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Controversy Over DeMeo’s Saharasia hypothesis

Max Dashu

I felt impelled to write down my thoughts about the controversy that erupted on the last day of the World Congress on Matriarchy in Luxembourg, 2003. An outcry followed James De Meo’s presentation, which proposed that patriarchy arose in “Saharasia” because of desertification. Many people were upset that the moderator cut off his responses. Others, including me, were much more disturbed at the content of the presentation itself, and felt that De Meo, even before his responses were interrupted, wasn’t addressing the concerns being raised. Unfortunately there was no time for most critics to voice our objections.

The North African women felt that De Meo’s analysis seriously misrepresented the Saharan cultures. Malika Grasshoff spoke quite passionately in defense of her Kabyle culture. Helene Claudot-Hawad (who married into a Tuareg community) rejected the presentations as “essentialist.” It collapses the origin of patriarchy down to a single factor, and failed to address the presence of the Tuareg in the Sahara. This striking survival of mother-right culture was simply deleted from the maps De Meo showed, which depicted all of North Africa as one bleak expanse of patriarchy.

The distinguished anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday called the theory “reductionist and dangerous.” She was shocked that De Meo was relying on a discredited data set, “the most flawed data-base I can imagine.” Its “data” was collected before 1956, Sanday explained, by white men “who had no idea what was going on” in the cultures they were studying. Much of it was collected in the 30’s, when ethnology was riddled with racial and gender bias. Sanday later told me that no anthropologist would take seriously conclusions based on this bad information. Even its creator, George Peter Murdock, later came to recognize that it was problematic.

Sanday knows whereof she speaks, having studied with Murdock and worked with these statistical ethnic data collections for decades. It was Sanday, by the way, who first proposed back in 1981 that eco-stressors -- especially food shortages -- may have been a factor in the development of patriarchy (but not the factor). This was long before James De Meo came on the scene. So I ask, why would he be treated as a more credible source than this eminent feminist anthropologist who has been researching women’s status and matriarchy for decades?

Women’s issues seemed to be an afterthought in De Meo’s exposition. Women and patriarchy are missing from his book’s title: Saharasia: the 4000 BCE Origins of Child-Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence, in the Deserts of the Old World.
He ignores important differences in the treatment of women and men, as when he showed a slide treating male circumcision and female “circumcision” (genital excision, to be exact) as equivalent. These practices are of entirely different orders of magnitude, not to speak of their contrasting socio-political functions. One cuts around, removing the hood covering the male genital organ, while the other amputates a greater or lesser portion of the female organ itself. One acts to shore up masculine privilege, the other to subordinate women and place their sexuality in service to patrilineage.

Sanday was also disturbed about De Meo’s devotion to the Reichian hypothesis, which she said is not really concerned with patriarchy, but with sexual repression, positing  that removing sexual taboos would do away with social ills, without any structural or historical analysis of women’s oppression.

I haven’t read De Meo’s book, but I did look it over carefully at the conference. A chapter head claiming that women were just as responsible for patriarchy as men didn’t inspire my confidence. (This feeling only deepened when the author sent out a promotional email shortly afterwards asserting, “The lecture by Dr. DeMeo was well-received but stirred a bit of controversy in some quarters where "politically correct" thinking prevailed.” This is not only inaccurate--there was more than “a bit of controversy”--but offensive as well, using the stock rhetoric used to attack feminism and anti-racism. What follows is based upon De Meo’s own exposition of his desertification theory at the conference, including slides he showed of charts from his book.

De Meo paints a picture of patriarchy beginning with the desertification of North Africa and west Asia. He claims in his summary for the conference program, “The anthropological data, and a correlated global archaeological /historical survey, suggest a source region for armored/ patristic/ dominator cultures within Saharasia predominately after c. 4000 BCE...” when the region began to desertify. He thinks that “Semitic cultural migrations” spread patriarchy from Africa, and Indo-European ones from west-central Asia.

No historical or archaeological evidence shows that patriarchal culture patterns originated in the Sahara. There’s no sign of waves of conquest pouring forth to subjugate people in other places. Au contraire! no empires appear in this region until quite late. And the first of these was (atypically as empires go) matrilineal: the 10th century empire of Ghana. The warrior images that De Meo points to in Saharan rock art date later than the earliest known patriarchal states. And these (Iraq, Egypt, China) occur in river valleys, not deserts.

If we can say anything about the Sahara, it is not a region that stands out as a historical bastion of male supremacy. Rather, it has been characterized by the persistence of mother-right cultures and female liberty. The Tuareg, who have been in the Sahara for a very long time, remained a matrilineal society into the 20th century, and the less-islamicized groups of the north still are today. Another major Saharan people, the Wodaabe, also show significant retentions of female liberty and are less patriarchal than many of the cultures DeMeo counts as matristic (such as in the Pacific and South America). The Fulani and Hausa have become quite patriarchal in modern times, but historical sources are clear that the picture looked very different 400 or 500 years ago.

Another region DeMeo describes as a patriarchal homeland is Arabia. This idea has more to do with modern stereotypes of the Arabs than the facts of early Arabian history. Tribal names and other indicators point to ancient Arab observance of matrilineal descent. Early Muslim writers also remark on matrilocal marriage, women’s right to divorce and marry at will, and female ownership of tents. If anything, a pattern of Arab female power contrasts with the well-watered regions of Iraq or the Levant. Genesis lists a significant proportion of female chiefs among the Arabs of Edom, and Assyrian inscriptions mention Arab queens. We even have evidence of women taking several husbands in matrilocal polyandry. Leila Ahmed points to ‘Aisha’s testimony to the variety of marriage types in pre-Islamic times, concluding that “Islamic reforms apparently consolidated a trend toward patrilineage in 6th century Arabia.” [Women and Gender in Islam, Yale, 1992, p 48]

Counter to popular opinion, veiling and female seclusion originated with bronze age Indo-European peoples, not the Arabs. For many centuries, Arabia was subject to conquest by Assyrians, Romans, and other peoples who were far more patriarchal than their Bedouin contemporaries. Eventually the Arabs began adopting some of these patriarchal customs, including the veil. Contra the stereotype of “Semitic patriarchy,” similar matrilineal and matrilocal patterns have been noted for the Hebrews, by Julian Morgenstern, David Bakan, Savina Teubal and other scholars.

In modern times, it is precisely in the most difficult terrains (and therefore the most inaccessible to conquest) that most matrix cultures have lasted the longest: in remote highlands and deserts, and some islands or peninsulas. This is exactly the opposite of what DeMeo’s thesis predicts. Looking at deserts, we find not only the Tuareg but also the Hopi, the New Mexico pueblos, the Dineh (Navajo). Then there are the Seri of Sinaloa in Mexico and the Wayúu, a matrilineal and matrilocal society whose country is the most arid land in Colombia, the desert of the Guajira peninsula.

The deserts of Nubia were matrilineal into the middle ages, and so were several other circum-Saharan peoples. The Kalahari peoples are not matrilineal, but have kept relatively egalitarian traditions in one of the driest deserts of the world. The Himba in Namibia appear to have been matrilineal in the recent past, though they now show some patriarchal elements. There are, of course, desert patriarchies, but they do not prove that desert life is the catalyst for cultures of male domination, or conquest either.

The theory that patriarchy begins in deserts can be tested another way. If it were true, we should be able to show that male domination in rainforest cultures was imported or imposed by outsiders. But the strongly patriarchal cultures of New Guinea are by all accounts indigenous. There is no archaeological or historical evidence of invasions -- nor do the oral histories testify to them. So how did patriarchy arise in these well-watered, geographically isolated islands of the tropics? The same problem is presented by the Yanomamo and a number of other Amazon basin cultures, as well as patriarchal systems in the Congo basin.

I want to return to the problematic data set on which De Meo’s analysis rests, George Peter Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. It attempts to statistically measure variables of sexual expression. The idea that a mathematical analysis of human behavior and culture  can accurately reflect what is going on is problematic, to say the least. It’s completely linear, like computer bits which are either or off, patriarchal or not. These attempts to quantify culture allow for no grey areas, no complexity, and no room for understanding historical causation.

As Sanday informed me, Murdock assumed that monogamy is keyed to matriarchy, menstrual taboos to male domination. What do we do then about the Iroquois and Wyandot, matrix societies who did not insist on monogamy for either gender, and whose menstrual observances were based on animist worldview, not female subordination? (They did not function to uphold any ideology of female uncleanness or segregation, etc, nor to disqualify women from religious or political leadership. Instead, menses were viewed as the death of an egg and the cleansing of toxins from the body.) And what about monogamy in the highly patriarchal European societies?

Such absolutist quantifications end up erasing important distinctions and, worse, are based on a linear rather than a wholistic understanding of culture. A well-known example of this reductionist mind-set is the culture-quantification analyis by Sherry Ortner in the ‘70s, which insisted that all matrilineal societies were just as male-dominated as patrilineal ones. Here, again, the Crow Indians were defined as patriarchal on the basis of their menstrual observances. The conclusion (which Ortner has since withdrawn) was that there had never been any gender-egalitarian human societies.

Even the linear computer world observes the principle “Garbage in, garbage out.” This would apply not only to the data-set repudiated by anthropologists, but also to De Meo’s murky approach to history. It is part of troubling trend of monolithic high theory running ahead of basic investigation of the facts, much less any understanding of historical patterns.

Even more worrisome are the retrograde racial implications of this particular theory, as expressed in the maps DeMeo showed. I don’t say this out of any reluctance to name male domination wherever it occurs -- all my work of the past 34 years proves otherwise. I say it because some of DeMeo’s “facts” are simply wrong, and distorted by his use of early-to-mid-20th century sources drenched in objectionable (and racially-charged) assumptions.

The most offensive map purported to display incidence of patristic culture traits. These black-shaded areas covered North Africa, but were not to be found in Europe, except for Spain, which adjoins Africa. The Tuareg were simply missing from the Sahara. Why? And where are the patriarchal cultures of Europe? It looks like a new theory of barbarianism and darkest Africa. Yes, De Meo counts the Indo-Europeans as pioneers of patriarchy -- in long-ago prehistory. But his maps don’t show Greco-Roman and medieval European female infanticide, legally sanctioned wife-beating, epidemic rape, witch hunts, or even (following his Reichian tracking of body-armoring) corsets.

During an impassioned argument over DeMeo at the conference, I was explaining how his theory reproduced classic destructive and inaccurate racial mythologies of history. One conferee pointed out that race is an unreal category. Of course, but that is different than racism, which is very real and still shapes our world. The point is that our understanding of history must be taken apart and reexamined not only from the standpoint of gender, but also with a critical eye for the assumptions that prop up the European/American domination of the world.

It is these ideologies that have shaped the formation of “data” of history, anthropology, and all the other disciplines. Europe is assumed to be superior, which plays itself out in claims that European women (Christian women, etc.) are treated better than among the “Others.” This was a standard ploy in the Euro-colonial “squaw” stereotype which painted North American Indian women as powerless drudges. In reality, Indian cultures afforded women much more power and self-determination than the settler cultures. Though much good work has been done to remediate these misconceptions in the past three decades, we are not out of the woods yet. We can not afford to be careless about this; it is crucial for the success of feminist analyses of patriarchy.

Understand that I am speaking to the implications of De Meo’s maps, and not saying that he made literal and explicit claims of European superiority. It’s in the tainted data, the way it was collected, the assumptions that were made in that process, and in the way it was used (by early anthropologists, but also in that early-to-mid-20th century white world) to construct career-building theories about grand social and historical questions -- without input from people from those cultures. The maps replay long-cherished assumptions about Africa and Europe, about civilization and cultural superiority, assumptions that are based on ideology rather than on careful examination of historical evidence.

I don’t care about De Meo; what I do care about, passionately, is the field of women’s history and the success of women’s liberation movements globally. Crucial to that is alliance between feminists of different continents and cultures, and this is what I feel is threatened by an uncritical embrace of theories like this. The negative racial baggage of the “sources” must be examined carefully, in every case, by everyone.

One conferee denied that there were any negative racial implications, since Proto-Indo-Europeans were one of two foundational patriarchies in the Saharasia theory. We can certainly agree that the PIE cultures were patriarchal. However, extensive evidence has been marshaled for that claim: from archaeological finds of sacrificed wives buried with lords, to linguistic documentation for patrilineal descent, patrilocality, and ranked chiefdoms, to ancient written laws and documents that fill out the picture, first for west Asia, and later for Europe.

But we don’t have that kind of evidence for the Sahara 6000 years ago. Humans were sacrificed in burials of high-ranked people in the Kerma culture of Sudan in the 3rd MBCE. But this one piece of evidence goes against the theory: it is found in the Nile river valley, not the Saharan desert. The Garamantes could have been a warrior society, around 3000 years ago, but there’s no records or remnants of an empire. (Their chariots were adopted from west Asia, via Egypt, not invented by local militarists.) There is barely any written evidence for this region, only fragments in Phoenecian, Greek and Roman sources, all of which are way too late to substantiate any hypothesis about the 5th MBCE.

Further, the documents we do have contravert the idea of a Saharan origin for patriarchy, indicating that colonizers from outside, such as the Phoenecians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs, were much more patriarchal than the desert people, and introduced customs like female seclusion and veiling as well as patriarchal law codes to the region.

Claiming a Saharan origin of patriarchy occurs in a context of intensely negative racialized portrayal of African societies. DeMeo says he uses anthropological evidence to prove Saharan patriarchy, but modern ethnographic data does not constitute evidence of ancient culture. In the absence of real historical documentation, it is beyond dubious to extrapolate a 6000-old patriarchy based on present-day excision customs, or even on the last 1000 years. Why would Africans not be offended by a claim that people who come from lands like theirs are more likely to create oppressive societies? This is why Helène Claudot-Hawad denounced the hypothesis as “essentialist.”

Such continued inattention to colonial patterns and inaccurate generalizations show profound ignorance about African history. I think the reaction would have been much more explosive had more African women been present at the conference, which was overwhelmingly white. Africans and African-Americans justifiably feel alienated when, yet again, negative culture traits are highlighted at the expense of exploring the very rich female-positive lodes which have been systematically ignored for so long. Such as the Tuareg! This is a pattern, folks. I want to underline that we need to address the gap that remains between Euro/Americans and the Two Thirds world-- including many feminists. This doesn’t have to be.

We need to read American Indian writers like Barbara Mann and what she says about “Euro-forming the data.” And Laura Donaldson who points up the need to examine “the production of knowledge rather than the intentions of any particular person.” She warns scholars “about their often unwitting affirmation of sanctioned ignorance, their denial of subject status to the colonized, and their reading of the colonial archives.” [57-8, in Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse, NY/London: Routledge, 2002]

Copyleft Max Dashu 2003:
Portions may be reproduced on condition attribution is given and this URL for the full article included.

For more on the way racism has shaped historical discourse, see this article.

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