Posted by: Mayan Musings | March 15, 2012

Sexuality and Gender

Groups are never homogeneous – one cannot simply take in the big picture at an archaeological site and understand the fine details of a society.  In an article focusing on gender, Clayton tells us that we cannot analyze a society as a unit, or we would be unable to focus in on important details such as gender (2010).  Gender is a culturally constructed concept that sorts biologically male and female individuals into roles within the household and community, an important task for the construction of day-to-day life.  Here, we explore the roles and privileges experienced by women in Mayan cultures.  This theme of gender permeated throughout the Mayan culture, from beautification routines to access to nutrition.

While biological studies of skeletons can’t tell us everything about an individual, however, they can sometimes provide useful insight into cultural practices regarding gender. For example, ancient Mayan burial sites reveal evidence of cranial modification, a suggestion that appearance of an erect or oblique head was important socially (Romero-Vargas 2010).  While 88.65% of crania evaluated in a study of 94 Classic Mayan sites exhibited artificial shaping (Tiesler 1999), a specific study at Yaxuna indicated that female infants were twice as likely to be subjected to cranial modification than males (Arden, 2002). It is also believed that because this practice began in early infancy and women are frequently depicted in art as the performers of deformation, that females were responsible for maintaining this cultural tradition. This suggests that women were perhaps held to higher standards regarding personal aesthetics, and that they maintained a more domestic role in society through childcare (Tiesler). The styles of Classic Mayan tooth decorations also show differences in male and female treatment as well: while tooth adornment was more common in women who generally favored filings, males over the age of 15 would inlay gems such as hematite and jade into their teeth, indicating higher wealth (Tiesler). It is important to note though, that gender differences disappear once considering women of elite status. While some scholars  attempt to highlight that women had less access to food resources than men through anemia studies, these differences are mainly related to social class, as elite women skeletons were not found in ill health (Grauer, 1998). Physical difference between females and males are much more apparent among individuals of lower social status.

People that hold the feminist archaeology perspective could argue that many recent studies use the biases of Western norms to evaluate the site.  And up until recent research has been done, “Maya culture has been described by scholars as male-dominated” (Miller, 2012). But this recent research in the field of archaeology has started to show that Maya women once played a central role in the society.  According to Shankari Patel’s studies, many artifacts have been found that show that a lot of ritual spinning and weaving had been done.  Also, a lot of icons and figurines had been found which were used for funerary rituals, which further shows the importance of women in society (Miller, 2012).  Patel even commented that, “Our society is so patriarchal, and archaeologists often don’t realize how that affects the way we look at the past.” (2012).  Another issue regarding women in Maya society and in past cultures in general, is the fact that there is a lot less information out about them.  At the elite Copan Acropolis, there were two tombs that contained women’s remains and yet there was not even one reference to women in textual format (Ardren, 2002).  But the lack of information on women in texts should not lead us to assumptions on the importance of women because other women share information on their daily lives.  Ardren even argues that women might have had a smaller role, but it was still nevertheless significant and they played a role in both ritual activities and Mayan creation mythology (2002).

Archaeologists can observe gendered differences in a culture by examining human remains.  Skeletons can accurately show evidence of trauma from violence, disease and infection, and malnutrition (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).   Patterns of violence do not suggest a rampant issue of gendered violence within Mayan communities.  Most injuries are fractures, likely caused by falls and other occupational hazards, not domestic violence.

Evidence has shown that women in Mayan cultures show patterns of arthritis consistently.  These patterns suggest that repetitive motions from cooking cause this affliction (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).   This implies a structured understanding of gender roles within a community, suggesting a gender hierarchy.  Ideas of gendered labor within Mayan culture are further emphasized when one observes that women are much more likely to suffer from “village” diseases, or illnesses that sweep through closely quartered populations (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).  Women led a more sedentary lifestyle, meaning they left the villages less often than their male counterparts.

Grave goods are often considered one of the integral aspects of mortuary archaeology by those conducting the research, and these artifacts are no less important in terms of gender and mortuary analysis. Grave good gender and sex analysis by archaeologists must always be taken with a grain of salt. As Pearson states, “the principal methodological issue concerned with unexamined assumptions has probably been the ascription of biological sex on the basis of associated grave goods and dress” (2000: 97). As mentioned in our first post, The Red Queen is a prominent figure in mayan archaeology, few individual women have received as much attention as she has. Along with the face mask of cinnabar, the Red Queen was also buried with pearls, three small axes, and a belt of jade beads. These items do not tell much in the way of sex or gender, however, as most of them are consider manifestations of elite power (Tiesler et al 2004: 70). At a non-elite level, more gendered markers seem to come to the forefront. On a large number of juvenile females, a marine shell pendant seems to have been placed in the pelvic area, which, according to ethnohistoric evidence, symbolizes “purity”. Older females were not associated with this artifact (Ardren 2002: 76). The majority of the females at the Yaxuna site where Ardren conducted her research were buried with decorated ceramic vessels, at higher proportions than males buried with the ceramic vessels. These ceramics seem to have been made at the household level, thus connecting women to, at the very least, ceramic making in the home (Ardren 2002: 76).

It is interesting to note that Stockett has cited epigraphic and iconographic mortuary artifacts depicting what could be considered a third gender in Mayan culture (2005: 570). The evidence for this is inconclusive however and simply deserved mentioning.

We are what we eat – literally.  Examining nutrition in men and women shows a difference in foods that are available to men and women (White, 2005).  Bone density, height of the base of the cranium, and the diameter of the pelvic inlet all can suggest whether a person was malnourished or received a sufficient amount of calories and protein (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).  Bones also directly show whether individuals were deficient in a specific nutrient.  Women were more likely to be anemic, but this could have been due to natural iron loss through menstruation or less access to protein sources (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).  Remains from Lamanai and Pacbitun show that men consistently consumed more animal protein than women did (White, 2005).  This could have been the result of what foods men and women came into contact with during their day to day activities, what foods were regularly eaten during ritual practices, or because of social hierarchies more so than gender.

Women were thought to be the gatekeepers of food.  One would initially think that this status as the controller of food would give women power within the community, but food choice was ultimately based on availability and popular choice (White, 2005).  Women’s power and autonomy when it came to food further decreased because of Spanish colonialism.  Spanish influence altered Mayan rituals, allowing for more ritual consumption of animal protein.  The Spanish patriarchal attitude towards women also rubbed off on the community – equality within the Mayan populations decreased as Mayans began devaluing women’s work and status within society.
Works Cited

Ardren, Traci. Ancient Maya Women. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2002. Print.

Clayton, S.C. Gender and Mortuary Ritual at Ancient Teotihuacan, Mexico: a Study of   Intrasocietal Diversity.  Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21 (1):31-52

Cohen, M., and Bennett, S. Evidence for Sexual Roles and Gender Hierarchies in Prehistory. Rutledge, 1995. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Grauer, Anne L. Sex and Gender in Paleopathological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Miller, Bettye. “Research Re-examines Role of Maya Women.” EurekAlert! AAAS, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.     <–rrr022912.php>.

Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2000. Print.

Romero-Vargas et al. “A Look at Mayan Artificial Cranial Deformation Practices:

Morphological and Cultural Aspects.” Neurosurgical FOCUS 29.6 (2010). Print.

Stockett, Miranda. “On the Importance of Difference: Re-Envisioning Sex and Gender in Ancient Mesoamerica” World Archaeology , Vol. 37, No. 4, Debates in “World Archaeology” (Dec., 2005), pp. 566-578

Tiesler, V, Cucina, A, and A. Romano Pacheco. “Who was the Red Queen? Identity of the female Maya dignitary from the sarcophagus tomb of Temple XIII, Palenque, Mexico.” Journal of Comparative Human Biology. Volume 55, Issue 1: Oct. 2004.

White, C. Gendered Food Behavior Among the Maya.  Journal of Social Archaeology. 2005. (5):356-382. Web. 13 Mar. 2012



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