Our Egalitarian Beginnings

Early in my recovery, I became interested in the role society plays in the sexual abuse of women and children. The books and articles I read revealed a pervasive connection between patriarchy and sexual trauma that today is largely considered axiomatic. The general consensus is if we want to end sexual abuse of women and children and other forms of gender-based violence, patriarchal dominance hierarchies must give way to an egalitarian worldview in which equality is a practice rather than an ideal. 

Although I agree with this perspective, I nevertheless have wondered how power is actually dealt with in egalitarian societies, and if the sexes have ever been truly equal. Egalitarianism continues today in the few remaining hunter gatherer societies, including the Australian Aborigines, the African Ju/‘hoansi, and the Arctic Circle Inuits. These societies are believed to be similar to the first egalitarian hunter gatherers whose numbers dwindled after agriculture became widespread 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. It has become customary to look to extant hunter gatherers to understand not only what first humans were like, but also how we were meant to live.

I realize early human history is an unusual launching point for addressing recovery from trauma, especially sexual abuse. Yet given that early hunter gatherers are thought to have lived enriched lives that supported optimal social and psychological development, I agree with Paul Shepard: “The greater the degree to which a person or society conforms to our Paleolithic progenitors and their environmental context the healthier she, he, they, and it will be.”⁠1  Hunter gatherer societies promote embodied awareness; they value interdependency as a communal aspiration; and they bolster psychological states that help resolve psychic fragmentation and feelings of alienation  — all of which happen to also support recovery from trauma. We can survive the conditions of dominance hierarchies, albeit with great stress to our minds, bodies, and relationships, but we thrive in conditions of equality. 

Even so, the lives of early hunter gatherers were not entirely peaceful. Interpersonal violence was not uncommon, and likely occurred between rivals for a mate or as retaliatory acts of revenge, although warfare was largely absent. Evidence also suggests that up to 50 percent of female infants were killed; infanticide was an accepted way of regulating population levels and male children were the preferred offspring.⁠2 Nevertheless, a girl or woman likely has a greater chance of avoiding sexual trauma when living in egalitarian societies. Hunter gatherers intentional avoidance of despots and displays of aggression is part of an ethos that also likely deters sexual predation, as well as bullying of the young or weak. The emphasis on communal harmony in egalitarian communities protects the most vulnerable by limiting the escalation of hostilities while also reducing conditions in which girls, boys, and women can be isolated and exploited.  

Rather than seeing egalitarianism as the absence of power, anthropologist Christopher Boehm described hunter gatherer societies as “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which any member’s efforts at coercion or control are resisted and rebuked by the larger community. Instead of an alpha male squashing his competitors’ grabs for power in attempts to maintain his position of dominance, potential upstarts in egalitarian societies are controlled by the threat of rejection and condemnation by the group. And when it comes to moral sanctioning, women are equal players in egalitarian societies. Boehm wrote:

“… women participate quite fully in the moral life of their community. Both sexes are quick to judge the doings of others, comparing the behavior with idealized profiles of how people should behave. Both sexes contribute to the process by which a group decides that an individual is socially deviant and in need of sanctioning. Both sexes engage in ridicule or other forms of direct social pressure—and in ostracism, for this work is done by a well-catalyzed group that must be in broad agreement if it is to act effectively.”

Nevertheless, male authority is the norm in extant foraging societies, although there are exceptions. Women of the Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines hunt with men, and like men, use arrows and dogs to kill wild boar. Success as a hunter for the Agta depends more on skill than physical size or brute force. Agta women hunters also have equal status with men and contribute to group decision-making.⁠3 In  Ju/‘hoansi societies women also become leaders. Furthermore, both men and women act as shamans in hunter gatherer societies. Thus, spiritual leadership tends to transcend power differentials associated with ordinary life and everyday consciousness. 

Most ethnographic studies of extant hunter gatherers reveal the limits of equality within the nuclear family, where men are less likely to challenge the abuse of power by other men.⁠4 However, I question whether inequality in the family was widespread in early hunter gatherer societies. I suspect male dominance within the family that is witnessed in extant hunter gatherer societies is a reaction to living in more hostile times. The history of present day hunter gatherers co-occurs with the emergence of chiefdoms and civilizations, both of which depended on raiding and enslavement to create patriarchal dominance hierarchies. It is possible that hunter gatherers were either coerced or absorbed values from these other types of societies, which led males to take a more domineering role within the household. There is also evidence that women resisted power abuses in the home by seeking support from their communities through shamanic rituals, which is the form of animistic spirituality common to hunter gatherer societies.

Shamanic practices are thought to date back 20 to 30 thousand years.⁠5 One of the central concerns of shamans is the maintenance of personal power. Shamanism is commonly used to address power intrusions, which are the spiritual equivalent of having an infection contracted through another person’s aggression, whether because of their abusive behaviors or because they are carriers of aggressive energy.⁠6 

When power is abused in the home, shamanic rituals are opportunities for women to relay to the community the effects of excessive dominance as well as receive support. Trance states, which psychiatrist Horaccio Fabrega described as ritualized forms of dissociation, is one way to communicate power intrusions and social-related distress: 

“States of dissociation provided inner spaces or psychological arenas in which those stresses … could be worked out by … producing scenarios of behavior that communicated the distress and played it out in ways that were safe and culturally understandable, and capable of eliciting sympathy and support.”⁠7 

Similarly, spirit possession has been a way for the oppressed to voice their realities without fear of retribution. Anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern observed possession functioning as “a theater for voicing frustrations and grievances in male-dominated societies, or as a coercive tool used by women to secure retribution and revenge.”⁠8 For shamanism, recovery from trauma and addressing abuses in power is often synonymous.

We moderns still need our communities to witness our wounds and help us heal. In the depths of our humanity, we continue to anticipate a collective ‘holding’ of our suffering in which our community comes together to address what is too threatening to deal with on our own. Shepard claimed all of humanity suffers “… for the want of that vanished world, a deep grief we learn to misconstrue.”⁠9 Without a vital sense of connections and belonging, we risk being cut off from ourselves, from each other, and even from the planet. This existential alienation is the added burden of living in patriarchal dominance hierarchies. Deep within us, we know there is a better way to live.

Questions to ponder: Imagine the ideal conditions for your recovery. How would you be supported? Who would support you? Who would you become at the end of your recovery? How would you have changed? What role would you then play in your community?


1 Shepard, Paul. (1998). Coming home to the pleistocene. Washington, D.C. : Shearwater Books, p. 34.

2 Benjamin, Craig G. (2016). The big history of civilizations. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.

3 Boehm, Christopher. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 8

4 Boehm, 1999.

5 Harner, Michael. (2011/1990). The way of the shaman. New York, NY: HarperCollins e-books, Kindle location 897.

6 Harner, Kindle location 1450.

7 Fabrega, Horacio. (2002). Origins of psychopathology: The phylogenetic and cultural basis of mental illness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, p. 311.

8 Mulhern, S. (1991). Embodied alternative identities: Bearing witness to a world that might have been. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 14(3), 769-787, p. 777.

9 Shepard, Paul. (1982). Nature and madness. Athens: University of Georgia Press, p. 15.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).