By Patricia McBroom
March 25, 2022
One hundred miles south of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, lie the remains of an incredibly old city, dating from 4,200 BCE. It was the largest city in Europe and perhaps in the world at the time, larger than the growing urban areas of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Not only was this urban conclave large — more than 10,000 people — but it was egalitarian. Women had roles of authority; houses show no signs of an unequal distribution of wealth. The proto-city, named Tallyanky, lasted about 1,500 years and then disappeared, leaving experts groping for explanations of its fate.
Tallyanky was not the only one; several other urban areas have been excavated in central Ukraine — all characterized by communal farms and apparently democratic governance. Archaeologists call this the Cucuteni-Trypillya culture that extended south into today’s Moldova and Romania. According to German linguist Harald Haarmann, who describes these old European cultures in his book, The Mystery of the Danube Civilization, the early Ukrainians left no evidence of hierarchy or elaborate monuments indicative of a ruling class. “Ukrainians need this reminder of their early advanced culture, as an encouragement not to despair,” Haarmann wrote me from his home in Finland. He is vice president of the Institute of Archaeomythology.
One hundred miles to the east of the proto-cities, a very different kind of culture thrived. Here on the steppes, the dry grassland that spreads out into modern Russia, nomadic tribes dominated by men tended their herds in a socially unequal, hierarchical system under the sway of headmen. It was natural there for men who produced the food to control their tribes and their women.
For many centuries, people from the two cultures in western and eastern Ukraine traded and interacted with each other, more or less without violence, it seems, though the evidence is sparse. But then, the horse was domesticated in nearby Russia and suddenly the steppes became a powerhouse of expansionistic steppe nomads.
In the 3rd millennium BCE, an invasion, composed mostly of men according to recent genetic evidence, rode out of the east and began to move into western Europe, depositing their genes, their Indo-European languages and their patriarchal system everywhere. These steppe warriors are among the ancestors of white populations of European descent.
But democracy and egalitarian values survived as well, in the hearts and minds of people throughout Europe. Nowhere has the struggle been more intense than in Ukraine. Nowhere has democracy and domination been so closely linked geographically. From the Mongol invasion of the 13th century to the famine created by Stalin in the 1930s, among other cruel dominations, Ukrainian people have endured unimaginable suffering. Reading this history makes you wince. You wonder, how did these people survive? How did they come back yet again from another invasion, another domination? Yet, they have persisted. And they inspire the world now with their courage.
What do we, as relatively comfortable Americans, take from the Ukrainian struggle today? Surely, it’s not just another Cold War, or worse, a hot war with nuclear weapons. How do we build a world where one side is not at war with the other?
I would like to propose that the most dangerous disease on the planet is male rule, a cultural system based on gender inequality where men are used as killers and dominant men at the top of the hierarchy send others to war. This kind of system is clearly obvious in Russia today, but it infects all modern states, to one degree or another, including our own. Aggressive, imperialistic, acquisitive, the damage done by dominant male rule has been obvious since the steppe invasions of Europe in prehistoric times.
There are some ancient burials along the western edge of the Black Sea that hold up a mirror to our own times, sending warning signals over the millennia. Most of the graves are marked by equality, but suddenly in the midst is something very different — the grave of a man, apparently a ruler. His tomb is filled with gold, his penis capped in the precious metal. He holds a scepter and lies on an axe. Dubbed the Varna Man, this is apparently a man from the steppes. And he isn’t alone. Half a dozen other male skeletons are buried with gold, just lesser amounts of it.
These graves date from 4500 BCE, but they could be recreated today from the wealth of Vladimir Putin and his fellow oligarchs.
Consider the profile of modern autocrats given by Anne Applebaum in her recent outstanding Atlantic Monthly article, “The Bad Guys are Winning.” She describes powerful autocrats in many nations who no longer are strongly tied to their own states, but to each other, in a global network of “kleptocratic financial structures, (paramilitary groups) and professional propagandists.” They are connected. They help each other “in a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth. She gives them the name Autocracy, Inc. What shields these autocrats from political consequence is a global economic system that hides their deals behind screens erected by unbridled capitalism.
I’m not saying that gender equality alone can solve this modern kleptocratic version of male rule. But I believe it can’t be done without women of all races. And it can’t be done only by women.
All of us together need to turn away from the notion of a “strong man” who can save us and take up the often boring, lengthy process of democratic rule. Decades of research in cultures around the world has shown us that when women control most, or all, of the food (i.e. resources), the people choose to be more egalitarian and their worlds are safer.
Patricia McBroom is an anthropologist/journalist. In 2020, she published her memoir, Dance of the Deities: Searching for Our Once and Future Egalitarian Society, taking the reader on a journey to 10,000 BCE.