Because the vast majority of today’s societies are patriarchal in nature—i.e. men are more likely than women to be in positions of political, social, and economic power—it’s easy to assume that this is how it’s “always been.”

However, a study of humanity’s roots suggests the answer isn’t as black and white as you might think.

The social structures of chimpanzees can tell us a lot about the conditions that lead to male dominance, since most chimpanzee groups are patriarchal.

In the case of chimpanzees, males are often vicious toward females, help themselves to their food, force intercourse with ovulating females, and even kill them if they spend time apart from the group.

Male chimps also spend their lives in the same group into which they were born, whereas females leave at adolescence. This means the male chimps in a group are more closely related, which gives them an advantage because they’re more likely to help one another.

This comparison isn’t to suggest that chimpanzees are a proxy for human ancestry in terms of social structure. They’ve evolved on their own since humanity’s “family tree” split with theirs between 7 and 10 million years ago.

But there are undeniable similarities with regard to elements of that social structure that lead to and perpetuate male dominance; namely in the fact that, where women move to live with their husband’s family, men tend to have more privilege and more power.

It’s called patrilocal residence, and it is associated with patriarchy, according to what anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy of the University of California at Davis told

Hrdy says that, for most of human history we were hunter-gathers, and patrilocal residence isn’t the norm in modern hunter-gatherer societies.

In modern hunter-gatherer societies, either partner may move to live with the other’s family; or the couple may entirely relocate.

If the same was true of prehistory hunter-gatherer societies, it means women in those early societies would have been able to choose whether to say near the group they grew up with, or to move away entirely.

One viewpoint is that things changed around 12,000 years ago, when people began settling down due to the advent of agriculture and homesteading.

When that happened, families acquiesced resources to defend, and power shifted to males, simply because they are, in general, physically stronger.

Fathers, grandfathers, sons, and uncles made a point to live near each other, and property was passed down the male line.

Female autonomy began eroding. According to this viewpoint, that’s how patriarchy was born.

A study published in Italy in 2004 supports this viewpoint.

Researchers at the Sapienza University of Rome examined the mitochondrial DNA (inherited from mothers), along with the genetic markers on the Y chromosome (inherited from fathers) in 40 populations located in sub-Saharan Africa.

What they found suggested that women in hunter-gatherer populations were more likely to remain with their mothers after marriage than were women from food-producing (i.e. agricultural and farming) populations.

For men, the reverse was true, suggesting, once again, that patrilocal societies are often found in correlation with agriculture.

The key to righting things?

In today’s business environment, women hold many high-ranking positions in every industry, in government, and in non-profits. It seems like the patriarchy should be as absolute as frontier wagon wheels.

Yet so many women in entry-level jobs need to work a second job to pay the bills.

Women in higher level careers often end up stuck in place. And women wanting to fully utilise their abilities often feel like they have to step away from the corporate world and work as “independent contractors,” which means no benefits and working twice as many hours to maintain the same level of income.

And could more women who’ve broken through the glass ceiling do more to help other women do the same?

The answer to all that may be found in what Amy Parish at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles told Solidarity is the key to righting things.

Parish cites bonobo societies. Even though they’re patrilocal, bonobo societies are also female-dominated, because the females cooperate and form alliances, almost as if they’re all family who’re looking out for each other, even if they’re not related.

But getting cooperation among women who aren’t related can be difficult. Competitive survival instincts kick in, and women start choosing the “safety” of their own children and husbands over cooperation with other women.

Even so, if equality was the norm once, there’s no reason it can’t be again.

And though restoring and strengthening equality will require effort and cooperation on multiple fronts, solidarity among women is a huge step in returning to that equality.

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