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Questions that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this, your section,
and be answered by other readers. Please address your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.

Is there any evidence that matriarchal cultures ever existed and if so, were they more egalitarian than patriarchal ones?

In terms of sexual egalitarianism the Nayar caste in Malabar, south-west India may have qualified. In pre-colonial times Nayar women would enter a ritualistic marriage, spend three days in a hut with their husband to consummate the union, and then effectively dissolve it so as to be free to take up to 12 lovers. As Nayar men spent much of their time in combat, male death rates were high and this custom ensured that their caste would procreate itself.

D Moran
Manchester, England

If we define matriarchy as a mirror of patriarchy there is little evidence that matriarchal cultures ever existed. There is, however, evidence of cultures in the past where matrilineality and matrilocality have been or are practised. The former seems to have occurred in Hittite society in Asia Minor and both practices are thought to have occurred in Catul Huyuk in Anatolia – present-day Turkey. But even in societies where there have been powerful female leaders or where the female is represented in the divine, this does not suggest the existence of an egalitarian society, let alone a matriarchal one. I recommend Gerda Lerner’s book The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press)

Harriet Conniff
London, England

In First Nation (or Native American) societies women had considerable informal power in that they controlled the distribution of food. When Huron couples married the husband went to live with the woman.


The use of the word ‘matriarchal’ in itself shows up the difficulties we have in thinking our way out of current paradigms. The alternative to one way of organizing society is not necessarily its opposite. I recommend Riane Eislers’s excellent book The Chalice and the Blade for an inspirational view of the development of gender-based power structures in history and prehistory.

Paul Dabinett
Tavistock, England

How did human beings learn to take hard, inedible seeds, grind them up, mix them with water and turn them into something they could eat?

I am surprised that NI would publish such an inaccurate, Eurocentric and possibly sexist answer to this question in NI 268. The suggestion that seed-grinding was ‘learnt by initiate priests in Megalithic times through inspiration’ is a highly speculative interpretation of selected archaeological evidence.

Seed-grinding is more likely to have been developed by women, who have primary responsibility for plant-food processing in most recent and contemporary foraging societies. Archaeological evidence suggests that seed-grinding developed independently over the past 10,000 years in those parts of the world where suitable plant food were already being collected for food. For example: Middle East (wheat and barley) 8000 BC; China (millet) 2000 BC; sub-Saharan Africa (millet and sorghum) 3000 BC; Australia (wild grasses) 2000 BC.

Dr Sarah Cooley
Lecturer in Archaeology
University of Sydney, Australia

awaiting your answers

Does anyone know what happened to the proposal by an African scientist (I’m afraid I do not recall his name) to provide refugee camps in Zaire with efficient small ovens that could be mass produced from scrap metal in a nearby town and that would reduce the burning of wood by a huge percentage?

Daphne Morgan
Southampton, England

What are the benefits or disadvantages of adding fluoride to tap water?

CE Clarke
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Are there any cultures in the world where there is never any reason to exchange gifts?

James Phillips
Wigston, England

If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities, New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK, or to your local NI office (see inside front cover for addresses).


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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 270 magazine cover This article is from the August 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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