Women in pre-columbian latin america

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The history of Central America or Meso-America as it is usually referred to will be linked in this chapter to South America. North America will not be covered in this section as it is usually covered in conjunction with United States History. Both Central and South American areas are usually called Latin America, because of the Spanish and Portuguese languages that were imposed on these people in the sixteenth and subsequent centuries. Complex societies developed in these regions, but later than in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia based on current archaeological findings. The most important cultures were the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas, and these will be the major focus of this chapter.

The Olmec society is considered the mother culture of Meso-America, settling in the Caribbean lowlands, primarily on the gulf coast of Mexico, and dates from circa 1200 - 900 b.c.e. According to many archaeologists it was the cornerstone for the rest of the civilizations that followed, although there were other cultures flourishing at the same time too, but did not leave such impressive monumental architectural artifacts. The most famous Olmec monuments were immense nine feet tall basalt stone heads, that were purple-painted portraits of their rulers, circa 1200 b.c.e. Trade was important, especially in raw materials like obsidian, marine shells, stingray spines and finely carved jade. Metallurgy did not become important in Meso-America until quite late, and then metal was used mainly for ceremonial items not for tools. Without cows, horses, donkeys, oxen, and wheeled vehicles, humans were the beasts of burden. San Lorenzo was one of their chief places. As they had no chariots or cavalry, fighting was done by infantry. Battles seem to have been clashes of individuals, not coordinated groups. Apparently they had writings similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics, but as they were inscribed into wood, the humid heat of the jungle destroyed most all of the writings. These people used the jungle toad that caused hallucinations in at least their religious rituals. Not only did they worship a half man half jaguar god, but they claimed to be related to these jaguars. The Olmecs were the ones that originated the sacrificing of humans to their gods, that will be continued under the Mayans and Aztecs. The Zapotecs in their sacred city of Monte Alban supposedly devised the pulling of the beating heart out of the chest, as a unique method of human sacrifice. It is thought they also practiced ritual cannibalism, and may have taken the heads of their conquered foes, just like the ancient Celts did in Europe.

The next civilization that has been distinguished by scholars is that of Teotihuacan, circa 300 b.c.e. - 700 a.c.e., one thousand years of a brilliant civilization. Teotihuacan was also the name of its sacred city, located close to present-day Mexico City. It was larger than imperial Rome, covering more than nine square miles and home to more than 200,000 people. The Teotihuacans like the ancient Olmecs erected monumental edifices, but they were pyramids not heads. The Teotihuacans had a theocracy. These pyramids were temples to the deities with smaller stones than those used in Egypt's pyramids, they were covered with stucco and decorated with carvings and colored frescoes. These people introduced the worship of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl, whose cult will become universal in Meso-America, and play an integral role in the eventual demise of their culture when Cortez is mistaken for this deity.

Meso-America civilization reached its highest intellectual development under the Mayas, the next civilization of note. Referred by some as the Greeks of the New World, they migrated into Central America too, originally in the lowlands, but eventually into the highlands of Guatemala, where the zenith of their culture occurred. Today there are many Guatemalans of Mayan descent and they speak the Mayan dialects. This culture reached its peak circa 300-900 a.c.e. (OTHER DATES TOO CHECK OUT)

After a century of adversity or obscurity the Mayans then fused with the Toltecs, and flourished in the 1th and 12th centuries. Agriculture was the mainstay of Mayan culture. In Meso-America it was maize that was the central crop, comparable to rice for Asia and wheat for Europe. Narrow rectangular fields were raised to allow for the most efficient irrigation system. Farmers also relied on milpa for growing maize, where a patch of forest land will be cut and burned, then seeds planted in the ashes. Cotton, beans and squash were also important crops. It was the women who then wove the cotton into cloth. Dogs were their main source of protein along with turkeys.

The Mayans were polytheistic, worshiping a number of natural elements that were both zoomorphic and anthropomorphic. The Mayas believed that they had been several worlds before their present one, and each one had been destroyed by a great flood. The creator deity was a mother, who passed on her power to her three sons, creating the present world. One of Palenque's kings, Pacal, stated that it was his mother, Lady Zac Kuk, who was the first mother. There is an extent Tablet of the Cross at Palenque, one of the important Mayan cities, that tells the legend of the first mother. Pacal himself was identified with the three patron gods. The most complete record of Maya myth and history is Popol Vuh, where it relates that the people were created from maize. The rain deity was propitiated by the throwing of a virgin into a well. It the god did not drown her, then she could be rescued. Ix Chel was the goddess of the moon and rainbows. At the time of the Spanish Conquest Cozumel Island off the eastern coast of Mexico was a major place of veneration for Ix Chel. Her most important roles were healing, divination and assisting during childbirth. No event held greater significance for most Mayans than the birth of a child. No only were children considered the measure of personal wealth and good fortune, they implied the direct sanction of the gods, especially Ix Chel, whose image was placed under expectant mothers during labor, and under barren women to encourage fertility. As the moon goddess, when she had sexual intercourse with the sun, this was the first sexual coupling in history. There are many stories connected with Ix Chel. Some of these tales tell about her infidelities towards her husband, the sun, and others gods. The other myths are poignant reminders of the low mortality rate for infants. A mother would offer a bit of tortilla to Ix Chel for the health of her child. Ixtab (CHECK TO SEE IF REALLY MAYAN OR MAYBE AZTEC GODDESS) was the suicide goddess, an important deity as suicide was a honorable death for the Maya. Ixtab depicted in Maya codices in a most gruesome manner, hanging by a rope around her neck with her eyes closed as in death.


Rulers mutilated their bodies in the belief that the flow of royal blood would nourish the gods. A male ruler would pierce his penis with obsidian or a string ray spine. His wife would draw a barbed rope through her tongue. In both cases bowls caught the blood that was then offered to the gods. These rituals were performed before a war, but also the chief wife mutilated her tongue when the king's younger second wife had a baby.

Marriage and family life

Families were patriarchal in structure. Girls' names were chosen for the beauty and charm of a name, like Green Flower, Rain Flower, Turquoise Maize Flower and Water Bird. Crossed eyes were considered the mark of beauty for the Maya as well as pierced ears, lips and the septum of the nose. A variety of ornaments were hung from these places. While both girls and women wore their hair long, it was fixed in a distinctive style based on their marital status. Married women tattooed themselves like the men did with delicate designs. Flattened foreheads were another sign of beauty, and achieved by placing a board both at the back of the head and against the forehead. Maya women wore a cotton skirt, but their breasts were either uncovered or concealed. Their head and shoulders were draped with a cotton shawl.

Marriages were not arranged, but a man went to the house of a woman of his choice. If she accepted him and gave him something to eat, they then considered getting married. The woman was never from his own village, but from a neighboring town, thus the Mayans had exogamic marriages. The husband then moved to his wife's town, living with his inlaws for a trial period of four years. If the husband did not treat his wife respectfully, then the father of the bride could choose another husband for her. Polygyny was permitted. Divorce was easy for both husband and wife by a simple repudiation. Widowers and widows were to remain single for one year and then could remarry.
When the Mayan civilization was declining, the Aztecs were on the rise in the central valley of Mexico. Many hypotheses are given for the reason for Mayan decay, but Aztec power was not one of them. We know a lot about Aztec culture because of their codices, although most of them were destroyed by the conquering Spaniards. The Aztecs as part of the Nahuatl-speaking groups who had been nomadic for centuries, hunting and trading with more developed peoples, and kidnapping daughters of neighboring tribes for their wives, just like the ancient Romans had done to establish their society. Aztecs following their priests and their god, Huitzilopochtle, searched for a vaguely promised land. They found it on a muddy island in Lake Texcoco in the high valley of Mexico, where around 1325 they began to build the city, Tenochtitlan, that would be called Mexico City by the Spanish. Over time this city turned into the Venice of the New World, as they constructed dikes, causeways and canals over what was originally marshy ground. The Aztecs built streets paved with stones. Development of a public works department kept these streets meticulously clean. Human waste was hauled away for fertilizer, and fresh water was supplied by an aqueduct. In a short time the population of Tenochtitlan rose to 200,000, and the entire empire to five million.

Continual warfare was necessary to maintain Aztec supremacy and supply sacrifices for their gods, especially Hutzilopochtli at his gigantic pyramid temple in Tenochtitlan. Aztec human sacrifices were more grisly than the rest of Meso-Americans that did human sacrifices. All men were conscripted into military service or the priesthood. Aztec society was as pyramidal as their temples, but the average Aztec family had little share in the splendors enjoyed by the aristocrats and rulers. Women spun and wove cloth, and spent many hours a day grinding corn by hand to make tortillas.

Although Aztec society was primarily patriarchal and pyramidal like their predecessors the Maya, women had many opportunities. Their status was comparable to their contemporaries in Europe. Elite women served as rulers as well as men, and they were married to form alliances like so many other cultures. One of these rulers was a queen named Six Monkey, who led her army to victory. After she had the hearts of the two lords she defeated cut out, she was then renamed War Quechquemitl. Tecpaxochitl, who was the daughter of the ruler of Azcapotzalco was relegated to concubine status by her husband, who chose to marry the daughter of a more powerful ruler. If the wife had a higher lineage, then the children would emphasize their mother's and not their father's ancestry. Polygamy was common, especially with the aristocracy. For the peasants, the majority of the populace, farming, manufacturing, and trading dominated their lives. Education was available to both boys and girls at regular schools, although they were segregated by status.

As most all women married, their household responsibilities were keeping water in the house, gathering fuel, grinding corn for tortillas, and taking care of the children. Additionally, Aztec women were skilled in spinning, weaving, embroidering, and sewing cloth and clothing, which were then traded for other items. Aztec women dominated all aspects of trade in food items, textiles, raising birds and preparing their feathers by dying them, etc, a distinctive identifier for nobles and warriors. A new bride was given five valuable cotton capes that served as her starting capital for market trading. As in the European Middle Ages, women owned numerous food stalls in the towns. Richer women financed merchant caravans like Arab women before and after Khadija did. Women were also midwives and physicians. The monies these women earned was their to control.

At the bottom tier of society were the slaves. Slavery was the punishment for some crimes, as tribute, and a person could also sell themselves into slavery. As prostitution was controlled by state-run brothels, but managed by free women, it was probably the slaves, both indigenous and foreign that were the prostitutes. Red-stained teeth from chewing chicle gum, special clothing, and loose hair served as the pronouncing of prostitutes. although girls and married chewed it too, but not in public. If a man chewed chicle gum he was then called a sodomite and a homosexual. As a testament to the hard and continual labors a woman could look forward to in Aztec society, when a girl was born, this statement was intoned by the midwife: "thou wilt become fatigued...tho art to sweat by the heart..."

Women and goddesses occupied positions of importance in the religious rites of the Aztecs. Coatlicue was the great mother goddess for the Aztecs like Isis, Inanna, and Cybele in the ancient Near East. She was called Serpent Skirt, and the Aztecs saw the snake as both a dark creature and a bringer of light and wisdom. Both Coatlicue and her daughter Coyolxauhqui were embellished with snakes, like the ancient Minoan goddess. While the great pyramid complex in Tenochtitlan was dedicated to the war god Hutzilpochtli, there were altars dedicated to his mother, Coatlicue and his sister Coyolxauhqui. Xochiquetzal was the goddess of dance, music, crafts, love and flowers. Her sacred flower was the yellow marigold. She lived on the top of the mountain above the nine heavens where this garden paradise was populated by dwarves, dancing maidens and musicians. People faithful to this goddess would spend eternity in her paradise after their demise. In another legend relating to Xochiquetzal, after the flood, all creatures except for her and one mortal male were destroyed. To repopulate earth, they had many children, so Xochiquetzal was designated as the mother of the world. Aztec women called on a number of goddesses to assist them in labor: Temazcalteci, Teteoinnan, Ciucoatl and Quilaztil. The souls of women who died in childbirth had a special place in Aztec afterlife, as they were elevated to the status of a warrior who had died in battle. They were also given a special title meaning valiant and divine woman and then assigned the duty of accompanying the sun from its zenith to the horizon when setting. When the child was born, the midwife evoked a blessing in the name of the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, Jade Skirt: "goddess, be pleased that his heart and his life may be purified, that the water may carry away all stain, for this child puts himself in your hands, Oh Chalciuhtlicue, mother and sister of gods." This goddess was also prayed to when a child became ill. Like Athena for the ancient Greeks, the Aztecs had a goddess of education and knowledge, Ahnt Kai. She also presided over health and healing. During an annual eight day celebration dedicated to the goddess Toci, our grandmother, women fought in mock battles followed by the sacrifice of a female, who represented the transformation of the deity. Then the women pursued the male warriors, brandishing brooms soaked in the blood of the sacrificed female.

Inca Society

The Incas of Peru were the greatest in territorial size of the ancient American Civilizations. At its height, the Incas included most of the present countries of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Northern portions of Argentina and Chile. Topography was fantastic and the Incas utilized the land from the sea to the second highest mounts in the world, the Andes. Offshore in the Pacific Ocean, was the world's richest fishing ground, where dried anchovies ground into fish meal was traded for the inland root crops of sweet and white potatoes. Cotton was grown and exchanged for coastal seashells and brilliantly hued Amazonian bird feathers. Later on the Incas learned to irrigate the desert areas, but freeze drying of potatoes in the high mountains and plateaus were an original invention, still utilized today.

Earlier than the Incas was the Chavin civilization circa eleventh to ninth century b.c.e. until the fifth century b.c.e. Ascendancy of the Incas began about the beginning of the twelfth century and reached its peak in the late fifteenth century. The Inca Empire was 2500 miles long and the population may have run as high as six to eight million people. It was never really an empire in the political sense, but a national confederation of tribes, made up of clans. The ruler whose title Inca came to also designate the people and their culture. The ruler, the Inca, reputed to have descended from the sun god

Andean people used remarkable irrigation systems to farm arid tracts of land, whose cultivation was jointly controlled by both the husband and wife. Women inherited the land from their mothers and men land from their fathers. Women traced their lineage through their female ancestors.

As in Aztec culture, Inca women had many domestic duties, including spinning thread, weaving, and cooking. Cotton was grown in the coastal lowlands and wool came from the coats of the alpacas, llamas, and vicunas. Women's manufacturing efforts included gathering of feathers from tropical birds as in Aztec society.

Women served an important place in agriculture. The Incas had a Earth Mother goddess, who had two daughters, corn mother and potato mother. When the crops were harvested, the woman would chose ears of corn and potatoes to be saved for next year's planting. Both these seed corn and potatoes were dressed and placed in a sacred storage area.

The Incas had many deities with the most powerful Viracocha, the creator, but it was neither male nor female. There were three principal gods under Viracocha, Intil, the Sun, who was the god of agriculture and the most powerful. The next was Illapa, the thunder or weather god, and then Mama-quilla, the moon goddess and wife of the sun. When the Incas conquered new people, they would build a local temple to the sun god, Intil. Included was a residence for young maidens chosen from the vanquished to be the wives of the sun. Selection was based on beauty and high family status. In their cloistered residence these maidens were taught spinning, weaving, preparing food, and the brewing of ceremonial beer in addition to their more important tasks of dressing the sun god figure and offering sacrifices to it. Some of these maidens were taken to the capital of Cuzco where they were sacrificed or became secondary wives of the ruler, the Inca.

Monogamous marriages were standard, except for those men the Inca allowed to practice polygyny. Marriages were encouraged, and if someone lacked a mate, soon the state stepped in and there would be an official pairing off of a couple. There was a probation period of two to three years for an Inca marriage. During this time both the husband and the wife could leave for a variety of reasons. A woman's virginity was not prized in this society, and in fact it was considered a blemish. To be a virgin indicated that a woman was not loved by anyone.

Young girls were taught to make the beautiful cloth prized by the Incas. They spun and wove the wool of the alpaca, llama, and vicuna into the finest cloth at special schools. Between the ages of eight and ten, Inca girls were brought before an official who decided their future. Some of the girls became priestesses, others taught advanced weaving and embroidering. The best weavers were found among the priestesses called acllas, who were pledged to serve the Incan state. They were to be virgins, and usually taken into before menarche. Selected n the basis of their beauty and high family status, in addition to weaving, they brewed ceremonial beer and prepared food.

Peasant Incan women and girls also worked in the fields, planting and plowing. Rope making was an important duty too for its utilization for quipus and bridges.

Pregnancy and childbirth were important milestones in the lives of Inca women. These women prayed to gods during these times. A newborn infant was bathed in the nearest river to toughen it, and unlike other societies, new Inca fathers fasted following the birth. These husbands even stayed with their wives and children to protect them from the evil spirits.

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