration,” spreading technology, language, religion, and art throughout Anatolia, west into Europe, and possibly east into Asia.
While Mellaart called Çatalhöyük “the basis” for Western civilization, Harari in Sapiens devoted only two sentences to the mound-civilization—“By 7000 BC the town of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals. It may well have been the world’s biggest settlement at the time.” Further examination would have conflicted with his 415-page book’s thesis that humans have always been patriarchal, violent, intolerant, and war-obsessed.
Ian Hodder, Çatalhöyük’s second excavator, working on the site from 1993 to 2018, said in a 2014 interview, “There was no leader, government or administrative building; men and women were equal.” Hodder found no evidence of stockpiling of material possessions or food; storage space was limited to the domestic scale.
Çatalhöyük’s thousand-plus buildings all appeared to be homes of similar size, with a main room and one or more side rooms. The buildings were built very close together. When one got too old, the mudbrick walls were torn down, and a new home was built in the same place. As homes fractally accreted over centuries, the city became a 21-meter tall, oval mound the area of seven Manhattan blocks, enterable only by ladder, through height-staggered roofs. People and pet dogs walked over other houses to get home.
The bathroomless, windowless, rectangular homes were coated on the inside with white clay. They had ovens and one-to-five built-in platforms for sitting, working, and sleeping. The woman’s platform, as judged by the bones found beneath, where the dead were kept, had an attached bench, was always on the east side of the house, and was the largest, able to fit two adults. One house—painted red, the color of life—had a low platform that may have been used for birthing.
Mellaart called a third of the homes he excavated “shrines” due to their abundant symbology—paintings of childbirth, reliefs/cut-outs/sculptures of pregnant deities and the female form, rows of bucrania (horned cow heads). According to Gimbutas, bucrania were Goddess symbols during the Neolithic and Paleolithic because they resemble the waxing/waning moon and the uterus and fallopian tubes. Psychedelics-proponent Terence McKenna argued that the bucrania at Çatalhöyük trinitarianly symbolized the Goddess, the cow, and the psilocybin mushroom that sprouts from cow dung.
A schist plaque found by Mellaart’s team showed a couple hugging on the left and a baby-holding woman on the right, seeming to indicate that the male role in reproduction had been discovered. The discovery seems to have led to a refining of partnership: eight of the 41 figurines that Mellaart unearthed were male, representing, in his view, deities with subsidiary roles, as sons and consorts.
A common misconception, stated in Cynthia Eller’s The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000) and other books, is that Eisler, Gimbutas, Mellaart, and others argued that people once lived in matriarchies, with women ruling men. Actually, the argument is that we lived in “gylanies,” Eisler’s term for societies with gender equality. Another misconception is that gylanies were perfect. They weren’t. Violence and conflict and other problems existed, but at much lower, controlled levels.
The double-mound gylany of Çatalhöyük was built next to a river, in the open, without defensive fortifications, on the Konya Plain—a volcano-ringed, Vermont-sized plateau—which before 17,000 years ago had been a shallow lake, by the Neolithic was filled with grasslands and marshes and woods, and by the twentieth century, when Mellaart did his excavations, was a dry, nearly treeless plain.
Around 8,200 years ago, Çatalhöyükans began to build a new mound across the river, deserting the first mound over two centuries for unknown reasons, with no evidence of destruction or war. Five centuries later, the second mound, which had grown almost as large as the first, was also abandoned for unknown reasons.
Maybe they moved west to join the Old Europeans, a non-mound, multi-culture gylany that shared their religion and was already a millennium old.
Marija Gimbutas, born in Lithuania in 1921, immigrated to the U.S. in 1949 with a doctorate in archaeology. In the fifties and sixties, she translated archaeology texts at Harvard, wrote books on European history, taught at UCLA, and excavated sites in Bosnia and Macedonia. “I came to a point when I had to understand what was happening in Europe before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans,” she said in an interview referenced in From the Realm of the Ancestors (1997). “It was a very gradual process. I did not know then that I would write about Neolithic religion or the Goddess. I was only trying to answer this question.”
In the late sixties, she realized that a civilization existed in Europe that was the opposite of everything that came after. Old Europe, as she named the civilization, lasted from at least 8,500 to 5,500 years ago. For Old Europe’s first two millennia, there were, as at Çatalhöyük, no signs of war, no weapons of war, and no defense fortifications.
No art depicting warriors, war, torture, or people attacking one another—common after prehistory—has been found from Old Europe or any other Neolithic or Paleolithic culture; this conflicts with Harari’s view that “Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.”
Based on their grave goods, elder women seem to have been the most respected members of Old European society, which was comprised of many different matrilineal, matrifocal, sedentary, farming cultures, including the Vinca, Varna, Sesklo, and Bükk, and eventually covered most of Europe
Old Europeans invented writing 7,500 years ago, around two millennia before the Sumerians, according to Gimbutas. The untranslated script, which appeared in rows and clusters on pottery, pendants, figurines, and other items, and which looks like a more naturalistic Chinese, was based on a core of 30 abstract symbols. The vulva-derived V, which appeared at least 300,000 years ago, long before being used in a script, had at least 25 variations, made by dots, strokes, crosses, repetition, and rotation. While Sumerian writing was used for economic, legal, and administrative reasons, the Old European script was used “only within the context of an increasingly sophisticated worship of the Goddess,” wrote Gimbutas.
When asked, “Who is she?” about the Goddess in a 1991 documentary, Gimbutas said, “She is nature. She is nature herself.”
It may seem hard to imagine a writing system being invented solely to better describe, contemplate, discuss, and worship nature. But we should remember that the U.S. has something called the Intelligence Community—seventeen enormous organizations (CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.), each of which have unknown number of levels of secret, compartmentalized parts, and which, together, exist solely to support the six Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, Space Force): humans have a lot of time and energy.
Old Europeans lived in spacious, two-to-five-room houses in communal towns of up to 10,000 people, organized around temples where bread was baked and clothing/ceramics were made. They sculpted life-sized statues, foot-sized figurines, and hand-sized, sometimes-roofless, one-or-two-story temple replicas containing little jars, altars, lamps, ovens, and people. “We can only begin to speculate why these Old Europeans created miniature temple worlds,” wrote Gimbutas. More than a hundred temple models have been unearthed. Many of them are inscribed.
Image and text from The Living Goddesses (1999) by Marija Gimbutas.
Before her death in 1994, Gimbutas estimated that over 100,000 figurines, counting the damaged ones, had been found in Old Europe. She documented more than 20 female and five male types, differing in posture, facial features, masks, and headgear. She estimated that only around three percent of Old European symbology had been male. “The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life,” she wrote in The Language of the Goddess (1989).
Birth was probably one of the most sacred events in the Neolithic, according to Gimbutas. Like at Çatalhöyük, people in Old Europe built what she called “birthing shrines,” special rooms where women gave birth.
In a poem titled “Tea with Marija,” literature professor Starr Goode wrote about visiting Gimbutas at her home in the Santa Monica Mountains. Goode asked, “What were they, our ancestors?” Gimbutas replied, “They were like us, only happy.”
THE FALL IN THE WEST
Around 6,500 years ago, nomadic people from the steppe north of the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine and southwest Russia—people whom Gimbutas named Kurgans after their round funeral mounds—invaded Europe in three main waves over 1,500 years, killing, plundering, and assimilating their neighbors in “a complicated transformative process” resulting in “a drastic cultural change reminiscent of the conquest of the American continent,” wrote Gimbutas.
The “patriarchal and belligerent” Kurgans had lighter skin and were larger than their victims. They’d weaponized horses and invented “arms”—weapons for attacking humans. They were “indifferent to art,” worshipped only male deities, ranked men above women, and associated black with death, unlike the Old Europeans, to whom black had signified fertility, soil, and the womb. Instead of painting the skulls of their dead and keeping the bones under their beds, as was done at Çatalhöyük, where one home contained 62 ancestors, they practiced suttee, in which women were killed and buried with their husbands when their husbands died.
Slavery may have emerged during these invasions, wrote Eisler. The Kurgans seem to have killed most of the men and children, keeping some of the women as consorts, wives, and slaves. Ramparts, trenches, hill forts, and other defensive structures appeared for the first time. Instead of living out in the open, next to rivers, people began to live in hard-to-reach places. The Old European language was replaced with the Indo-European language that around half the world now uses.
As the Kurgans destroyed Old Europe, other dominator-oriented “Indo-Europeans” (a misnomer because these people were neither Indian nor European), including the Mittani, Hittites, and Luwians, attacked the sedentary gylanies in the Near East and Anatolia (where Çatalhöyük had been abandoned for at least five centuries, maybe because they’d sensed the carnage to come, but where other settlements existed), supplanting nature worship with chronic war.
There are probably many overlapping reasons why people became out of control. Humans might be so precariously balanced that a combination of small factors, like horse domestication, invoking military advantage, tipped entire societies into dominator mode. And as we began to worship the larger-so-better-at-war sex, things deteriorated more. In Food of the Gods (1993), Terence McKenna theorized that a major factor in the fall was our decreased use of psychedelics, which he felt connected us to “the archetype of the Goddess and hence to the partnership style.”
Malnutrition, which contributed to a significant shrinkage of the human brain starting around 12,000 years ago, may be another reason. The extinction of most of the megafauna in Europe and Asia during the Younger Dryas, and the reduction of many other animals, may have resulted in scarcity of animal foods. Millennia of decreased nutrition, resulting in increased levels of disease, dysphoria, and irritability, could have snowballed into war.
In The End of War (2012), John Horgan wrote that chimpanzees did not gang up and attack and kill other chimpanzees until more than a decade after Jane Goodall and others began to observe them. "Goodall, who began supplying bananas to chimpanzees in 1965, expressed concern that the food 'was having a marked effect on the behavior of the chimps,’" wrote Horgan. The chimpanzees had begun to move in large groups more often, and “the adult males were becoming increasingly aggressive.”
Another possible reason for the fall into domination: History may be cyclical, with ups and downs caused by our solar system’s movement through different zones of electromagnetic radiation over 24,000 years, as theorized by Vedic texts.
Regardless of the reasons, the change is evident and clear in the historical record. Between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago, after five to fifteen centuries of violent chaos, the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations—which are “celebrated in our high school and college textbooks as marking the beginnings of Western civilization,” wrote Eisler—emerged, blending partnership and dominator styles, with both male and female deities, but being mostly and increasingly dominator-inflected.
Dynastic Egypt began when a man conquered Upper and Lower Egypt—where people worshipped the Cobra Goddess Ua Zit (Upper Egypt) and the Vulture Goddess Nekhbet (Lower Egypt)—and then wore both Goddesses on his crown, while in Sumer “kingship was first lowered from heaven,” according to Sumerian tablets quoted by sculptress Merlin Stone in When God Was a Woman (1976).
As the status of women gradually decreased over millennia, myths were rewritten in support of the new reality, a process Eisler called “re-mything.” The Goddess lost her status as the self-generating creatrix of the world, and was now said to have been killed, raped, or subdued by new male deities. In some myths, she was reduced to being the wife of a more powerful male deity. In others, she was transformed into a war deity.
Around 3,900 years ago, Babylonia was founded. Stone wrote, “Despite a loss of status in the position of women in Babylon, compared with their predecessors of Sumer—a loss that was accompanied by the gaining ascendancy of male deities such as Marduk, who mythically murdered the Creator Goddess Tiamat to gain and secure his position—the women of Babylon still continued to hold certain rights of independence.” The Kassites conquered Babylon around 3,600 years ago.
Around 3,550 years ago, when Egyptian women were no longer part of the religious clergy, a man named Abraham began to promote an angry deity named Yahweh in the Near East, where a pre-existing deity had already, for millennia, been “revered as Goddess—much as people think of God,” wrote Stone. Yahweh was targeting Goddess worshippers, according to Stone, when he said, “But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images and cut down their groves, for thou shalt worship no other god.” Stone wrote:
The Old Testament does not even have a word for “Goddess.” In the Bible the Goddess is referred to as Elohim, in the masculine gender, to be translated as god. But the Koran of the Mohammedans was quite clear. In it we read, “Allah will not tolerate idolatry…the pagans pray to females.”
In a 1987 interview, mythologist Joseph Campbell, who encountered Marija Gimbutas’ work late in his career, said, ”The term for the goddess, the Canaanite goddess, that’s used in the Old Testament, is ‘the abomination.’” Campbell called the Hebrew Bible an “extreme case” of anti-Goddess propaganda, adding that the “Western subjugation of the female” was “a function of biblical thinking.”
Yahweh was said to have punished women with rule by men and pain in childbirth. Birth was devalued in the Hebrew religion, in which a woman who gave birth had to be “ritually purified lest her ‘uncleanness’ contaminate others,” wrote Eisler.
The Old Testament contains conspicuous evidence of re-mything. Genesis tells two stories of how humans were created—the first says women and men were created simultaneously, the second says Eve was made from Adam’s rib.
Around 2,025 years ago, a member of the new religion, Jesus, was born in Bethlehem. Despite being Jewish, he embodied and advocated the opposite of Yahweh’s values, spreading “the gospel of a partnership society,” wrote Eisler. Teaching spiritual equality at a time when women were regularly stoned to death for adultery, Jesus was one part of what Eisler called “a gylanic counterrevolution.”
When I learned that Jesus had said his word was God’s word, and that he himself was God, I imagined that Yahweh had calmed down over fifteen centuries and decided, in his older, wiser state, to reverse his previous orders and instead propagate equality, empathy, nonviolence, forgiveness, and love.
Eisler wrote that Jesus, being the child of a divine Mother, was “in fact still the child of the Goddess.” People often blame religion for intolerance and war, but it’s actually dominator-infected religions that lead to violent conflict. The backlash against religion, based on incomplete conceptions of history, seems misguided.
Christianity, centered around Jesus’ teachings, was a threat to the Jewish religion and the androcratic Roman government, and so Jesus was crucified, and with the rise, then, of a Jesus-ignoring form of Christianity in the centuries after his death, the Goddess religion was “finally suppressed and nearly forgotten,” wrote Stone.
Over the next 1,700 years, various forms of dominator-corrupted Christianity, as well as other Yahweh-based religions, violently spread across the planet with the Crusades, the Inquisition, Jihads, witch hunts, colonialism, imperialism, and thousands of massacres, conquests, and invasions, infecting almost every group on Earth, including our aboriginal ancestors who carved the so-called Venus figurines.
Domination has arguably reached its apotheosis with the present-day United States, a nation with 45 consecutive male presidents. Out of 195 or so countries, the U.S. leads in prisoners, school shootings, billionaires, foreign military bases, and mental and physical illness. Half of U.S. children have a chronic illness. We have the highest first-day infant death rate in the industrialized world; we use the most energy, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals; and we sell the most weapons to other countries.
Our non-classified military budget of $740 billion a year accounts for 39 percent of global military spending, and is around three times as much as the second-placed country, China, which has four times the population. China’s $260 billion military budget is quadruple the third-largest military budget, that of India.
The East doesn’t seem to have fallen quite as deep into domination as the West, though it seems to have begun the same, with sustained, long-term peace.
The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture, a 637-page anthology inspired by Riane Eisler’s work, was published in Chinese and English in 1995. I read it in English in 2019. Its 17 contributors, including students and professors of archaeology, philosophy, literature, history, law, and women’s studies, reported that Chinese civilization also began with millennia of partnership societies.
People in and around present-day China seem to have lived mostly in caves until around 12,000 years ago, when they moved into increasingly complex, collectivist clusters of houses. From 12,000 years ago to 5,500 years ago, “There was no differentiation between rich and poor, nor was there hierarchical social stratification, and human relations seem to have been governed only by the principle of equality,” according to the anthology. Despite lineage in most regions being matrilineal, “there was no matriarchy, no rule and oppression of man by woman." Sapiens doesn’t mention anything about China before 4,100 years ago.
Beginning at least 8,000 years ago, Chinese people began to make female figurines that resemble those from Çatalhöyük, Old Europe, and other Neolithic sites to the west, such as Jericho in Palestine, Jarmo in Iraq, and Harappa in Pakistan. The first prehistoric Chinese female figurine was discovered in 1979, and many more, made by the Zhaobaogou, Yangshao, Majiayao, and other cultures, have since been found.
The Hongshan culture, which existed from 6,700 to 4,900 years ago, was the most advanced culture of the Chinese Neolithic. Chinese archaeologist Guo Dashun called it “the dawn of Chinese civilization.” Hongshanners lived in river valleys in an Arizona-sized area west of what is now North Korea, in large, possibly multi-family homes on terraces above rivers. They grew millet, raised pigs and cattle, hunted deer, made red-and-black pottery, and sculpted jade art.
In Hongshan Jade Treasures (2012), David C. Anderson argued that most Hongshan art has been taken by grave robbers. Since 2001, Anderson has been buying these potentially real Hongshan pieces, which museums and mainstream archaeology view as forgeries, for “ridiculously low prices” on eBay. His book, which calls the diversity and quality of Hongshan art “astonishing,” includes photos of jade clouds, silkworms, fish, birds, pig-dragons (the earliest known depiction of dragons), bird-pig-dragons, bird-pigs, a bear smoking a giant pipe, turtles dancing, humans having sex, and a woman birthing a baby from the top of her head.
Hongshan art from my collection (from left to right): two pig-dragons, a turtle, a man with a fish, five fish, a mysterious UFO-shaped piece, a cat, a dragon, a mask, a circle.
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.
THE FALL IN CHINA
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.
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