Women in Ancient America: Second Edition

Women in Ancient America: Second Edition

by Karen Olsen Bruhns, Karen E. Stothert

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This new edition of Women in Ancient America draws on recent advances in the archaeology of gender to reexamine the activities, roles, and relationships of women in the prehistoric Native societies of North, Central, and South America.

Women—and women’s work—have been crucial to the survival and success of American peoples since ancient


This new edition of Women in Ancient America draws on recent advances in the archaeology of gender to reexamine the activities, roles, and relationships of women in the prehistoric Native societies of North, Central, and South America.

Women—and women’s work—have been crucial to the survival and success of American peoples since ancient times. And as hunting and foraging societies developed farming techniques and eventually created permanent settlements, women’s roles changed. Karen Olsen Bruhns and Karen E. Stothert consider the various economic adaptations that followed, as well as the ways in which women participated in food production and the specialized industries of their societies. They also look at women’s access to power, both political and religious, paying particular attention to the place of priestesses and goddesses in the spiritual life of ancient peoples.

The narrative that unfolds in Women in Ancient America is based on the most recent research, using evidence and examples from a wide range of cultures dating from the Paleoindian period to European invasion. This book, unlike others, treats many different types of societies, as the authors develop arguments sure to provoke thinking about the lives of women who inhabited the Americas in the distant past.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Women in Ancient America

By Karen Olsen Bruhns, Karen E. Stothert


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4751-2


Women and Gender

Archaeology is the principal means through which we understand humanity in the prehistoric past, and an auxiliary approach we use to clarify more recent human history. While the concept of humanity embodies both women and men, until recently women were underrepresented in historical narratives. Because our society uses the results of archaeological studies to validate its myths of origin, it is unacceptable to write histories that omit women and their perspectives. We must include them because women and girls constitute half of humanity, and their participation and contributions to the course of history are distinct from those of men and boys.

Human societies are made up of females and males in approximately equal numbers, and women and men of the same population overlap with respect to height and weight unless one sex is seriously underfed or otherwise stressed because of cultural practices. Moreover, observing human biological patterns leads biologists to expect similarities in women's and men's strategies in feeding and other social activities. For instance, with respect to mating strategies, Blaffer Hrdy (1981) has observed that sexual dimorphism among humans indicates that both females and males are likely to maximize reproductive success through multiple mates: they are both mildly polygamous. This lack of difference between males and females is frequently obscured by the multiplicity of values and cultural stratagems that different societies overlay onto these basic biological aspects of humanity—that is to say, gender.

Gender is a social script designed arbitrarily on the basis of a biological fact. While a person may feel that the gender system she grew up with is completely natural and universal, the arbitrariness of such systems is demonstrated by the fact that they change through time, often even within a lifetime, and are variable across space. Today anthropologists are investigating cultural constructs of gender and discovering how gender affects every individual's participation in society. Scholarly research has begun to reflect the fact that gender is a crucial factor in all social life and in history. Responsible interpretation of the past involves placing the missing half of humanity back into those scientific studies and old androcentric narratives that so often omitted women and ignored those aspects of life associated with women. Engendering the past implies creating narratives that recognize the potential for complex gender scenarios in human societies.

In the last decades, feminists have raised our consciousness about gender and history by drawing attention to the persistent pattern of exclusion of women from many valued areas of social life. This pattern is noted within the fields of anthropology and archaeology, where studies of male activities have been emphasized routinely and valued above those of women. Male behavior has defined the norm. Many inadequate narratives that pretend to describe universal human patterns have been presented as science but are really our own just-so stories. We should all be aware that other societies, past and present, have fostered different values and different stories, ones in which women's and men's roles are surprising to us, and that the historical narratives generated by other cultures are different from those of the Euroamerican and Western Asian religious and cultural spheres.

Ethnographic studies among groups relatively unaffected by European influences show that many of our supposedly common-sense ideas about the "natural and universal" division of labor are not present. Today we agree that division of labor by sex exists in some but not all cultures and that it may not take a form familiar to us. For instance, hunting, defined in our society as a quintessentially male activity, figures prominently in our scientific myths of origin, yet among many peoples it is natural for women to hunt small animals and to participate in communal hunts (Strange 1997). Cross-cultural studies reveal many examples of female hunters: aboriginal women hunt kangaroos with dogs in Australia and compete with dangerous carnivores to scavenge in eastern Africa (Kent 1998:36; Berndt 1981; Bird 1993; Hawkes et al. 1997). In North America, Chipewyan women have their own hunting grounds and, in the past, a Mimbres woman (fig. 1.1), great with child and bearing an antelope, could be a hunter (Brumbach and Jarvenpa 1997). Gender interdependence may well have been a common pattern in hunting throughout human history (Bodenhorn 1990).

Both ethnographic and archaeological evidence demonstrate that patterns of human behavior are tremendously variable and often run against both Western folk wisdom and our common-sense interpretations of human nature. Sifting through the data concerning women in the corpus of male-focused scientific studies, we begin to see that many of our assumptions concerning normal behaviors are ethnocentric and untenable.

Because gender has always been a key dynamic of human life, we must consider the activities of both women and men if we hope to understand history. In the classic Outline of Cultural Materials (Murdock et al. 1950) is a list of over eight hundred aspects of culture that anthropologists study, and one can appreciate how behavior varies with gender as well as with time, mode of economic production, and social organization. For example, Topic 27, "Drink, Drugs, and Indulgence," has the following subheadings:

Water and thirst
272 Nonalcoholic beverages
273 Alcoholic beverages
274 Beverage industries
275 Drinking establishments
276 Narcotics and stimulants
277 Tobacco
278 Pharmaceuticals

Investigating with an interest in gender provokes questions about how women and men (and others) participate in these aspects of culture. Who owns the water? Fetches it? Drinks it? What is the meaning of consumption? There are as many answers as there are groups of human beings, and in each case women may differ from men of the same community with respect to ideas and practices related to the drinking of water. Similarly, we might ask, who brews the beer? In the Andean region of South America, brewing is women's work; in the adjacent Amazon lowlands, some men brew and women and men both drink. Who grows the tobacco? Who uses it and when, and for what reasons? Tobacco is part of a complex of sacred, medicinal, and ceremonial practices in some societies, whereas in others it is a secular, personal indulgence. In some societies both women and men smoke, in others only men, and in others this has changed in knowable history. Who is the expert in the preparation and use of medicines? In Colonial North America it was women; later, men dominated medicine and pharmacy and forced women out, while today many women have reentered those fields. Examining each aspect of culture with a curiosity concerning women's and men's roles and ideologies is the key to creating a more dynamic and detailed understanding of humankind.

What Do Archaeologists Do?

Archaeologists use systematic methods to recover, analyze, and interpret evidence from the earth in order to reconstruct social life in the past. Archaeological interpretation depends on both scientific techniques and the theories and ideologies that affect social description and history. Archaeologists control an immense arsenal of techniques for excavating and analyzing the remains of human activity. Today archaeological materials can be dated by a large number of techniques, soils can be analyzed to give evidence of plants once used in the ancient context, artifacts can be analyzed to reveal the point of origin of the primary material, multivariate analysis and DNA studies of the remains of human bodies can reveal origins of the group and kinship patterns within it, chemical analysis of human remains can be used to reveal the geographic origins of individuals and their places of residence, and even feces can be tested to show both the diet and sex of the ancient person who defecated (N. Williams 1995; Powledge and Rose 1996; Sobolik et al. 1996; Price et al. 2000). The quantity and variety of information that can result from the archaeological analysis of evidence is astounding. However, the usefulness of raw data is determined by the body of theory that guides scientific interpretation.

The Role of Theory in Engendering the Past

All scientific research is governed by theory and by the specific historical and social circumstances that dictate what is useful and desirable to investigate, as well as which information should be gathered, which interpreted, and which ignored. Theory links archaeology to the wider fields of scientific endeavor, social thought, and history and makes archaeology subject to waves of fashion in the broader community of scholars. Archaeology has utilized evolutionary theory, ecological theory, structuralist and functionalist thought, Marxist models, and, most recently, postmodern feminist and critical theories.

In practice, Americanist archaeology employs an eclectic theoretical framework but always depends heavily on historical and ethnographic analogies for constructing models and making interpretations. Almost all archaeological models are formulated on the basis of the variations of human societies in history or in the ethnographic present. If there is evidence of continuity between the prehistoric and historic peoples in a region, then the direct historical approach may serve the archaeologist, although the reconstruction of the prehistoric past using models drawn from the historic period may be flawed because cultures are subject to dramatic change in Conquest and Colonial situations.

General analogical thinking is the basis for archaeological imagining, but this thinking is limited because, even taken together, the known historical cases and the entire body of ethnographic description do not cover the entire range of human cultural potential. Another problem with thinking analogically when doing engendered interpretations of the past is that archaeologists, despite their best intentions, project their own understanding of their own society onto other cultural contexts. For example, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, social scientists tended to view women's and men's spheres as distinct and women's spheres as being intrinsically of lesser value. Writers in the materialist scientific tradition of the industrial age have viewed women as having fewer and less interesting economic opportunities. Similarly, the social scientists who carried out the ethnographic observations on which archaeologists base their thinking frequently omitted women as sources of information, neglected to observe what women actually did, and failed to consider women as significant actors in public affairs. Anthropological research has perpetuated stereotypes concerning women's motivations, creativity, organizational capacities, political interests, and economic activities. The credible reconstruction of past societies is hampered by the uncritical use of that anthropological research, which ignores the female half of humankind. This intractable problem is exacerbated by the fact that after five hundred years of European imperialism, most of the peoples of the planet have been affected by Western concepts of gender and power.

Feminism and feminist epistemology, which appeared in anthropological fieldwork only about three decades ago, have significantly affected the androcentric culture of archaeology (Code 1991; Levy 2006; Spencer-Wood 2011; Wylie 1991), although many archaeologists continue to labor with a distorted understanding of human societies, which developed because researchers focused on those social institutions outside the household in which males often dominate. Both archaeologists and ethnographers frequently show more interest in the extrahousehold activities of the elite sectors of past societies, studying the organization of public institutions and generating an overly masculinized view of society. Both anthropologists and archaeologists have inadvertently defined women as nonparticipants. If only certain institutions are taken as the measure of employment and leadership, then female activities and groups with female participants are trivialized. This dichotomy between the formal and public on the one hand and the informal and private on the other may be an artifact of the field investigator's predisposition, not an accurate reflection of social reality.

Recent theory has opened the door to more nuanced social interpretations. For instance, the concept of heterarchy offers an alternative for imagining how power might be held in society, and the theoretical focus on agency has encouraged archaeologists to think about the actors of the past, the agents of sociocultural innovation and change, and the creators of new ideologies (Crumley 1995; Blanton et al. 1999).

While many societies in the recent past and present were or are characterized by gender-based hierarchies in which males seem to dominate many areas of human activity, other types of societies that demonstrate greater parity between women and men may have been more common earlier in history. In reality, the relationships between women and men in past and present societies are as variable across cultures as are other aspects of human behavior.

There is no single ethnographic model for the future society to which some feminists aspire, but it is useful to imagine and work toward a community life in which there is sexual equality and a division of labor without an ideology that stereotypes as important the social, political, and economic activities of one sex and as trivial those of the other sex. The aspirations of contemporary women find support in anthropological evidence: ethnographic studies show social contexts in which women form work groups and alliances that operate independently of men, and they show economic networks managed by women that control materials, create opportunities, achieve political goals, and meet challenges.

For people of Western cultural heritage or those converted to the cultural and religious ideologies of the West, it is difficult to imagine women in any of these ways. Nevertheless, in the past there were societies in which women's economic contributions were valued and celebrated by the society at large. Before colonization, in many parts of the world there were institutions that fostered women's economic networks outside the household. Women in such societies engaged in reciprocal exchanges and mutual assistance outside their immediate family groups. Because such societies persist even today, it behooves archaeologists to consider the proposition that similar organizations existed in ancient contexts and that material remains could well reflect gynocentric organizations.

Anthropological models provide archaeologists with grounds for making interpretations that differ fundamentally from those based on Western Asian and European ideological systems. It is imperative that archaeologists consider alternative models of sex roles and relations rather than relying on what has been termed the "direct ethnocentric approach" (Bruhns 1991:420). Thus, in the reconstruction of past societies, archaeologists might draw on appropriate models from historical and contemporary non-Western societies in which there is a greater parity between the sexes than that which has existed in the public sector of Euroamerican society. One model of parity can be derived from ethnographic studies of foragers among whom there is no marked division of labor along sexual lines, and where sexual hierarchy is not very important because no individual systematically makes decisions for anyone else. Such models need to be considered as archaeologists interpret the remains of past foraging societies and imagine how these societies became more complex.

Another model of parity can be seen among the historic Iroquois and Huron, groups in which sex roles were clearly marked and differentiated, but not obviously ranked. In such societies, women and men are believed to be very different, but both make key economic contributions, both have equivalently valued roles, and both exercise power. Women and men in these societies control their own sexuality and labor, and both have strategies for achieving their self-defined goals: they both participate in making decisions, allocating resources, and negotiating social values. Interdependence between the sexes in these societies is high (Venables 2010:21–57).

The study of these societies presents us with alternatives to androcentric interpretations. In order to write a responsible prehistory of America, it is imperative to adopt an engendered viewpoint, putting women and men alike into the narratives of the past. To understand social dynamics and social change, we must model how the two sexes are assigned economic activities and how they create serviceable ideologies and origin histories, negotiate leadership, and manage change. What women and men did in any particular past cultural context cannot be assumed, because women's and men's roles are not fixed but vary with time, space, and culture. The activities and roles of women and men should be assessed case by case as the archaeological record is interpreted. Even when the evidence for such reconstruction is thin, scholars may still productively and responsibly imagine the lives and values of all individuals.


Excerpted from Women in Ancient America by Karen Olsen Bruhns, Karen E. Stothert. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Karen Olsen Bruhns is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at San Francisco State University and author of Ancient South America.

Karen E. Stothert is Anthropology Research Associate at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and author of more than 75 monographs and scientific papers based on her own anthropological and archaeological research.

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