I am interested in exploring women’s lives. As an ethnoarchaeologist, I conduct anthropological work in contemporary societies to test and develop the ways that archaeologists may understand societies of the past. I do this by studying people’s social lives and their things—especially, their houses and the beautifully painted, delicate pottery bowls that all women make to serve beer to their family and guests—to document how and why material culture (people’s things) can
provide clues to behavior. Particularly, I have become interested in women’s participation in political life in small-scale societies, and how women’s material culture may tell us by analogy about political organization in prehistoric communities. This has been a neglected topic in both cultural anthropology and archaeology. I work together with my husband, John Patton, a cultural anthropologist, who studies men’s status and alliances.
What is the role of women in the daily politics of managing conflict and achieving cooperation? To answer this question, we spent 9 months conducting interviews, recording people’s own assessments of political relationships in Conambo, and participating in daily life in the village. From our data, we constructed measurements of women’s and men’s political alliances and status, applying techniques from cognitive anthropology and social network analysis.
First, we learned that women’s political lives are separate from men’s. Women develop networks of relationships in the community and throughout the region that are distinct from their husbands, though overlapping and complementary. Women build their networks independently in the course of daily life, stopping to visit and talk at other women’s houses, helping in childbirth, sharing pottery clays, and giving gifts such as pottery pigments, a pottery brewing jar, or stems of
manioc for propagation. Additionally, women attend festive work parties and visit other households together with their husbands, strengthening their mutual networks. Through these networks, women obtain information, monitor problems, propose solutions, and build support for their family and friends during political controversies. In the house, while drinking bowls of chicha, visiting women sit apart from men, engaging in lively discussions of political issues among themselves, while men debate issues among men. At the end of the day, husband and wife sit and talk together, articulating the two spheres of politics.
Second, we learned that prestigious women are judged by many of the same criteria as prestigious men. According to people in Conambo, an important person is persuasive, solves conflicts between people, knows how to organize people, and can direct the actions of others. In particular, an important woman may “fix problems, but she must be a senior woman,” or she may “go around asking what people think to help organize an agreement.” In fact, women are better positioned to act as political intermediaries than men, because women are more likely to build networks that cross-cut political divisions. As a result, certain women are able to very skillfully mediate disputes between men during political controversies, negotiating agreements through their networks of female allies
Politics and Material Culture
How do women’s politics relate to material culture? To answer this question, I looked at things that archaeologists would study: houses and pottery. I measured and mapped people’s houses, inventoried women’s pottery, and studied the designs on pottery bowls. I tested women’s abilities to recognize the pottery made by women in different political networks. I compared the data with what we learned about women’s political lives, including our measurements of women’s and men’s political alliances and status.
Importantly, I needed to recognize that domestic spaces can be political places, too. In Conambo, the house is a place where political activities may occur on a daily basis. Houses are built to hold gatherings ranging from a few guests up to 50 people during discussions of political issues and festive work parties. Prestigious, influential people are more likely to have large political gatherings in their homes, and so they build larger houses. People build their houses near their allies, and they move their houses when their alliances shift. As a result, women’s and men’s political alliances can be estimated by the distance between their houses.
In Conambo, pottery beer bowls are the visual focus of political events in the house. During visits, serving and drinking
chicha beer from these bowls is highly stylized and required by social etiquette. The order of serving denotes a guest’s status and social distance from the hostess and her husband. Women’s pottery beer bowls are highly visible, and so are their large pottery jars for brewing beer. Prestigious women who hold large gatherings in their houses make a lot of beer, and the number of beer jars in a woman’s house is a statistical indicator of her status. Women in different political
networks in Conambo make their pottery in distinctive ways. In general, they vary the painted designs on their beer bowls, obtain clays and pigments from independent sources, and prepare the clays for their beer jars differently. Furthermore, pottery designs on beer bowls provide subtle clues to a woman’s political networks, and these are detectable by other women in Conambo. Thus, women’s pottery and village politics are fundamentally intertwined in the houses of the
So now I will tell you the remainder of that interview. I asked about the silent woman who served chicha to her husband and his guest. Did she participate in the conversation? “No, the woman did not say anything. He and she will talk afterwards. Then, the women will discuss it among themselves.”
Women, too, have vested interests in conflict management. The rift was mended, and the obligation to avenge a death was superseded by the obligation to safeguard one’s children. The shaman lived for many more years in the house across the river.
Brenda J. Bowser is an ethnoarchaeologist who received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2002. She has studied women’s political lives, ethnicity, and material culture in Achuar, Quichua, and Zapara villages in the Ecuadorian Amazon since 1992. She is currently a Research Associate and Instructor in anthropology at Washington State University.
For Further Reading
Bowser, Brenda J. “From Pottery to Politics: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Political Factionalism, Ethnicity, and Domestic Pottery Style in the Ecuadorian Amazon.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7 (2000): 219-48. Bowser, Brenda J., and John Q. Patton. “Domestic Spaces as Public Places: An Ethnoarchaeological Case Study of Houses, Gender, and Politics in the Ecuadorian Amazon.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11 (2004): in press.
Descola, Philippe. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle . New York: The New Press, 1993. Roach, Mary. “Why Men Kill.” Discover
(1998):100-108. Whitten, Norman E., Jr. Sacha Runa: Ethnicity and Adaptation of Ecuadorian Jungle Quichua . Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976