Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/February 1902/Environment in Relation to Sex in Human Culture

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1411007Popular Science Monthly Volume 60 February 1902 — Environment in Relation to Sex in Human Culture1902Otis Tufton Mason




THERE is a sense in which human environments may be viewed in their relation to sex.

The greater part of the earth's surface was sterile to all primitive peoples, anterior to the times when the harnessing of physical forces, little by little, brought all lands and all waters under human dominion. The seas, the mountains, the frozen regions and the deserts were never traversed by savage man. In other areas the soil was so rich that dense forests and impenetrable pampas, with their dreadful solitudes and venomous animals and plants, served as a prohibitory wall against human occupation until the good offices of fire subdued them.

The remaining areas, of which we are now speaking, may be divided into the bisexual, the feminal and the virile. These natural homes of humanity have been characterized as culture areas, areas of characterization, ethnic provinces, oikoumenoi, and so on, either by reason of their having produced marked varieties of the genus homo, or because special forms of activities have been demanded and fostered in them. Each of them has been studied respecting its salubrity, its food supply, its materials for elevating industries, its distance from the highways of progress, its scenery and resources of every kind affecting the welfare of our species; but here it is designed to interrogate them regarding their treatment of men and women.

The term 'progress' means the perfecting of mental attributes and bodily skill of the individual and enlarging the number of persons cooperating in the same activity over longer time and greater space simultaneously.

The exigencies of maternity always differentiated the activities, the artistic creations, the language, the social life, the knowledge and the religious conceptions of women. Over and above all actions in common with men, they were spinners, dyers, weavers, nest-builders and purveyors. For them the fireside was literally the focus of innumerable cares.

In any mode of primitive life, on the other hand, men went to war with the elements and with things. In their hands was the apparatus of capture, of incarceration, of slaughter. They exploited the boundaries of the unknown in every direction.

The three kingdoms of nature—animal, vegetal and mineral—were the arena upon which men and women acted the drama of progress.

The animal kingdom.

The animal kingdom was, on the whole, in relation to human progress, the lowest of the three, inasmuch as less exalting artificiality has grown out of it for women as well as men, but more exalting for men than for women. The ever-increasing wariness and remoteness of the animal called for increase of cunning, skill and united effort in man. The apparatus had to be more ingenious and effective, the individual hunter more resourceful, and men had to be mobilized in larger numbers, for longer times and for greater distances.

When the hunter state gradually passed into the pastoral state, the same pedagogy went on, for the hunter now came to be the aggressor and defender in the care of his flocks, killing rapacious beasts and men; and the annual hunt, a marvel of temporary concerted action and intelligence, coming to be the permanent military organization.

Face to face with the animal kingdom, the zootechnic activities of women were of quite another sort. It was they who skinned and packed the game, cured the fish and converted the soft parts of animals into products for human comfort. In the slow processes by which the feral states of animals became domestication, women collected the young, often nursed them, attracted the adult. In those areas where she could best do this was her vantage ground.

In the pastoral state the muscular energies of beasts became the servants of men, lifting many burdens also from the backs of women. Herein came the saddle beast, the pack beast, the traction beast, the permanent supply for art and for sacrifice. As to woman, it brought to her door milk, flesh and wool.

The vegetal kingdom.

In contact with the vegetal kingdom men were the inventors of woodcraft and bark-craft. Women were primitive gardeners, gleaners, basket-and mat-makers, and spinners. Edge tools, therefore, were man's—ax, adz, chisel, whittling knife, all for wood-working; but carrying-baskets and spindles were women's. Sedentary village life is the product of the vegetal kingdom. In its earliest form it is womans sphere. To plant the seed, to till the ground and to gather the crop were hers. What men did all this time was to guard the women and the crops and to develop a military, regulative government. The mound region of the Mississippi Valley is an eminent example of this, where the remains of ancient corn rows survive in the midst of forts and ceremonial earthworks.

The mineral kingdom.

The mineral kingdom did most to emancipate the fancy and develop the genius and strength of men through stone and metal; for women, its pedagogic efforts were through the pliant and versatile clay and the water springs. Find a region south of the line of severe cold where clay abounds, coupled with demand for sedentary life, there the ceramic art in primitive times was efflorescent. The clay and the woman gradually become refined and exalted. The qualities of the material were discovered and developed, the great possibilities of manual refinement and dexterity found a worthy arena. In later times Keramos came to be a man, because machinery supplanted the hand; but at first potters were women.

On the other hand, if you except the scraper and the household knife, in flakable, siliceous stone, the worker in stone was always a man. Piercing and slashing weapons had their points and edges worked by men. It is with admiration that we now look upon the products of knack and patience kept in museums as precious relics of the men of old. Wherever the best flint was known there the men were quite equal to play upon the material and to be played upon by it, the flint and the artist being mutually perfected.

But friable stone had in it even more for man than flint. The gem cutter, the sculptor, and the architect went to school to crystals, to calcareous and volcanic stone. The flaker was invented for flint, but the hammer, the bushing tool, the chisel, the rasp, the diamond drill, the saw, the emery wheel and engineering appliances were all devised by men at the invitation of art and architectural stones. In those areas Mhere these last abound men were regenerated. A casual glance at the map of the Western Hemisphere shows that only where the engineer and the architect were called for was there aboriginally any approach to civilization.

The forces of nature.

Professor Rouleau, of Berlin, divides culture into phases which he calls 'manganic' and 'naturistic'; the former term applies to the use of machinery and the domestication of nature's forces, the latter to that condition of culture in which the hand was aided by the simplest appliances. On every grade of culture women were more naturistic than men. Any culture area, therefore, which afforded occasion and stimulus for the employment of mechanical powers, the forces of nature, and continuous organized effort of mind and muscle was virile and most propitious for men.

Nor are conditions of climate and daylight to be neglected in this connection. For men, progress was more difficult in uncongenial climes. Women had sheltered, indoor temperature artificialized in the frozen zone with the help of the lamp-stove. Hence all the enduring monuments of early man's advancement are only within those temperate areas or elevations where neither heat nor cold was excessive, and where the food-quest was not exhausting.

Interesting here also is it to note the length of day in culture areas, especially for out-of-door men. The following table gives nearly enough the duration of the longest and of the shortest day for the different latitudes:

70° the sun is visible from May 16 to July 27.
60° longest sunlight, 18h. 53', shortest sunlight, 5h. 52'
50° " " 16h. 23′, " " 8h. 4′
40° " " 15h. 1′, " " 9h. 20′
30° " " 14h. 5′, " " 10h. 13′
20° " " 13h. 20′, " " 10h. 55′
10° " " 12h. 43′, " " 11h. 32′

Culture areas of the New World.

The Western Hemisphere offers the best field for studying culture areas and primitive life in relation to sex. The two extremities furnish a striking contrast between a sterile and a bi-sexual area. In Fuegia, with climate like that of Labrador, the conditions of living are such that beyond merely holding their own there is little to uplift either men or women.

On the contrary, along the arctic border are the cunning Eskimo, living in an environment that is both virile and feminal; but it is solely zootechnic. There the women are housekeepers, tanners, clothiers and embroiderers.

The men have the sinew-backed bow, the retrieving harpoon, and the skin kaiak, in each of which you see the maximum result of skill with the minimum of material. During the long winter the æsthetic faculty was exercised in carving and etching upon hard animal tissues. The underground ceremonial house and the snow dome are models of construction. Dogs were traction beasts, rapid transit over snow and ice was installed; harness, sleds of uniform width, economic food and packing sharpened the wits. The boundaries of the environment rich in animal life seemed unlimited, so that many hundreds of miles of shore country were exploited by a people speaking the same language. Inland, about the Yukon drainage, women were among the most forlorn pack beasts and slaves on earth.

The birch-bark area.

Eastward from the Rockies and throughout Alaska is the birch-tree country, quite poorly furnished for men, far better for men than women. The snow-shoe is at home here, and also the birch-bark canoe. Here throve fur-bearing creatures in great variety, coveted by the titled and fashionable in the Eastern Hemisphere. The trader brought along with him the gun and the curved knife, with which men built better canoes and women cut the finest leather, called babiche. Result: better boats for water travel, better snow-shoes for snow travel and also better men and women. But primarily, after all, conditions were hard and starvation was not unknown.

The sleds of the birch-canoe region have no runners; they are boats to move on the snow. In the fur trade the dog became exalted through external stimulus, and the voyageurs were known as the hardiest of men.

In the realm of the æsthetic, however, through all the birch bark area men knocked at the door of Nature in vain. The fine art of both sexes was in ephemeral costume decorated with porcupine quills. No pottery, basketry, woodwork, stonework, earthwork or fine carving of any kind existed. Since the art faculty and the materials are always exalted mutually, it is in vain to enquire whether the one or the other was lacking.

The north Atlantic area.

The drainage of the St. Lawrence, the Appalachian mountains, and the Atlantic slope together formed the culture area for two powerful Indian families, the Iroquoian and the Algonquian. The annual round of varied employments, in peace and in war, developed a fine breed of men. Cultivation of maize by the women, added to their zootechnic activities, trained their wits in economy and cooperation. They were not excellent potters or weavers, however, and their advancement was far behind that of the men. Matriarchy was breaking down at the period of the Discovery. The early records of these two families abound in accounts of long journeys, of masterful enterprises, of concerted activities, of imposing councils, of treaties and alliances, which go to show that the Atlantic slope long ago could produce noble men.

The Mississippi valley area.

Between the Blue Ridge mountains and the Rockies, when the historian arrived, two contending cultures had been at work, evoked by the kingdoms of nature—that of the buffalo and that of the prairie. As the land of Egypt is the residuum of a continuous warfare between the desert dust and the Nile fioods, so the phenomenon of roving tribes living on the sites of mounds and earthworks, of which they had neither knowledge nor tradition, was the outcome of the conflict between the hunting Dakotans and their congeners on the one side and the agricultural builders of mounds from the south.

The Muskhogean area.

If the reader will examine Merriam's temperature charts in relation to zoological distribution, he will note that the color symbol of the southern states of the Union extends far to the westward. He will not be surprised to find that the Rocky mountains lowered their drawbridges in times past for the migration of ideas. The Muskhogean tribes built pyramidal mounds. They were sedentary. The men were tall and mentally vigorous. Their descendants, now in the Indian Territory, were capable of great enterprises. The women were skilful farmers, weavers and potters. The gulf province was bi-sexual.

The south Atlantic area.

Southeastward from the Muskhogean area lie the Antilles, the Orinoco basin, the Amazon basin, the Mato Grosso and the Pampas. In them men had little to do save to hunt and fish, to fight and to sleep in their hammocks. They were zootechnic, passing into phytotechnic. No great man was ever bred in such a school. The women were farmers, potters, tapa-makers, spinners and hammock-knitters, and there is ground for believing that in several portions of the area there were settlements made up wholly of women, or Amazons (Payne, Hist, of Amer., II, p. 11).

The men in the northern portion were also water craftsmen, and that evoked and trained their hand, their skill and their wits. The Caribs are said to have been the only American people who colonized by sea voyages. In art, men were carvers in wood and stone, attaining creditable skill in Puerto Pico and Guadeloupe. However, as in other areas, there was absence of solidarity. The women on the Orinoco, the Amazon and the Xingu made exquisite basketry and featherwork, and jewelry of teeth and seeds. They cultivated cassava and other plants, and their cabins were thronged with birds of gay plumage. So lacking was industrial stone in all this lowland that shell and teeth were the only materials, on which account Von den Steinen humorously proposes to speak of a bone and shell age of man.

The tribes of the pampas, before the coming of the horse, had a meager life. It is true that the guanaco and the rhea were at hand plentifully. But the men in association with such environment were not much more than clever panthers with long and sharp teeth called arrows and spears.

The women were much more cultivated, being excellent tanners and making rude pottery. Their houses were only shelters of skin and their art was limited to painting geometric patterns on robes. The two sexes were equally non-progressive, but being amply fed they grew in stature and were among the tallest Americans.

The north Pacific area.

On the Pacific slope of America, between 45° and 60° north, lies a well-marked culture area. The mountains near by and the ocean have between them innumerable islands, great and small. Passing among these was easy; the climate, by reason of warm currents in the sea, mild; animal and vegetable life useful to human existence, copious. There is no flint, but slate, nephrite and volcanic rocks of good quality. On this domain men traversed long distances in dugout canoes holding fifty persons, and artists expressed their mythic fancies through the obliging cedar wood. Had they lived thirty degrees farther south, these men would have been able to rival the builders of Nahuan and Mayan stone temples. For women, pliant roots and tough grasses fascinated their artistic spirits, resulting in exquisite twined basketry. As in all other island areas, however, the tendencies are centrifugal. The linguistic families were separated into innumerable kwans, or clans, without national solidarity. The southern boundary of this canoe culture province is the Columbia river, highway of tribes and patron of men. On this coast were matured commerce, slavery, a diversity of industries and a varied annual round. Material was afforded and leisure also for the unfolding of a complicated mythology and its embodiment in wood, stone and hard animal substances.

The Oregon-California area.

The next unique area lies on the Pacific slope, between 35° and 48° north, chiefly in Oregon and California. Upon this long strip facing the sunset was woman's paradise; it was at the same time 'No man's land.' The men there are among the shortest, and the height of the women is 94 per cent, of the men's. Twenty-four different stock-languages are spoken. It is not so much a single culture area as a series of cul-de-sacs, a cloaca-gentium, coves in the mountains opening out on the islandless, harborless, fathomless ocean. It is the Caucasus of the Western Hemisphere. You see there no huge canoes, no carvings in any material, no partnerships or great enterprises. The only redeeming virile feature is the yew bow with sinew back and the most delicate arrows on the continent.

But what a heritage in textile materials! Nowhere else on the globe was there such a variety of stitches in basketry and nowhere else were women's fingers so nimble in basket-making. There was no spindle, no loom, no pottery, but the basket served all purposes for the gleaner, the miller, the cook and the purveyor. The art sense, almost extinguished in the men, barring a little skill in shell and feathers, effloresced in woman's work, to the astonishment of the ethnologist.

The Pueblo area.

The plateau bounded by the Colorado and the Rio Grande was long the home of the clay and adobe worker. The men were short, and the height of the women in the pueblos was 93 per cent, of that of the men. Rabbits, mountain sheep, antelopes, coyotes, mountain lions, hawks and rattlesnakes were the useful and mythical animals. The vegetal kingdom furnished poor timber, but good textile fibers and a varied diet of corn, melons and beans. As in the Ohio valley, though in different materials, artificial food production was associated with defense. The cliff home and the pueblo solved the problem of architecture and fortifications in the best possible situations and materials.

The artificializing of this pueblo life can not be divorced from water culture and cult, woman's prerogative. In a region whose life is a perpetual sigh for water, the nymph and the potter are one. Women are pack beasts for clay; modelers, decorators, burners of pottery. The water seeker, carrier, storer, user, server, is the potter. The tempting foods set before the gods of the elements were served in baskets and vessels of clay. The feminal life of the pueblos, therefore, was higher than the virile, and it is so to-day. Gushing says that the men's efforts were concentrated on activities connected with maintenance and the worship going therewith. Most of the fine art, however, excepting the little painted dolls, in the service of religion, is feminal; it is on pottery and basketry, not on shields and manly costume.

The Mexican area.

At the genial southern extremity of the same plateau, reaching from Quimbawa, in Zacatecas, to Nicaragua, lie the Mexican uplands, man's best friend in all aboriginal North America, as the region about Quito was in South America—a climate whose daylight varied little throughout the year, whose temperature was so equable that food plants, like the trees of the Apocalypse, bore their fruit every month, a region whose elevation and proximity to the gulf and the ocean gave the largest yield of land and sea food for the smallest effort, especially, however, a region abounding in architectural stone in which men might fix their epics and their dreams, and in hard rock for stone cutters' tools.

Mean temperature of the City of Mexico.

Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
75 80 80 79 75 69 69 66 63 66 70 73

Such a land was favorably situated for leisure, for organization, for unbroken cooperation in economic social and religious activities on a large scale and, proportionally, to develop the manliness of men. One is not surprised, therefore, to find here in great profusion a summing up in stone, both in sculpture and architecture, of all the motives scattered in clay, wood, textile and feather-work over the northern continent. Here also are seen fully developed those virile art forms and decorations of which Gushing finds among the pueblos only vestiges on pottery and basketry. The high culture of the Mexican and the Mayan broke down in Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua, where are even now found any number of unclassed, insignificant tribes.

The Colombian area.

The extension of the Cordilleras southward need not detain the reader. Stretching from Nicaragua to the southern limits of Colombia were the Muyscas or Chibchas, metallurgists and jewelers par excellence. It was in their country that Balboa heard of the great riches farther south. Theirs was the home of 'El hombre dorado,' or Eldorado, where, on the inauguration of a chief, a procession of men richly dressed marched to the borders of their sacred lake bearing him on a splendid litter. The chief's 'naked body had been anointed with resinous gums and covered with gold dust.' He was rowed to the middle of the lake and plunged himself in to wash the gold from his body as an offering, at the same time his followers casting in enormous quantities of gold and emeralds. (Bandelier, 1893, p. 14.)

The women were farmers, potters and weavers. They cultivated maize, beans, yucca and cotton. Irrigation was practiced, the ditches, no doubt, being the result of organized, far-reaching and long-continued labor among the men. The conditions for united effort in large architectural enterprises did not exist, but commerce in salt and gold was active. It was not until a widening of the area and a lengthening of roads farther south in the inter-Andean valley made larger aggregations of men feasible that the noblest of arts discloses itself again.

The Peruvian area.

The Quichuan, or Kechuan family, including the Aymaran, occupied a strip of upland two thousand miles long on the Pacific slope of South America, all parts of which were joined by trails. Here Indian men reached their zenith. The dissemination of their culture was conterminous with their speech. The foci of this virility were Quito and Cuzco. The architecture was rock-hewn and cyclopean, wrought with tools of stone. Agriculture had passed to the artificial conditions in which metallic tools were used, in which terraced gardening, irrigation, use of guano and grain storage were practiced. The llama and paca were bred in vast numbers for food, for textile material and for pack beasts. Metallurgists wrought skilfully in bronze, silver and gold.

Woman's work, some of which had passed on to the virile stage, was of the first rank in curiously-wrought pottery and in textiles made from paca wool, one of the finest staples, as their delicate spindle whorls will attest.

But these Peruvian uplands were the training grounds of men especially. Together the earth, the air, the waters, the tropical day, conspired to develop them. The sun was their chief deity, source of life and power, so their principal chiefs were its earthly viceregents. The barbarous and bloody rites of Mexico were absent, as were the graphic system and the pictorial literature. But the monuments of a departed glory remain.


Did space permit, the Eastern Hemisphere might also be put upon the stand as to its treatment of men and women from area to area. It surely can not be an accident that, before artificialized transportation interrupted the ancient regime, centers of culture and refinement survived for millenniums. Pastoral regions, land-locked seas, rice fields, bamboo jungles, above all, granite and marble quarries, are even now surviving and drawing around them the same refined spirits as of old.

This recital would be without a moral if it did not also apply to the higher, manganic, complex environments in which civilized peoples are living. There are tendencies in some to degrade men, especially to take from them that spark of originality and self-reliance which is the source of virility, of progress, of family life, and to reduce them to intellectual and moral peonage. This, in ways not necessary to mention here, lowers the birth rate, doubles the death rate, degrades the survivors and destroys the state. From primitive times until now there never came any solid advancement to a people that had not something ennobling for men and women to crave, or that sacrificed them to any god or fetish whatsoever.