Many of us look at the stranglehold that gender-based oppression has on our societies and wonder if there was a time when men didn’t have this much power, when femininity and masculinity didn’t mean what they do now. When we search for powerful women in ancient history, when we try to identify precedents for equality in the distant past, perhaps we also betray our longing for an alternative in a world in which we fear there may be none.
Patriarchy—giving all power and authority to the father—can sometimes seem like a vast conspiracy stretching into deep time. The word itself has become devastatingly monolithic, encompassing all the ways in which the world’s women, girls, and nonbinary people are abused and unfairly treated, from domestic violence and rape to the gender pay gap and moral double standards. The sheer scale of it feels out of our control. But how old and how universal is it really?
Historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and feminists have been fascinated by this question—and as a science journalist, I’ve been preoccupied with it for years.
In most cases, matrilineal societies are framed as unusual circumstances, “beset by special strains, as fragile and rare, possibly even doomed to extinction,” as Washington State University anthropologist Linda Stone puts it. In academic circles, the problem is known as the matrilineal puzzle. Patriliny, on the other hand, is seen to need no explanation. It just is.