Many Early Societies Weren't What You'd Call 'Neanderthals'

The advantages of egalitarianism stretch way back.

It turns out some of our earliest human ancestors weren’t club-wielding misogynists. A study by researchers at University College London has found that gender equality may have been the norm in hunter-gatherer societies.

The study, published in the journal Science, is a larger look at how early human societies tended to live with not many closely related individuals. Scientists gathered data through interviews with hunter-gatherer populations from the Congo and the Philippines, and focused on kinship patterns.

The team then created computer simulations based on the hypothesis that early humans would choose to settle in camps with a hierarchy of closely related individuals such as siblings. They found that in male-dominated societies the inhabitants remained a semi-isolated group of relatives, but in societies where men and women had equal influence over the group, the number of related individuals dropped significantly.

Societies with sexual equality allowed for wider-ranging networks of unrelated people. More people meant more innovations and more variety in a choice of a mate to carry on your lineage. There were clear advantages to this approach, over, say, inbreeding with a sister or cousin.   

This sexual equality proved to be an evolutionary advantage for early humans, and flies in the face of the non-egalitarian, Conan the Barbarian stereotype we have of them. It also upends the smug notion that sexual equality is some sort of post-Enlightment luxury. It’s not “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” it’s “We’re Tarzan and Jane,” and it’s been around for hundreds of thousands of years.

Treating men and women as equals actually seemed pretty awesome and beneficial, so what happened? In a word: greed.

The agrarian societies that followed were mostly male-driven. When early humans could collect and hold resources for the first time, men gained an advantage by taking more wives, and having more children to survive and protect all the stuff. We’re still living with the fallout of this Game of Thrones-style system of subjugation. You might know it as the patriarchy, which a healthy contingent of savvy people are in fact hoping to smash. Turns out there’s precedent for living well, advantageously, together.