February 2006, Dr. Miranda Stockett, Exploring Concepts of Gender and Sex in Ancient Mesoamerica: Understanding  Variability in Ancient  Maya Gender Ideologies and  Practices                                                                                 

             On February 11, 2006, Doctor Miranda Stockett evaluated the two prevailing models of gender ideology utilized by investigators of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica: gender hierarchy and gender complementarity. The gender hierarchy model proposes that relations between genders are unequal and ranked; social life is structured around the dominant male gender and the role of females is defined in relation to that of men.   In the more recent gender complementarity model, males and females have separate but mutually balanced cultural roles.  Both models are reflected in ancient Mesoamerican life: men are shown as rulers and warriors, women primarily as wives and mothers. However, assumptions about gender in both models are based primarily on two potentially suspect sources. The first source, Spanish colonial documents, were written by men with sixteenth-century European beliefs and prejudices about sex and gender, while ethnographic studies of modern Central American peoples portray cultures which have blended colonial views with their own, resulting in ideologies and practices that deviate to some degree from those of their Pre-Columbian ancestors.

             The sexual division of labor, which underlies models like gender hierarchy and complementarity, is predicated upon the existence of two biological sexes which easily translate into two culturally constructed genders: male and female. Roles of women as wives and mothers are determined by their reproductive biology, while males, by virtue of their larger size and physical freedom, traditionally take on activities such as hunting, warfare and politics. Although she does not question this binary division of the sexes, Dr. Stockett and others, such as Rosemary Joyce and Matthew Looper, feel that for many ancient Mesoamerican peoples the concept of gender was made malleable through social context and performance. Ancient depictions of gods with male and female aspects, androgynous figures, and men-women dressed in costumes of the opposite gender point towards this malleability. These depictions may evoke a third gender status embodied by the Maize God and Moon Goddess.  If a man is dressed as a woman during the performance of a ritual, is he enacting a male role, a female role, or a role that can be undertaken only by someone of a third or ambiguous gender?  This suggests a strong sense of fluidity in Pre-Columbian understandings of the relationship between gender and sex, a fluidity that does not equate with a society based solely upon the sexual division of labor, or with the models of hierarchy and complimentarity.

              There are other exceptions which do not fit into the strict divisions of either model. Numerous examples indicate that women played important ruling roles in elite Mesoamerican politics, particularly among the Maya. Prior to the colonial period, Mesoamerican farmers appeared to live near their fields, rather than clustered together in the later appearing villages which became necessary when families chose to live close to schools and churches. There is archaeological evidence that, prior to this centralization, men, women, and children all worked in these fields. Among the Aztec, children were not considered to be gendered at birth, but were gradually reinforced in their gender roles.

             Dr. Stockett proposes that gender and sex can best be seen as parts of an overall individual social identity.   A model of social identity which integrates attributes of sex, gender, age, status and class explains more completely the activities which appear to be exceptions to the two other models, as well as occasions in which both models seem to be in play. The study of social identity focuses on the tensions between social norms and individual response to those norms – essentially on the places where identity is defined and changed through the manifestation of difference. Social identities such as gender, sex, and sexuality cannot be usefully understood or explored without addressing the ways in which they work to connect or separate persons and groups in lived experience.

             The work of Dr. Stockett at Las Canoas, in Honduras, points towards this more inclusive view of social identity.  Las Canoas, a non-Maya site located not far from Copan, was an area of intensive pottery production and trade from 850-960 AD.  The second phase of construction at Las Canoas contains a plaza surrounded by stone-faced, stepped buildings, which, although still in close proximity to areas of domestic activity and pottery production, shows signs of emerging elite activity.  In this plaza remnants of censing practices were found on the higher levels of the stepped buildings, indicating that roles of ritual specialization were beginning to occur.  Dr. Stockett notes that the five types of incensario remains found at Las Canoas can also be found at nearby Copan. She hypothesizes that ritual censing activity in Las Canoas would have included males whose attire emphasized their gender, and females clothed in more gender obscuring garb, just as it would have in Copan. It is her belief that certain ritual practices may have been gendered, but that this gender identity would have been adopted and shed with each of these ritual performances. Further, she hypothesizes that different variables of social identity, such as status, age, or gender, may have been fore-grounded in different activities. Dr. Stockett hopes that her concept of the role of social identity in determining individual activity and group interactions will challenge present views and provoke future debate in Mesoamerican Studies.

             Dr. Miranda K. Stockett received her B.A. from Kenyon College in 1997, her M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001, and her Ph.D. from the  University of  Pennsylvania in 2005.  She is currently a Research Associate with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology and a Penn Writing Fellow with the Critical Writing Program.  Her research focuses on issues of identity and feminist theory in ancient Mesoamerica. Dr. Stockett has conducted excavations in the Naco and Cacaulapa regions of Honduras and is currently co-director of the Proyecto Arqueologico Valle de Jesus de Otoro in Las Canoas, central  Honduras.


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