Why did our ancestors succeed? A response to Mike Beaken

Issue: 155

Pete Wearden

The previous issue of International Socialism included an article by Mike Beaken, “Engels, Neanderthals and the Origins of the Family”.1 I would like to welcome this contribution to the discussion of human evolution and the shift it makes away from the biological determinism that has been so prevalent in recent years. Mike examines the interaction between the ancestors of humans and Neanderthals. He addresses the causes of Neanderthal extinction and the potential for interbreeding. However, he also examines the role that social structures and rules play in human development, including social labour and sexual taboos.

In contrasting the development of Neanderthals to the technological and social development of our ancestors prior to the move out of Africa, he says: “The resulting culture or lifestyle characterised the Upper Palaeolithic… A development that is essentially human, based on practices that are passed on from one generation to the next—practices that are learned, not genetic”.2 Recent analysis of human and Neanderthal DNA has found small but significant levels of Neanderthal DNA in Eurasian humans. But the recognition that learned behaviour was central to the success of humans puts this discovery of Neanderthal DNA into context, since it is unlikely that any interbreeding would have had any significant effect on human development in the period after the exodus from Africa. How, when and how much of that DNA got into the human genepool is still the subject of debate and many alternative theories have been suggested.3 Chris Stringer accepts the proposition but cautions that, “The most likely explanation is that the ancestors of people in Europe, Asia and New Guinea interbred with Neanderthals (or at least with a population that had a component of Neanderthal genes)”.4

I agree with Mike’s assessment that the interbreeding of Cro-Magnons (anatomically modern humans who occupied Europe from about 50,000 years ago) and Neanderthals, “is not really of vital importance… It is the difference in culture and lifestyle that are important to consider in understanding the development of humanity”.5

However, Mike goes on to look at the role that sexual taboo plays in the development of human society. He refers to Friedrich Engels and suggests that, “the problem of male jealousy has to be tackled in order for members of the primitive troupe to start cooperating in essential labour activities”.6 But to what extent does this development relate to the cultural differences between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals and the spread of humanity across Eurasia in the last 100,000 years?

Mike recognises that Alpha male-based social structures are not reflected in our closest existing relatives, the bonobos. Furthermore, Morna Finnegan, a researcher into egalitarian hunter-gatherers, argues that early humans raised their offspring cooperatively. Referring to the work of Sarah Hrdy, she says that: “she assembles a huge wealth of data to support her contention that these first cooperatively breeding communities were kin-based matrilineal communities”. She quotes Hrdy saying, “Although highly complex processes were involved in the evolution of extended lifespans, prolonged childhoods, and bigger brains…cooperative breeding was the pre-existing condition that permitted the evolution of these traits in the hominim line”.7 If Hrdy is right then the forms of female solidarity referred to by Mike existed millions of years before anatomically modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago let alone culturally modern humans. It is difficult to see how this could be the key change that accounts for the success of our ancestors within Africa and in the expansion into Eurasia in the last 100,000 years. However, along with many other social and anatomical changes it may constitute one of the pre-conditions for later developments.

This matters because Chris Knight (author of Blood Relations where he argues the “Sex Strike” theory8) and some feminist anthropologists look at human development as a process where changes in kinship relations create changes in economic relations. Finnegan says: “The argument I put forward, following Knight, is that the kind of prosocial power conducive to the emergence of sexual egalitarianism is driven by female cooperative strategies”.9 Later she says: “the first thing to suffer when groups of males seize power from the collective is child welfare”.10 This approach posits gender conflict as the driver of human development. This would seem contrary to the established Marxist position which sees the economic relationship as the base and other social and political structures as the superstructure determined “in the final analysis” by the economic structure. Class struggle is replaced by gender struggle. Is it the establishment of kinship and reproductive relations that directly cause the establishment of social labour and productive relations? Do “relations of reproduction” determine “relations of production”?

By contrast, Engels argues that the collapse of the matrilineal gens, where tribes are divided into clans (or gens) based on maternal descent, is rooted in the neolithic revolution, the emergence of an agricultural society and the rise of class. In other words economic changes cause changes in social relationships, including kinship structures.

If we accept that the social organisation of labour is one of the forces of production just as much as technology is, then the organisation of labour should be taken as seriously as the development of stone tool technology in the trajectory of human development. The problem is that human relations cannot be found in the fossil record or survive in the way that stone tools and pottery do. I agree with Mike that “such activities as making fire, foraging collectively and gathering food, and sharing food on a more equitable basis than favouritism—in other words the start of organised, collective labour” are fundamental to the success of modern humanity.11

I would suggest that the establishment of fully social labour depends on establishing customary rules for production (gathering and hunting) and, crucially, for the distribution of what is produced. Of course, understanding this long past process of forming new economic and social relations in the earliest phases of human society is difficult, but I think there are clues in recently existing hunter-gatherer societies. For example, there is a widespread rule, the “Own kill” rule that requires hunters not to consume their own kill until it has been returned to the village to be (cooked and) distributed in the wider group. Rules such as this are an element in the process of forming new social relations. The solidifying of such practices into customary social rules, ie social labour, will in turn create social structures that will develop gradually and alongside the formation of social labour. Similarly, the emergence of a surplus and the decline of the matrilineal gens and its replacement with a patrilineal gens and eventually a patriarchal family happened over centuries. Similarly, the gentile structure of the Iroquois described by Lewis Henry Morgan in his classic book Ancient Society (an influence on Engels) would have taken centuries to develop.12

The question of what gave our ancestors the advantage over Neanderthals or other hominid groups that emerged from Africa in previous periods is not easy to answer, given the paucity of evidence. However, a number of possible explanations seem to fail. If anatomically modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago and there is no genetic or anatomical change which could explain the explosion of humanity across the world 70,000 years ago, then the genetic explanation fails. And if the cause was genetic, why did it not happen 100,000 years earlier?

An explanation based on collective child-rearing and female solidarity also fails because, like many other factors, it constituted a long-existing pre-condition which, for millions of years, had not produced a massive expansion of the pre-human population.

A growth in the productive potential of human society can only be based on two things, a development in technology or a change in the social organisation of labour. There seems little evidence for a critical change in stone tool technology at the time of “out of Africa” which could explain the subsequent development. This leaves the social organisation of labour as the key change in the forces of production allowing our ancestors to succeed where others failed. I agree with Mike that those Neanderthal populations that failed to adopt social labour were doomed. The integration of others into human culture and society is an interesting proposition which could only emphasise the economic power of the socialisation of labour.

Pete Wearden a long-standing socialist activist and member of Bristol SWP.


1 Beaken, 2017.

2 Beaken, 2017, p162. My emphasis.

3 See Stringer, 2012, chapter 7.

4 Stringer, 2012, 192. My emphasis.

5 Beaken, 2017, p159.

6 Beaken, 2017, p159.

7 Finnegan, 2017.

8 Knight, 1991.

9 Finnegan, 2017, p131.

10 Finnegan, 2017, p132.

11 Beaken, 2017, p160.

12 Morgan, 2000.


Beaken, Mike, 2017, “Engels, Neanderthals and the Origins of the Family”, International Socialism 154 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/engels-neanderthals-and-the-origins-of-the-family/

Finnegan, Morna, 2016, “Who Sees the Elephant? Sexual Egalitarianism in Social Anthropology’s Room”, In Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan and Hilary Callan (eds), Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology (Berghahn).

Knight, Chris, 1991, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (Yale University Press).

Morgan, Lewis Henry, 2000 [1877], Ancient Society (Transaction Publishers), www.marxists.org/reference/archive/morgan-lewis/ancient-society/

Stringer, Chris, 2012, The Origin of Our Species (Penguin).