Fingerprints Overturn Ideas On Women In Ancient Native American Society – But What About The Third Sex?
Fingerprints are very important in criminal investigations, but it seems they are also increasingly important when it comes to archaeological studies. By studying 1000-year-old fingerprints, American experts have been able to upturn the accepted view of what was a woman’s role in a Native American society. This research is providing new insights into the Chaco culture of New Mexico and demonstrating how it survived in a hostile environment.
Lasting Impressions of the Chaco Culture
The Chaco culture flourished in the valleys of northern New Mexico between 800 and 1300 AD. They were the first to build using pueblo buildings and constructed complexes, with up to 650 rooms. The Chaco people were able to use irrigation techniques to survive in a desert where modern people do not live. The culture collapsed because of a great drought in the 13 th century but they are seen as the ancestors of the modern Puebloan people of the south-west of the USA.
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In the 11th-century the Ancestral Puebloans built huge structures in the Chaco Valley, thought to be the site of religious pilgrimage. (John Kantner / UNF)
Because they were a pre-literate people we know little about the Chaco and we are reliant on their material remains to understand them. One thing that is evident is that these Native Americans were expert potters. According to the National Geographic they “produced a type of pottery called ‘corrugated ware’ made by coiling thick ropes of clay on top of one another to form large vessels.” A great many Chaco ceramic shards have been found and many have fingerprints.
Study of Fingerprints by Forensic Science
A team from the University of North Florida led by Dr. John Kanter began to examine 938 shards from one site and their finding have been published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. One of the team members, David McKinney, a former member of law enforcement suggested they use of police techniques to evaluate the indentions left by the Chaco potters on their ware. The researchers sought to determine the gender of a potter by measuring the indentions left by their fingers on the wet clay. The majority of the ceramics investigated according to ABC news are “pinch pots used for food preparation and storage.”
The breadth of ridge marks of the fingerprints left on 11th-century pottery were used by researchers to determine the likely sex of the potter. (John Kantner / UNF)
The team assumed that they would find that all the fingerprints would be female. This was based on colonial accounts of the descendants of the Chaco culture, from the 17 th century. Indeed, today females in Puebloan culture make pottery, and this activity is considered to be women’s work.
Not Women’s Work
According to ABC news, the researchers measured the “width of ridges and furrows of each fingerprint to determine whether the pottery was crafted by a male or a female.” Males have larger and higher ridges, and this allowed the researchers to identify the gender of those who made the print. The study found using law enforcement techniques that just under 50% of the fingerprints were male, some 40% were female or juveniles, and roughly 12% could not be determined. The National Geographic reports that “66 percent of older shards featured “male” fingerprints, while more recent pieces were almost evenly split between male and female fingerprints.”
11th-century pot made by an Ancestral Puebloan potter. (John Kantner / UNF)
This was sensational as it was contrary to what the researchers expected to find. They found that both males and females participated in pottery making and at one point more men than women were active in the manufacture of ware from clay. PNAS reports the finding, “suggests that the contributions of each sex varied over time and even among different social groups in the same community.”
New Insights into Native Americans
This has important implications for our understanding of the ancestral Puebloan people. It seems that in the past that the manufacture of pottery was not solely the province of women. This means that both genders worked together, and this may mean that women had a relatively high status in Chaco culture. It may also show that the specialization of labor did not result in a division of work based on gender, as commonly assumed by historians.
There are some caveats when it comes to the findings based on the study of the fingerprints. Some have argued that forensic techniques may not be appropriate for archaeological studies. Many believe that the methodology is flawed because the differences in the fingerprints may not be due to the gender of the potter but simply reflects the amount of pressure that they applied and other factors.
A Third Sex?
It is also thought that gender in Chaco society was not constructed in the same way as modern Western societies. They appear to have had a ‘Third Sex’, that is a gender that was neither male nor female. They often were considered to have spiritual capabilities and gifts and a privileged place within the group. There were many other Native American groups who had an intersex or androgynous category of people.
The findings on the sex of the potters may not really help us to understand the division of labor in Chaco society and its evolution. This is because many of the male fingerprints may have belonged to a member of the ‘Third Sex’ according to ABC News. This could mean that the researchers’ interpretation of the findings with regard to what constituted men and women’s work could be distorted by the gender structure of Chaco society.
Dr. Kantner in the field – The study of ancient fingerprints “helps explain why these people were able to actually live in places that no one can live in today.” (John Kantner / UNF)
The study of the fingerprints is providing new insights into the Chaco. It is showing us the possible status of women and the nature of the division of labor in that society. The biometric evidence from the fingerprints may indicate why the Chaco were so successful. Men and women worked together, and this helped their communities to flourish in an often-brutal environment. The research findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Top image: Excavations of ancient households and study of fingerprints in New Mexico reveal that men and women were equally involved in domestic pottery production. Source: John Kantner / UNF.
By Ed Whelan