More than two decades ago, feminist archaeologists decided to tell the history of
women in the past, since most of the prehistoric research depicted ancient
societies and social achievements as men's accomplishments.  Since then, they
have shown that women were not only part of the human and cultural evolution,
but that they were active in implementing innovations such as the invention of
ceramics and agriculture.  In given visibility to women, men and children in the
past, feminist archaeologists have changed our common assumptions on gender
roles, and have also challenged the way we do archaeology.
Incorporating Gender in Amazonian Archaeology

Gender is an important dimension of social identity, determining social, economic
and political roles for the individuals.  Consequently, in order to understand how
a particular society was organized for the production, consumption and
distribution of goods, we need to consider the gender of the people involved.   In
archaeological research, a gender perspective can help to appreciate particular
aspects of artifact distribution, and reveal interesting sociocultural patterns.

In Amazonian archaeology, research on gender has been restricted to
iconographic studies. A common excuse would be the low archaeological
visibility of tropical forest sites, due to the processes of decay that affect a variety
of organic materials, such as artifacts and dwellings.  However, the use of
adequate methods and the frame of appropriate questions can overcome the
difficulties and make it possible to investigate gender in Amazonian sites.

Presently, Sheila Mendonça de Souza, Denise Schaan and Andrea Santos are
conducting a research on gender, through the investigation of a cemetery area in a
ceremonial mound in Marajo Island.  One of the objectives of this project is to
describe the skeletal remains in several aspects, including the sex of the
individuals, and compare that description with other types of data related to the
burials.  With this data in hand, we can evaluate how that society viewed gender
roles and gender relations.  The results will be important in defining women’s role
in production, rituals, and political power.
The burial data showed a consistent, although not statistically significant,
pattern of association of females with tangas and ceramic pots in burial
contexts.  Both conveyed information on their social identity, likely about
their age and group membership, as well as about the fact they were potters.  
If the osteological analysis confirms that all the decorated funerary urns
contained female individuals, the higher number of female burials may mean
the females deserved special funerary rites due to their status in the society.  
The geometric and often anthropomorphic (female) painted designs on the
funerary urns may also have displayed information about their lineage.  The
association of the designs with female skeletons and the absence of designs
on male vessels may indicate that the genealogy followed the female line, as
suggested by Roosevelt.
Incised Urn, found
in sites located
east of Lake Arari
Thus far, the evidence points to the existence of a matrilineal society, which is
seldom identified archaeologically. The ongoing study of ceramic pots and vessels
would also bring additional information on food processing and cooking that will
help  to identify a wider range of female activities performed at the site.  The
comparison of M-17 data with data collected from other mounds will enable us
to understand the relationships among elite mounds and between both elite and
non-elite settings.  Adding gender as an important component of the investigation
has helped us to look at different aspects of social organization and understand
status differences in a broader context.  

Tangas are thin triangular concave ceramic pieces, similar to the pubic coverings
made out of vegetal materials, used by women of several Amazonian tribes.  The
only known case of modern use of such a ceramic artifact was reported among
the Panoan tribes of the Ucayali River, where girls would wear an egg-shaped
ceramic pubic covering during their puberty observance period.  Differences in
size, proportions and curvature between tangas show a range of variation that
probably correlates to the anatomy of the women.  Perforations on the tangas
edges are believed to be string holes, meant to attach the artifact to the female’s
Female Pubic
The tangas are either red slipped and polished, or white slipped and covered
with geometric red or red-and-black designs.  Red tanga fragments are more
popular on the site’s surface, catching the eyes by their vivid red polished
coating. The decorated ones are the most impressive and rarer, which would
lead the observer to think they were worn by important women, or only on
special occasions.  Our research, however, has shown that decorated tangas
were probably worn by young females, and the red ones by adult women.  

At sites excavated by Meggers and Evans, tangas were consistently associated
with female skeletons in all cases when it was possible to identify the sex of the
individual.  During the excavation of a burial group at the Guajara mound, Monte
Carmelo site, they found a very large funerary vessel, containing bones of one
individual whose sex was not identified.  The vessel was flanked by smaller jars
and offerings, implying a high rank for that individual.  A tanga was inside, which
suggested that the individual was a female.

Tangas Symbolism

Some scholars noticed that the variation of designs on decorated tangas
followed some consistent patterns, possibly of symbolic significance.  Meggers
and Evans idea that the patterns had social and religious meanings was further
developed by Schaan, studying their iconography.  It is suggested that the three
decorative fields conveyed different messages, the first one related to age, the
second one related to tribal affiliation or lineage (snake skin patterns) and the
third one to family or group membership.
The studies performed on tangas, so far, have pointed to their gender, age, and
social status significance.  Their widespread occurrence in the archaeological
record, therefore, would make it possible to access female’s presence and
activities in Marajoara mounds.  
The tanga's discrete
decorative fields
(colors were added to
highlight fields)