I am neither an archaeologist nor an anthropologist. The closest I get to those is, I suppose, in the areas of palaeontology or linguistics, so much of what I say here will be naive. There's a risk of projecting wishes and fears into the past to support a gloomy or over-rosy view of how things ought to be in the here and now. I'm also wary about extrapolating from evidence because of a story I once heard (and I may have got this wrong) about a people who used to bury their dead facing the village because they thought it was bad luck to have corpses facing the living. This sounds counterintuitive until you learn the extra bit of information that they also assumed that every dead body turned 180 degrees in its grave shortly after being buried, so they would end up facing away. If we only have material evidence to go on we can make big mistakes, and history tends to be written by the winners.
Clearly the West is a patriarchal culture and therefore this history of the human species is written by the winners, i.e. the patriarchy. Women take their men's names on marriage and monarchs tend to be male, for example. The masculine tends to be linguistically less marked than the feminine, so for example in English given names tend to have an -a at the end if feminine and no particular ending if masculine, and female versions add an ending to a plain male form, as in "empress" or "lioness". Hence in this case history is likely to have been written by the apparent winners, i.e. the men, and as Prefab Sprout once obscurely observed, "If you can't find the spot where their time stops/Just ask who built the clocks". Therefore my mind, formed in patriarchy and programmed by it, may miss the obvious "fact" that palaeolithic societies were all or mostly matriarchal or egalitarian with regard to gender.
One eco-feminist claim wherewith I have much sympathy, however, is the idea that patriarchy goes hand in hand with the development of agriculture and pastoralism, and there is evidence that palaeolithic societies were sexually egalitarian. Even more recent societies may have been. For instance, burial customs in Britain used to involve mass burials rather than special tombs set aside for special individuals, then the practices changed a bit under five thousand years ago with people being interred in individual tombs. Before that, they were also peaceful, allegedly, and had no permanent leaders. I'm not clear where this impression comes from and am acutely aware that I and others may be projecting wishful thinking onto the past.
In a sense, nobody has a stake in supposing that women, men or neither were on top in prehistoric times because we are creatures of our own time whose thrownness, givens, happen to include our ascribed gender. Just as we didn't ask to be born, nor did we choose our biological sex or what ended the sentence "It's a..." when we came out. There is no more reason to identify with someone of our own gender presentation or identity back then than anything else, because the history of our ancestors is the history of us all. Each of us might happen to consider ourselves to be of a particular gender right now, but that's an accident of birth and society, and each of the features we might identify as distinctive of our gender is contingent, given for example that we have no idea what technological or social change might bring in the future. In another sense, though, we might consider it important as a way of underpinning the way we see things now. Clearly patriarchy is to the disadvantage of all of us, meaning that we're living in a society to which we are not ideally adapted, which suggests that the social order may have changed. Having said that, there have always been hardships and it could be that patriarchy is one of those. This means, of course, that a new kind of social order needs to be created.
What do I actually think then? That prior to Neolithic times, there was sexual egalitarianism, not matriarchy or patriarchy. There are apparently no matriarchal societies known to contemporary Western anthropologists. This could of course be because they're all extinct.
|Anaptomorphus homunculus (an omomyid)|
Everyone alive today is a "modern" person with a family tree going back myriads of millenia to the omomyids (probable human ancestors from the Eocene), and in that sense there may be no traditional societies nowadays. Before a certain point in time, societies with features completely absent from today's were probably common, and one of those might have been matriarchy or sexual egalitarianism. It could be argued that the very fact that we still exist as a species suggests that the hazardous feature known as patriarchy didn't exist back then.
|Basque road sign|
"Mendexa euskara 001" by Joxemai - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mendexa_euskara_001.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mendexa_euskara_001.jpg
I could fall back on linguistics. Basque is an ancient language which lacks gender and in fact languages with gender are the exception rather than the rule - offhand I can only think of three families whose languages may have grammatical gender - but that's not very helpful as some ungendered languages are spoken in highly patriarchal societies. Iroquois customs are largely matriarchal, apparently, where the women have the power to appoint and depose leaders and where inheritance passes through the mother, though to males, although there is no land ownership, but Mohawk, one of the languages spoken among them, does have gender. So I don't think that gets us anywhere.
I am of course projecting my own wishes and values onto the past here. As an anarchist, I believe that the so-called natural and best state of humanity is no state, and no hierarchies based on the distribution of scarce or pretended scarce resources, and I tend to look back at the past as positive rather than to the future as progressive. My metaphor for the passage of time is falling face upwards into the future, which may not be a particularly healthy one. I do also believe that for humans to thrive we need to be living in a society which is in various significant ways, but not all, substantially similar to the Palaeolithic, although of course the palaeolithic was a very long time and perhaps also very diverse. Hence all I have to go on really is what I'm projecting onto an imagined ideal past, which I hope will return.