Bonobos And The Myth Of Matriarchy

Spoiler Alert

I, like many of you, love a tale of a matriarchy. I get the appeal. It fires me up and - some days - empowers me to get out of bed to go face the world as a woman and do the work of a feminist.

Unfortunately, it’s just a myth. The only true matriarchies* that have ever existed occur in the wild.

Jennifer Smith, an Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology Researcher at Mills, wrote a paper explaining how a group must have at least one of four traits to meet the definition of female leadership. Groups where females are physically stronger and larger than males, where life spans are long, where lives are spent in a single area, and where female friendships are the glue that keeps it all together.

Bonobos master female friendship.

Bonobos master female friendship.

Of the 5,000 mammal species living on earth only 76 live in groups that require leadership roles. Just 6 of those meet the matriarchal definition of female leadership in terms of conflict resolution, group movement, and food collection: Bonobos*, African lions, Orcas, African elephants, spotted hyenas and some types of lemurs.

Humans have always been mythmakers.

Unlike bonobos, orcas and African elephants, homo erectus - you and I - we yearn to know where we came from, why we’re here, where we’re going (heaven or hell?), how we should behave and why it is so.

Happy to be born a bonobo.

Happy to be born a bonobo.

We collectively agree to imagine and embrace our origin story and then we retell it for generations through verbal recitation, art, literature, and religion. Myths help us deal with the condition of being human and give us a reason, despite all the painful evidence to the contrary, to believe that our lives have a bigger meaning and a higher value than simply keeping ourselves and our loved ones clothed, fed and sheltered.

I don’t know who first told the story of a world/country/island/town/village led by women, probably a child “bride” forced to leave her mother and sisters to slave away on land she would never own while her father, sons, and brothers shoot the shit around a fire. But in its relentless retellings, the patriarchy has used - wittingly or unwittingly - matriarchy myths as origin stories not dissimilar to the creationism myth of Adam and Eve. Remember how A and E were “equal” and everything was paradise until Eve ate the apple? God was no longer Mr. Nice Guy. He was pissed and he sentenced all women to a life of subservience, reproductive powerlessness and pain, and it’s all our fault.

In the hands of the patriarchy, every matriarchy myth eventually ends with women being conquered by stronger, smarter, tougher men. This is how these myths - and almost all the others - explain and justify the sexist and misogynist treatment of females. We tricked you! We stole your power! We rose up! How dare we? We can’t be trusted and must be punished! If you doubt the patriarchy’s hand in crafting and propagating this tale - and every other - take a look at the visuals and versions comics and movies use to tell stories of mythical females. Their tight clothes, huge bare breasts, tiny waists, and big asses are created by and for the male gaze. If that’s not objectification I’m a bonobo.

  • Most anthropologists have found no known anthropological societies that are unambiguously matriarchal. Matriarchies may also be confused with matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies.

  • We share 99% of our human DNA with both bonobos and chimpanzees, as do they with each other. Be a bonobo.


Article by VERVE Founder & CFO (Chief Feminist Operative) Anna Quick-Palmer

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