A field study by a Member of the Royal Anthropology Society, (M.R.A.S.), Sir Kimski.
Over the past century and even long before that, one of the most persistent and enduring claims of the feminist movement has been “the historical oppression of women” perpetrated by men. Anyone capable of reading and comprehending basic English literature can walk into any library and find evidence to the contrary, or at least evidence substantiating the fact that both women and men suffered to an equal extent on our journey towards today’s civilization. Just like today, everyone was living under the iron fist of the ruling class, warlords, kings and queens alike, and just like today, both men and women were the pawns in their political schemes.
In order to prove this point, I decided to establish an expedition to find one of the last hunter/gatherer tribes on the planet, the Asmats of Papua New Guinea, to observe first-hand to what extent this claim of oppression was true. The Asmats were originally discovered by Captain James Cook in 1772 on his expeditions to map the southeastern part of Asia and Australia. They were originally both cannibals and headhunters and, back then, would defend their homesteads with loud noises and projecting bursts of white powder to scare off any unwelcome intruders in their territory. As a consequence of the cannibalism and headhunting, they were mostly left undisturbed, and it was not until the mid-20th century that they came into regular contact with outsiders. The term Asmat is used to refer to both the people and the region they inhabit to this day.
After enduring the mind-numbing preparations, plane travel, queues, misplaced luggage, and all the other discomforts that come with setting up such a task, I finally found myself at the outskirts of the Lorentz National Park, a World Heritage Site. It is the largest protected area in the Asia-Pacific region, home to around 70,000 Asmats, which constitutes their total global population.
What followed over the next one and a half weeks can best be described as a venture into a living, humid “Hell on Earth.” Constant attacks from billions of mosquitos, huge leeches in swamped areas I traversed, and always the threat of mistaking a vine with one of the death adders or taipans that live here. Not to mention poisonous spiders the size of a palm, or the possibility of being crushed under falling tree trunks whenever a soothing wind would blow. Everything there seemed intent on either sucking the lifeblood out of me or killing me if possible. On the third day I had blisters on top of blisters in my hands from the chopping of vines and undergrowth, and sleep became a state of unconsciousness after the fifth day.
Finally, I stumbled into a clearing and realized I had made it: primitive houses made of timberwood with palm leaves as roofs were placed one meter or more above the ground. All of them were placed in a semicircle around an open area in the middle, with a huge fireplace as the central point. It must have surprised them to see a sweaty, exhausted white man walk out of the jungle, which caused everybody, for what seemed the longest moment, to stop dead in their tracks and stare with wide and suspicious eyes on my person. Images of my dried and smoked head on a stick passed through my mind for a second or two. The moment passed as the natives decided I was a welcome presence, and I was blessed to receive a welcome like I have never experienced before.
From my eminently superior research I discovered that:
These tribes practice polygyny, something the missionaries have failed to erase from their culture, where each man is allowed to marry up to seven wives. Given the harsh conditions under which they live, the benefits may not seem obvious to those incapable of recognizing the implications for this male demographic. Of course, bigger families and more offspring provide an increased probability of survival for the individual gene pools, and through cultural taboos as our own, problems of inbreeding are prevented. The male heads of the families are also expected to marry deceased male relative’s wives; otherwise, the women and their children would be left without a source of protection or support. This obligation places an additional strain and amount of responsibility on males of the individual families, forcing them to provide and protect for more than the number of wives he has chosen.
Not too much “historical oppression of women” was found in the tribal customs and male obligations I observed. Quite the contrary. If you take into further consideration that these tribes are also known to wage wars against each other over major or minor disputes, such as the access to the crucial hunting grounds necessary for survival, or revenge wars, it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision a situation where a single male has to provide for what used to be two or three families, with the multitude of wives and children that scenario suggests.
Add to this the aforementioned threats from the jungle when the men go hunting, the likelihood of fights and arguments breaking out between merged families with their extended number of children and wives, and the responsibilities placed on the man by the constant need for resources, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the men of the Asmat tribe live significantly reduced lifespans compared with the women. If a man with no brothers should die a premature death, his social responsibilities are placed on his father, an uncle, or his eldest son, regardless of their age.
The sole purpose of the entire Asmat social structure is to ensure the survival of women and children, and as disposable utilities men are the primary means to that end. Nothing has changed over the 100,000 years that divide the two cultures (them and modern Westerners). Men are still the providers and protectors being held accountable by the responsibilities and obligations placed upon them, and the outcome is just as inevitable as it has been through the centuries—including the fact of earlier male deaths.
These hunter/gatherer tribes have lived in much the same way for thousands of years, and are not very far removed from our ancestors way of life in the north—up until some 8,000 years ago when agriculture expanded across the continents as a more productive method to ensure survival. The major differences would be the vastly colder climate and the radical increase in large beasts that could kill you.
There would have been no running around back then for our own ancestors naked and adorned with feathers and bodypaint like the Asmats—the huge difference in average temperatures would have made everyday survival almost intolerable in the northern parts. And we very likely also practiced polygyny to a certain extent. That custom disappeared in part because of religion up in the more northern regions of the planet. One can imagine the strain on the male demographic under those conditions, and with those social expectations and obligations.
Because of the social responsibilities it was and still is necessary for the Asmats to depend on tribal woodcarvings as an additional source of income. Their art is sought by collectors worldwide today, but in the not too distant past, trading cultural artifacts and resource surplus with other tribes would have assured a secondary source of income. The only difference here, compared with our ancestors, would be the trading materials.
So, let’s reiterate what we’ve learned: The average life of a grown male Asmat is a life on the run toward the grave. He lives the first five to six years as most children do, playing and roaming free in the outskirts of the tribal grounds. He then enters the men’s house, where he progressively has less to do with his mother and her consanguineal relatives, where he is then taught to carve woodwork, fish, and hunt. After the rite-of-passage ritual a couple of years later, he works hard on perfecting those skills. If he is not capable of sustaining a family, he won’t get married, and his bloodline will die with him. From sun up to sun down, he is constantly felling trees, carrying trunks of wood to the homestead for woodcarvings or canoes, hunting out in the jungle—sometimes for days away from his family—fishing, carving wood or producing canoes, or waging tribal wars.
Again, there is no significant difference between the male Asmat’s life in the deep jungle today and what the average northern ancestor of any of us had to face, besides the wildlife, the biotope, and the climate. Every archaeological find in the northern hemisphere points to that fact. We would have been more likely to starve, freeze to death, or suffer any number of violent deaths, but that’s just about it. That is when you don’t factor in the added strain of providing in the colder environment, and the more frequent resource wars, of course. You can go to any time period in the history of Homo sapiens, and the social expectations and obligations placed on males will likely be exactly the same.
Let’s have a look at the way the average Asmat woman lives her life:
The first couple of years they live parallel lives with the boys. There’s no difference in the way children are raised within an Asmat family, initially. At age five or six, the girls start following a group of women around, from whom they learn skills like cooking, netfishing, botany, growing, harvesting, and processing of the sago palm (from which they get the stipe that remains the dietary staple), and the kind of “needlework” you’d expect in a hunter/gatherer society.
When an Asmat girl comes of age, it is socially expected of her to marry a suitable husband, to continue the bloodline. Their family structures are based on “Yews.”  The yew is the nexus of Asmat kin and social/ritual organization. It is complemented by a complex yet flexible patri-ambilineal descent system (i.e., one wherein male lines predominate but female lines also are traced and actively recognized). Each yew is divided into named halves or moieties, termed aypim. These moieties are reflected in the positioning of fireplaces within the men’s houses. In principle, marriage is yew-endogamous and aypim-exogamous.
At marriage, a woman becomes more closely affiliated with her husband’s aypim and takes up residence there. Individual houses are built, occupied, and maintained by extended families in the vicinity of the men’s house. The informal adoption of children, even those whose parents remain viable members of the same village, is relatively common. This is perceived to be a means of maintaining “yew balance,” which overrides all else to the Asmats.
While not a common occurrence, divorce does take place. Occasionally it is precipitated (in polygamous households) by interwife tensions, but more often it is caused (in monogamous as well as polygamous households) by problems between husband and wife. Problems of the married couple may include physical abuse between partners, and some divorceed have cited inadequate cooking or hunting skills as the primary cause. A woman’s return to her original yew and aypim signifies divorce; there is no formal ritual, and the woman is free to leave at any time she may please.
Somewhere between the eon-old way of life of the Asmats and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution for us, ideologically driven Marxists and also feminists want us to insert “a historical oppression of women” into our interpretations—and that is meant to justify their present-day actions, as well as their hatred of males.
However, the similarities between the way the Asmats live today and how the vast majority of hunter/gatherer societies have lived in our part of the world, up until agriculture and civilization changed everything, makes the “historical oppression of women” blatantly impossible.
First of all: It can’t be “historical” for this one reason alone, unless you completely dismiss the greatest part of our history as hunter/gatherers.
Second: If the Asmats way of life and our own archaeological findings are any indication of anything, there simply wouldn’t have been the necessary surplus of energy or incentive to oppress anyone. Least of all someone who was free to leave at any given time while still being crucial for you and your children’s survival. You simply couldn’t remove the female input from the family equation, even if she had provided offspring already, and still expect to survive on equal terms with the rest of the tribe you were a part of.
The reversed scenario has been a historical norm for men, just like it is today.
Feature image by Christopher Michel