Sex Roles and Gender Hierarchies in Middle Range Societies: Engendering Southwestern Prehistory

Advanced Seminar

March 2–6, 1997

Gender is a fundamental organizing principle in all societies. Despite the growing body of anthropological literature on the subject, however, many central issues of relations between the sexes remain unresolved because they require diachronic studies over considerable periods of time and under specific conditions of change. The problem is compounded in the field of prehistoric archaeology, which is still trying to devise methods for reexamining the past from a gendered perspective.

The prehistoric American Southwest presents an ideal case for investigating gender issues: It boasts a wealth of available data, secure dating of sites, and the presence of multiple cultures that survived from the prehistoric to the historic period. The SAR advanced seminar on “Sex Roles and Gender Hierarchies in Middle Range Societies: Engendering Southwestern Prehistory” was the first comprehensive attempt to examine the record of the prehistoric Southwest in terms of gender. It was also the School’s first all-female advanced seminar.

“Our goal was to assess changes in the sexual division of labor and in gender hierarchies among the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi), Mogollon, and Hohokam people between 10,000 BC and AD 1540,” said seminar chair Patricia L. Crown of the University of New Mexico. During this period Southwestern populations shifted from migratory hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers and from small bands to large communities. Each seminar participant examined the effects of these changes on the lives of women and men, focusing on individual topics including the organization of space; health, nutrition, disease, and violence; gender hierarchies and social position; agriculture and hunting; food preparation; craft and tool production; ritual activities; and mortuary goods and burial practices.

The group identified several trends that impacted gendered relations in most of the studied regions, such as increased levels of food production, productive and ritual specialization, time devoted to processing and preparing food, and variability in health status among men, women, and children. As the workloads of both women and men increased, unisex task groups apparently became more important; a conclusion supported by the spatial arrangements of activities, such as the appearance of special rooms where women gathered to grind corn.

The seminar also found that gendered relations became increasingly differentiated over time. “No single generalization can be made about the sexual division of labor or gender hierarchies after AD 1300,” Crown observed. “This variability is characteristic of middle-range societies, which have many different solutions to similar types of problems. Such findings would not be particularly surprising to cultural anthropologists. But it’s significant that we were able to monitor them in the prehistoric period and see when and where they developed.”

In addition to identifying specific areas where future research needs to be done, seminar participants agreed that gender should always be taken into account in examining any topic. “We want scholars to recognize that it isn't possible to discuss most aspects of prehistoric life or cultural processes in the prehistoric record without considering gender and sex,” Crown said.

Patricia L. Crown, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico Women's Role in Changing Cuisine in the Prehistoric American Southwest
Suzanne K. Fish Arizona State Museum Agricultural Production, Gathering, and Gender
Kelley Hays-Gilpin Navajo Nation Archaeology Department and The Museum of Northern Arizona Gender Ideology and Ritual Activities in the Ancient Southwest
Michelle Hegmon Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University Women, Men, and the Organization of Space in Southwestern Prehistory
Louise Lamphere Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico Discussant
Debra Martin Anthropology Program, Hampshire College Women's Bodies, Women's Lives: Biological Indicators of Gender Differentiation and Inequality in the Southwest
Barbara J. Mills Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona Gender, Labor, and Inequality: Dynamics of Craft Production in the American Southwest
Jill Neitzel Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware Gender Hierarchies in the Prehistoric Southwest: A Comparative Analysis of Mortuary Data
Katherine A. Spielmann Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University Gender and Interaction in the Prehistoric Southwest
Christine R. Szuter The University of Arizona Press Hunting, Domesticated Animals, and Gender in the American Southwest: Gender Hierarchies and the Sexual Division of Labor

Sponsored by The Wenner-Gren Foundation

Follow us: