Accepted paper:

The elephant in the room: sexual egalitarianism and social anthropology


Morna Finnegan

Paper short abstract:

Knight's theory of the origins of symbolic culture holds that coalitions of early modern human females were able to generate the first symbolic concepts. The model relies on a lunar framework, where power is exerted and relinquished periodically. Is this relevant for contemporary African hunter-gatherers?

Paper long abstract:

Certain Central African hunter-gatherers maintain a political field based on ritual periodicity. Rooted in the tropes of sex, reproduction, and desire, this system produces energy through a perpetual oscillation of power across the social landscape. Female cooperation is central to the loud corporate voice women have in these societies. As Peacock and others have shown, this is in turn linked to the high levels of communal childcare found within such groups. Why has the relationship between cooperative childcare and political power not been better explored by social anthropologists? And what are the mechanisms by which sexual egalitarianism is actually negotiated? Following Knight's model, this paper will argue that the kind of non-coercive power conducive to the emergence of sexual egalitarianism is inherently dialogical: It functions through a process of continual oscillation through time and space. Holding power in the body, expressing it through ritual motion, and setting as its vocabulary graphic images of female reproductive prowess, have enabled the Mbendjele Yaka and others to achieve one of the most sophisticated pieces of political acrobatics conceivable, where the infusion of the symbolic domain with the biological body opens out into a collective experience of pure power. All this corresponds to a remarkable extent with Knight's story. Why have the implications not been better developed? Are we, as Graeber asserts, "a discipline terrified of its own potential"?

panel P41
Social anthropology and human origins