Origins of the Family. Chapter 1

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Frederick Engels
Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

I. Stages of Prehistoric Culture

MORGAN is the first man who, with expert knowledge, has attempted to introduce a definite order into the history of primitive man; so long as no important additional material makes changes necessary, his classification will undoubtedly remain in force.

Of the three main epochs – savagery, barbarism, and civilization – he is concerned, of course, only with the first two and the transition to the third. He divides both savagery and barbarism into lower, middle, and upper stages according to the progress made in the production of food; for, he says:

Upon their skill in this direction, the whole question of human supremacy on the earth depended. Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food.... It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.

[Morgan, op. cit., p. 19. -Ed.]

The development of the family takes a parallel course, but here the periods have not such striking marks of differentiation.

I. Savagery

(a.) LOWER STAGE. Childhood of the human race [Australopithecus]. Man still lived in his original habitat, in tropical or subtropical forests, and was partially at least a tree-dweller, for otherwise his survival among huge beasts of prey cannot be explained. Fruit, nuts and roots served him for food. The development of articulate speech is the main result of this period. Of all the peoples known to history none was still at this primitive level. Though this period may have lasted thousands of years, we have no direct evidence to prove its existence; but once the evolution of man from the animal kingdom is admitted, such a transitional stage must necessarily be assumed.[A]

(b.) MIDDLE STAGE. Begins with the utilization of fish for food (including crabs, mussels, and other aquatic animals), and with the use of fire. The two are complementary, since fish becomes edible only by the use of fire. With this new source of nourishment, men now became independent of climate and locality; even as savages, they could, by following the rivers and coasts, spread over most of the earth. Proof of these migrations is the distribution over every continent of the crudely worked, unsharpened flint tools of the earlier Stone Age, known as "palaeoliths," all or most of which date from this period. New environments, ceaseless exercise of his inventive faculty, and the ability to produce fire by friction, led man to discover new kinds of food: farinaceous roots and tubers, for instance, were baked in hot ashes or in ground ovens. With the invention of the first weapons, club and spear, game could sometimes be added to the fare. But the tribes which figure in books as living entirely, that is, exclusively, by hunting never existed in reality; the yield of the hunt was far too precarious. At this stage, owing to the continual uncertainty of food supplies, cannibalism seems to have arisen, and was practiced from now onwards for a long time. The Australian aborigines and many of the Polynesians are still in this middle stage of savagery today.[B]

(c.) UPPER STAGE. Begins with the invention of the bow and arrow, whereby game became a regular source of food, and hunting a normal form of work. Bow, string, and arrow already constitute a very complex instrument, whose invention implies long, accumulated experience and sharpened intelligence, and therefore knowledge of many other inventions as well. We find, in fact, that the peoples acquainted with the bow and arrow but not yet with pottery (from which Morgan dates the transition to barbarism) are already making some beginnings towards settlement in villages and have gained some control over the production of means of subsistence; we find wooden vessels and utensils, finger-weaving (without looms) with filaments of bark; plaited baskets of bast or osier; sharpened (neolithic) stone tools. With the discovery of fire and the stone ax, dug-out canoes now become common; beams and planks arc also sometimes used for building houses. We find all these advances, for instance, among the Indians of northwest America, who are acquainted with the bow and arrow but not with pottery. The bow and arrow was for savagery what the iron sword was for barbarism and fire-arms for civilization – the decisive weapon.[C]

2. Barbarism

(a.) LOWER STAGE. Dates from the introduction of pottery. In many cases it has been proved, and in all it is probable, that the first pots originated from the habit of covering baskets or wooden vessels with clay to make them fireproof; in this way it was soon discovered that the clay mold answered the purpose without any inner vessel.

Thus far we have been able to follow a general line of development applicable to all peoples at a given period without distinction of place. With the beginning of barbarism, however, we have reached a stage when the difference in the natural endowments of the two hemispheres of the earth comes into play. The characteristic feature of the period of barbarism is the domestication and breeding of animals and the cultivation of plants. Now, the Eastern Hemisphere, the so-called Old World, possessed nearly all the animals adaptable to domestication, and all the varieties of cultivable cereals except one; the Western Hemisphere, America, had no mammals that could be domesticated except the llama, which, moreover, was only found in one part of South America, and of all the cultivable cereals only one, though that was the best, namely, maize. Owing to these differences in natural conditions, the population of each hemisphere now goes on its own way, and different landmarks divide the particular stages in each of the two cases.

(b.) MIDDLE STAGE. Begins in the Eastern Hemisphere with domestication of animals; in the Western, with the cultivation, by means of irrigation, of plants for food, and with the use of adobe (sun-dried) bricks and stone for building.

We will begin with the Western Hemisphere, as here this stage was never superseded before the European conquest.

At the time when they were discovered, the Indians at the lower stage of barbarism (comprising all the tribes living east of the Mississippi) were already practicing some horticulture of maize, and possibly also of gourds, melons, and other garden plants, from which they obtained a very considerable part of their food. They lived in wooden houses in villages protected by palisades. The tribes in the northwest, particularly those in the region of the Columbia River, were still at the upper stage of savagery and acquainted neither with pottery nor with any form of horticulture. The so-called Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, however, and the Mexicans, Central Americans, and Peruvians at the time of their conquest were at the middle stage of barbarism. They lived in houses like fortresses, made of adobe brick or of stone, and cultivated maize and other plants, varying according to locality and climate, in artificially irrigated plots of ground, which supplied their main source of food; some animals even had also been domesticated – the turkey and other birds by the Mexicans, the llama by the Peruvians. They could also work metals, but not iron; hence they were still unable to dispense with stone weapons and tools. The Spanish conquest then cut short any further independent development.

In the Eastern Hemisphere the middle stage of barbarism began with the domestication of animals providing milk and meat, but horticulture seems to have remained unknown far into this period.[D] It was, apparently, the domestication and breeding of animals and the formation of herds of considerable size that led to the differentiation of the Aryans and Semites[E] from the mass of barbarians. The European and Asiatic Aryans still have the same names for cattle, but those for most of the cultivated plants are already different.

In suitable localities, the keeping of herds led to a pastoral life: the Semites lived upon the grassy plains of the Euphrates and Tigris [Mesopotamia], and the Aryans upon those of India and of the Oxus and Jaxartes, of the Don and the Dnieper. It must have been on the borders of such pasture lands that animals were first domesticated. To later generations, consequently, the pastoral tribes appear to have come from regions which, so far from being the cradle of mankind, were almost uninhabitable for their savage ancestors and even for man at the lower stages of barbarism. But having once accustomed themselves to pastoral life in the grassy plains of the rivers, these barbarians of the middle period would never have dreamed of returning willingly to the native forests of their ancestors. Even when they were forced further to the north and west, the Semites and Aryans could not move into the forest regions of western Asia and of Europe until by cultivation of grain they had made it possible to pasture and especially to winter their herds on this less favorable land. It is more than probable that among these tribes the cultivation of grain originated from the need for cattle fodder and only later became important as a human food supply.

The plentiful supply of milk and meat and especially the beneficial effect of these foods on the growth of the children account perhaps for the superior development of the Aryan and Semitic races. It is a fact that the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, who are reduced to an almost entirely vegetarian diet, have a smaller brain than the Indians at the lower stage of barbarism, who eat more meat and fish.[F] In any case, cannibalism now gradually dies out, surviving only as a religious act or as a means of working magic, which is here almost the same thing.

(c.) UPPER STAGE. Begins with the smelting of iron ore, and passes into civilization with the invention of alphabetic writing and its use for literary records [beginning in Mesopotamia in around 3000 B.C.E.]. This stage (as we have seen, only the Eastern Hemisphere passed through it independently) is richer in advances in production than all the preceding stages together. To it belong the Greeks of the heroic age, the tribes of Italy shortly before the foundation of Rome, the Germans of Tacitus and the Norsemen of the Viking age.[G]

Above all, we now first meet the iron plowshare drawn by cattle, which made large-scale agriculture, the cultivation of fields, possible, and thus created a practically unrestricted food supply in comparison with previous conditions. This led to the clearance of forest land for tillage and pasture, which in turn was impossible on a large scale without the iron ax and the iron spade. Population rapidly increased in number, and in small areas became dense. Prior to field agriculture, conditions must have been very exceptional if they allowed half a million people to be united under a central organization; probably such a thing never occurred<"art">.

We find the upper stage of barbarism at its highest in the Homeric poems, particularly in the Iliad. Fully developed iron tools, the bellows, the hand-mill, the potter’s wheel, the making of oil and wine, metal work developing almost into a fine art, the wagon and the war-chariot, ship-building with beams and planks, the beginnings of architecture as art, walled cities with towers and battlements, the Homeric epic and a complete mythology – these are the chief legacy brought by the Greeks from barbarism into civilization. When we compare the descriptions which Caesar and even Tacitus give of the Germans, who stood at the beginning of the cultural stage from which the Homeric Greeks were just preparing to make the next advance, we realize how rich was the development of production within the upper stage of barbarism.

The sketch which I have given here, following Morgan, of the development of mankind through savagery and barbarism to the beginnings of civilization, is already rich enough in new features; what is more, they cannot be disputed, since they are drawn directly from the process of production. Yet my sketch will seem flat and feeble compared with the picture to be unrolled at the end of our travels; only then will the transition from barbarism to civilization stand out in full light and in all its striking contrasts. For the time being, Morgan’s division may be summarized thus:

Savagery – the period in which man’s appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation.

Barbarism – the period during which man learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity.

Civilization – the period in which man learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.

Preface | Chapter 2


Editorial Footnotes

The intent of these footnotes are both to help the modern reader critically assess this work in face of recent scientific evidence and to show how effective Engels' dialectical method was that many of his conclusions remain true to this day. The following chapters do not have editorial footnotes because they are not needed as much as they are in this chapter (and this editor is not as knowledgable on those other subjects!). It should be noted that Engels predominant focus on European cultures is due to his lack of data on other cultures. These notes were written by MIA volunteer Brian Basgen (July, 2000).

A In 1880, the evidence for this was astoundingly scarce, yet Engels conclusions (most importantly articulate, not modern, but not ape speech) remain correct to this day. Throughout the 20th-century, groundbreaking new archeological finds opened up our understanding of this period. These characteristics are descriptive of the first human genus: Australopithecus (the first fossil evidence was found in 1924 at Taung, SA) who came into existance 5-6 million years ago on the content of Africa, and became extinct in the Early Pleistocene period (1.6 million to 900,000 years ago). These humans primarily were dependent on fruits, roots, etc. but likely supplemented this as scavengers. They did not live in caves or dwellings of their own choosing, but were primarily jungle dwellers, likely residing in trees.

B Engels here describes the practices of homo erectus, and again his conclusions are lucid despite the lack of much evidence in his 19th century. Collection of their own food was predominant, the use of fire is widely accepted, they hunted animals to some extent, and most importantly these practices allowed for the migration of humanity. One million years ago homo erectus left Africa and settled in the Middle East (which was later the cradle of civilization, not surprising considering it was the great crossroads of human migration), splitting up with migrations from Southern Europe to throughout Southern Asia (the extent of the ice caps had not yet reseeded so settlement of the northern regions was not yet possible).

Engels does however make two mistakes in his conclusions: cannibalism was very likely nonexistent (its practice in human history is questionable) and Polynesians and Australians are not homo erectus, but homo sapiens.

C Characteristics descriptive of homo sapiens, i.e. modern human beings, who first emerged 100,000 years ago, and who very likely had their origins in Africa (it is thought that the homo erectus became extinct throughout the world, and homo sapiens emerged from the genus of homo erectus that had survived in Africa).

D The data of the 1880s has been proved partially inaccurate. While it is true that the Mesopotamians domesticated animals around the same time they were also the first farmers in world history (in around 10,000 B.C.E.). The exact sequence is unknown.

E It is important to point out Engels coupling of Aryans and Semites. Information on Mesopotamia was limited to biblical text until the mid-19th-century — it was not until the 1850s onwords when archeology began to explore and gain historical evidence in Mesopotamia. This coupling therefore is likely a combination of both biblical text (referring to the biblical peoples Aryans and Semites instead of the region Mesopotamia) and contemporary archeological work (the data of his conclusions).

Another facet of this combination was Engels lack of prejudice. By the 19th-century Aryans were thought to be a unique human race and were cited as scientific evidence of racial superiority (even later this would evolve into the theory that the Germans were the most "pure" Aryans). This popular theory would not be disapproved by anthropologists until the 20th century. The fact that Engels couples them together evidences a noteworthy lack of the prevailent racism of the time.

F The theory that the larger brain is more intelligent was disproven by the end of the 19th century. Intelligence can be generally compared by brain size relative to body size. Because the Pueblo Indians were smaller humans, naturally their brains were smaller. The same is true for Africans, who are larger and so their brains are larger.

G This is mistaken. The Mesopotamian (3500-1000 B.C.E.), Egyptian (3000-500 B.C.E.), Harrapan (2500-1000 B.C.E.), & Chinese (2000 B.C.E. – 1800 C.E.) civilizations long preceded the Europeans in this stage: the Greeks were the first in Europe at around 500 B.C.E.