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date: 16 July 2018

The Archaeology of Gender in Sub-Saharan Africa

Summary and Keywords

The meaning and context of gender is contested even in the 21st century. No generalizations about gender are applicable through time or across space. Even where gender roles are defined by particular cultural norms, they are not static, and an individual may pass through several gendered social transformations in a lifetime. Sub-Saharan African rites of passage into adulthood are sometimes marked by gender-specific physical mutilations such as circumcision, dental modification or scarification, together with other forms of symbolic marking that invariably adopt a binary gender system as the norm. The initiations are largely designed to instruct initiates about behavior appropriate for men and women of reproductive age belonging to a specific community. Some aspects of initiation rites may be detected archaeologically through skeletal alterations, rock art motifs, and props such as scarified dolls. Concepts of gender are also connected to the last rite of passage: burial. Through this, people gain access to the ancestral world. In some parts of Africa such as Mali, men and women are buried with the artifacts they owned in life, while in Ethiopia, stelae mark the gender of the deceased. Elsewhere, as in the Stone Age of southern Africa, gender-undifferentiated grave goods are placed with men, women, and children, suggesting a genderless ancestral world. Gender roles can be identified in some archaeological sites in parts of Africa, and these roles sometimes appear to have altered through time. Gender roles changed with environmental shifts, and certain tasks such as big-game hunting disappeared as a result. In other cases, gender roles were revised because of social pressures imposed on specific communities.

Keywords: social transformation, rites of passage, gender stereotypes, rock art, iron working, farming, pastoralism, hunting and gathering

Gender as Social Identity

When did the concept of gender begin? The answer depends to some extent on the theoretical stance taken. It cannot be concluded that early hominins had gender concepts if it is decreed that these are determined symbolically. If, however, symbolic thought and place are disregarded and more emphasis is placed on sexual dimorphism, then gender concepts can be contemplated well before the evolution of Homo sapiens.1 Some researchers claim that from the time that gendered concepts appeared, they may have been the evolutionary drivers of much social behavior. For example, Watts advocates that human speech stemmed from repeated ceremonies designed to signal to potential mates or incorporate young girls reaching reproductive age into female coalitions.2

Early literature on gender studies in archaeology was expressly feminist and highlighted the tendency of many societies to silence women’s voices. The plea for recognition soon included other previously quiet voices, such as those of children and gay and transgendered people. Writers in the early 1990s sought a theoretical basis for gender studies and feminist archaeology.3 They distinguished sex and gender and drew attention to social mores that created binary definitions. They also pointed to discriminatory life experiences that could supersede gender ones, for example, for people of different races, classes, religions, and/or education levels. Gender is not immutable, and an individual’s gender role may change within his or her lifespan. No generalizations are possible because no template can be applied universally and neither spatially nor chronologically.4 Since the focus of this chapter is on African archaeology, the reader should seek supplementary detail on theoretical approaches to gender in the “Further Reading” section.

Interpreting gender from archaeological data is not straightforward; but then again, no archaeological inferences are clear cut. Nonetheless, gender is integral to all archaeological research, and circumstantial evidence for gendered situations can be found almost everywhere—especially where social transformations occur.

Ethnographic examples are used extensively in this chapter to demonstrate the range of gender models and gender iconography known to have existed in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is theoretically naïve as well as insulting to people in this day and age to compare their behavior directly to past populations. Nonetheless, gender relations and gendered material culture from the past can be understood better when juxtaposed against the social behavior of people living in pre-state or even pre-agricultural communities. It would be foolhardy to ignore ethnographic evidence in regions where there is an element of cultural continuity between past and present communities. Africa has a particularly rich ethnographic archive. Two examples cited here are among many in the African literature suggested for further reading.5 Southern African rock art has not often been interpreted from a gendered context; however, when this has happened ethnography and feminist theory have been appropriated, as well as queer theory.6

The theme here is gender in sub-Saharan African archaeology, but the continent is large, and the antiquity of its cultural sequence is considerable. So examples are restricted to a few farmer, herder, and hunter-gatherer sites. First, the evidence for gendered social transformations is explored. Unfortunately the data is biased because most examples best fit a binary gender system, and the nuanced relationships observed in the modern world have seldom been decoded in the archaeological record. Sub-Saharan African examples of rites of passage into adulthood (as man or woman) are presented because they seem to be evidenced in some archaeological sites. The discussion then moves to how concepts of gender connect to burial, the last rite of passage and the one that provides access to the ancestral world. This phase of the human lifecycle shows most promise for demonstrating a form of gender that is not constrained by the binary model. Finally, examples are provided of gender roles that can be recognized in some archaeological sites, as well as gender roles that are seen to have changed through time in parts of Africa. Southern African examples figure prominently, partly because of the author’s background and partly because the region has been the focus of intense archaeological research.

Gender and Initiation Into Adulthood

The irreversible transformation from child to adult is a good example of how social transitions produce permanent outcomes. The accompanying change in social identity is frequently celebrated through a rite of passage to mark the new status as man or woman. Symbolic actions may take the form of permanent and irreversible physical marking of the initiate, such as scarification, cicatrization, circumcision, clitorodectomy, finger joint amputation, or dental modification. The first two forms of physical mutilation are sometimes implied through designs on items of material culture, whereas the last two are readily recognizable on skeletal remains. Scarification involves making incisions into the skin whereas cicatrization deliberately produces raised scars to form a design.7

Bantu speakers belonging to most matrilineal and bilateral groups appear to have initiated males and females in the past.8 Sometimes physical mutilation was used to mark the transfer to adulthood and, in addition, various props or symbolic items of material culture were used for instructive purposes during initiation.9 Mutilation will be discussed first.

Human mandible and maxilla remains from Nanda, South Africa, showed that the lower four and upper two central incisors had been removed during life, while canines and incisors that were retained had been deliberately chipped.10 In burials at the site Karkarichinkat Nord in Mali, four females dated to c. 2600–2200 bc had incisors and canines filed to points, but a male skeleton had no dental modification.11 So gender differences in ritual seem apparent. In Malawi, Later Iron Age skeletons also revealed dental chipping and removal of incisors.12 Dental mutilation remains a marker of adult status in some farming communities, so the practice is a long-standing one. A 9th or 10th century ad date seems accurate for the well-known ceramic Lydenburg heads from South Africa that seem linked to rites of passage and dental modification.13 Teeth on four of the heads look chipped and, in addition, scarification appears to be represented on the faces. In southern Nigeria, the early 2nd millennium ad farming site at Ife yielded exquisite bronze and clay heads, and clay figurines that seem to have scarifications and cicatrizations on faces and bodies.14 They, like the other West African terracottas examples from the 5th century bc at Nok, Nigeria, seem to be of ritual significance, probably linked to rites of passage.15 Some extreme forms of physical mutilation, like the amputation of the final joint of the little finger, were gendered in southern Africa. The ethnographic record implies that some hunter-gatherers, herders, and farmers removed the finger joint of the right hand for males and the left hand for females.16 Finger joints found in the absence of other skeletal parts have been excavated from six thousand-year-old Later Stone Age sites, and also from Iron Age sites between 1,200 and 120 years ago.17 But of course it is not possible to “sex” the finger joints. So the gendering of the ancient practice is unknown.

Props used at initiations may have included masks or heads like those at Lydenburg or Ife, but they also included ceramic figurines, some of which were broken (presumably deliberately) to symbolize changes of social status.

Appropriate social community behavior as well as sexual behavior seem to have been taught at initiation schools. A ceramic black rhino figurine found at Melora, Limpopo Province, South Africa, was likely a metaphor for political leadership (presumably male) and may have been used in lessons dealing with the topic.18 Female figurines with phalliform heads, exaggerated breasts and buttocks, and stunted arms, were found in Nubia in early farming sites possibly older than 3000 bc.19 But their meaning is unclear. A large number of figurines, approximately two thousand fragments, were found at the 10th-century Zhizo capital, Schroda, in Limpopo Province, South Africa.20 The figures are of men and women, some apparently marked with scarification and/or recognizable genitalia, as well as figurines of domestic and wild animals. The human figurines are called mokoto by Sotho speakers, and they are used as props for teaching sexual behavior during initiations.21 Venda mothers (in South Africa) give clay figurines of women with phalliform heads, emphasized navels, short arms, and bodily scarification to their daughters to take to their new homes. The head of the figurine (and therefore the daughter’s spirit) belong to her father.22 This explains why the figurine’s head is of perceptibly phallic form. Southern African Bantu-speaking wives are considered by their communities as symbolically ambiguous because they belong to their husbands’ homesteads while still representing their fathers.23 The figurines express the social ambiguity of wives. At Schroda the stylized female figurines were found in domestic contexts, underlining their ownership by women.24 A rock art motif endemic to the Waterberg in South Africa is a highly stylized male human profile with upright, drawn-out body, a blob of a head, a single leg, pronounced buttocks, a single short pointing arm, and exaggerated, protruding penis. The figures often occur as a line of men, one behind the other and from a stylistic point of view they look like a male version of the Schroda female figurines.25 Art depicting male initiation are found in eastern Zambia and central Malawi where rock art depicts the masks of nyau, a Cheŵa men’s association accessed by initiates only.26 The rock paintings are in remote rock shelters, and the nyau symbols include masks depicted in the art as smeared white clay pigment motifs. Traditionally, boys would be initiated into manhood through secret nyau ceremonies. The nyau sites have paintings portraying masked man-made structures with the initiates inside them. The kasiyamalir mask is womb shaped, enabling the initiate to be reborn as a man when he emerges from the mask. Boys’ initiation paintings may also include geometrics and crocodile or saurian motifs. In Mali, rock shelters are still used every few years for boys’ circumcisions, and part of the ceremony involves renewing the circumcision motifs: these include crocodiles or saurian figures, geometrics, and the circumcision knife on the shelter walls (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Painted panel in the circumcision cave, Songo, Mali. The motifs are painted afresh after each circumcision school.

Photograph by L. Wadley.

The link between painting in rock shelters, initiation symbols, and scarification is made in many parts of Africa. Geometric finger paintings by the Lukuba of the Lake Victoria region are thought to be initiation symbols, and the motifs are used as tattoos on the bodies of male initiates.27 The scarification patterns used by women of various language groups in western Ethiopia are depicted in two rock shelters—Bel Bembesh and Bel ash-Sharifu.28 Body decorations in the form of small dots on the belly appear on Tassili (North Africa) paintings of women and these may represent scarification.29

Paintings associated with female initiations and chinamwali art are found in Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. Snake-like forms and geometrics are represented, but the most iconic motif resembles the aerial view of a spread-out animal skin, the “spread-eagled design” that may be a few centimeters to more than a meter long.30 Other props used for teaching the Cheŵa female initiates include clay figurines, clay reliefs, and masks.31

Painted shelters continue to be used for chinamwali ceremonies in the 21st century.32 Farther north, in the central African rainforests, almost all Batwa rock art is finger painted with geometric designs associated with female issues, specifically elima, which marks Mbuti women’s rites of passage. The Batwa art is especially symbolic of elima issues such as fertility and production of rain.33 A motif reminiscent of the spread-eagled design occurs in rock art in the Drakensberg, South Africa, and is interpreted as frog (specifically Platanna) symbolism linked to rain, pubescence, and rules associated with girl’s menarche.34

On the Makgabeng Plateau, in northern South Africa, white finger paintings include solid circles depicting the moon, which symbolizes menstrual cycles. Other related imagery includes motifs that may be women and girls’ back aprons used for female rituals.35 In this Makgabeng art, aprons and loincloths seem to symbolize women and men’s adult status. Handprints, finger dots, smears, and drawn lines are believed to be part of Khoekhoen pastoralist menarche rites in the southwestern Cape, South Africa.36 Perhaps as an extension of the concept of painting in rock shelters, the Bemba (in Zambia) paint mbusa (the sacred motifs shown to female initiates) on the floors and walls of initiation huts.37

Wide-reaching iconography links the attainment of adulthood and women’s reproductive capacity in African society. Among the Sotho of South Africa, there is a symbolic link between mothers, houses, wombs, and pots; so houses and pots can be metaphors for adult women and reproduction.38 When initiations are carried out, the South Sotho initiate’s dress symbolizes the house. Her face is hidden behind a reed mask that mimics the courtyard fence around the house. Her body is smeared with clay, and designs are scratched on her to imitate paintings on houses.39 Tswana motifs used on pottery are also found on mural art, wooden dishes, and on the foreskirts of initiated, married women.40 Southeast Bantu speakers generally link concepts of female reproduction, pottery manufacture and procreation, and fertility of the land, and the manufacture, decoration, and use of a ceramic pot is consequently an appropriate metaphor for a woman’s transformations throughout life.41 Karanga speakers in Zimbabwe use an unfired pot as an allegory for a pre-pubescent girl.42 In KwaZulu-Natal, amasumpa (relief decoration of nodules or bumps) are arranged on pots in discontinuous chevron, rectangular, triangular, circular, and X-shaped motifs, many of which resemble the design once produced by cicatrization.43 Sometimes decoration on ceramics and human skin share the same name. Making ceramics involves irreversibly transforming clay, tempering materials, and water through kneading and firing. Fowler points out that the manufacturing process, as much as stylistic decoration, can provide markers of social identity.44 And this is important where undecorated pottery occurs. Not all of the social rules surrounding ceramic manufacture will be recognizable archaeologically. Pots are made by women in a domestic context, but there are some proscriptions: for example, a newlywed Zulu woman must give birth to her first child before she is allowed to make pots in her husband’s homestead.45

Many sites, such as Nanda in KwaZulu-Natal from the 1st millennium ad, contain pits in which pots with carefully broken bases were placed.46 Perforated pots may represent women’s defloration, and possibly the rite was linked to puberty or initiation rites.47 However, there is a related interpretation, since broken pots are sometimes found in the graves of children, although the pots may also serve as burial containers.48 An early-19th-century infant pot burial was excavated from Melora Saddle, Waterberg, South Africa. The pot’s base had been intentionally pierced before the infant’s remains were buried in it.49 Since a pot is a metaphor for a womb, deliberate perforation of the pot is a symbolic act to ensure that the woman becomes pregnant again and that the ritual impurity resulting from the child’s death will not bring about infertility and drought.50

In San art of the Western Cape, men’s concerns seem to be of primary concern, as men are painted more often than women.51 However, this is not necessarily the case elsewhere. Female initiation seems more common than male initiation among modern San, and female initiation and potency also seem to be regular themes in San rock art.52 Sometimes the art includes large processions of naked people apparently engaged in dancing, and these may be depicting initiation or puberty ceremonies.53 At the Eland Dance, linked to female initiation, women expose their buttocks, which is something not done except in ritual context.54 And some of the South African rock art may be portraying a similar rite.55 A Drakensberg image appears to be a girl initiate secluded at her first menstruation.56 This is a dangerous time when social unity and environmental stability can be threatened if the girl’s potency is uncontrolled. The relationship between rain and hazardous female power is expressed in other images, such as the one of a female puff adder giving birth in the Eastern Cape Province.57 Snakes play an important role in initiation ceremonies throughout Africa particularly, but not exclusively in female initiation ceremonies.58 Among Central San (Khwe), the kudu is especially linked to girls’ puberty rites, and kudu are common motifs in the rock art of the Central Limpopo Basin.59 In this region, paintings of female processions usually involve a young girl together with mature women, all wearing only the front apron, thus exposing their buttocks. Sometimes these females have human heads and upper bodies but antelope legs, and the images are suggestively accompanied by female kudu in the mating position. The female kudu frequently have their genitals highlighted with red paint.60 Kinahan has shown that kudu symbolism is also linked to female initiation in Namibia, and rock engravings at/Ui-//aes display a kudu female in the mating position.61 The kudu body is polished, which seems symbolic of an important role played by adult women in the past thousand years—gathering and grinding grass seed. Grinding hollows at two seed-processing sites, Guintib and Gorrasis, have polished surfaces with stroke lengths suggesting that grinding was done in an all-fours position.62 The measurements are based on estimated statures of human female skeletal remains from the Namib Desert.63 In the all-fours position the back is hollowed, the pelvis is raised, and the posture can be likened to a sexually receptive female kudu, as depicted in the/Ui-//aes engraving.64

Transformation to the Ancestral World

Death changes the way that gender roles are expressed in some societies. Parkington proposes that in southern African San rock paintings depictions of naked humans were intended to be perceived unequivocally as men or women.65 Consequently when “asexual” human figures were painted, they may, according to Ouzman, represent fluid gender constructions.66 It is not impossible that they represent, instead, the departed who have lost their gender identity. Therianthropic figures (part animal/part human) in rock art images from Lesotho are thought by Solomon to be spirits of the dead.67 This interpretation is constructed partly from the testimony of Qing, a San man interviewed at rock art sites by Orpen in the late 19th century.68 Figures with rhebok heads were said by Qing to be “men who had died,” but this phrase has elsewhere been construed as evidence for men in a trance.69 Trance and death are related concepts for San.70 So it is not clear how the evidence should be read.

In the Upemba Depression, Katanga (Congo), 10th-century ad graves with the most grave goods were sometimes those of children, and de Maret concludes that status was transferred between generations.71 This may be the case in ranked societies but seems less likely in egalitarian hunter-gatherer ones. In the Later Stone Age of South Africa, children’s burials are often more elaborate than those of adults: thus, large quantities of items were buried with children.72 Yet the same types of grave goods were buried with men, women, children, and infants; so it would seem that gender and age were decoupled from people’s identity after their death, suggesting that death may have created a “new gender” outside of that for the living.73 From about nine thousand years ago, red pigment, ostrich eggshell beads, and marine shell ornaments were buried with young and old alike.74 Later, in the mid-Holocene, grave goods became more varied and some burials were abundantly endowed with items from domestic and other contexts. Curiously, material culture items made, used or worn by hunter-gatherer women were the preferred grave goods in burials of men, women, and children.

In contrast, dead adults take their gender identities to the grave in Mali. Thus, a Dogon woman’s pot that once contained body oil, the sa tonyo, is placed below her burial cave at the base of the cliff together with her spindle and calabash ladle, and all women are buried this way.75 The pot is punctured, perhaps to symbolize lost reproductive capacity.76 If a Dogon man was a weaver in life, his shuttle was placed near his cemetery, while other men had individualized funeral rites appropriate for their roles in life as herdsmen, hunters, or soldiers.77 Burial practices of Bantu-speaking farmers in South Africa are different; here an essential feature of the Central Cattle Pattern is burial of men in the cattle byre, which is also the men’s court. However, there are a few recorded cases of a woman being buried in an Early Iron Age byre, which would have suggested attainment of high status in the community.78

The concept of nyau, that was discussed earlier in the context of Cheŵa men’s secret associations in Zambia and central Malawi, is also linked to death and burial. The womb-shaped kasiyamaliro mask is used for men’s funerals, and it either transports or escorts the corpse to the cemetery and ensures the departure of the man’s potentially dangerous spirit from the village. The mask thus supervises a man’s important transformations.79 Farther north, in the Central African forests, Mbuti men’s ritual is called molimo, which is often held after the death of an important man.80 Southern Ethiopian stelae, for example those at the UNESCO World heritage site of Tiya (about 900 ad), have been found overlying skeletal remains.81 The standing stones are often phallic in appearance, and sometimes they are marked with swordlike designs, suggesting male warrior status.

Gender Roles, Change Through Time, and Gender Stereotypes

While many archaeologists deny that gender is retrievable from the archaeological record, there is still a tendency to label some tasks as gender specific, even though this issue should be problematized rather than assumed. One of the most popular assumptions about gender roles in the distant past is that of “Man the Hunter” and “Woman the Gatherer.” These models are flawed because men collected plants, and there are modern examples of women who contributed to the hunt for meat. Women in the Stone Age were probably similarly involved at least as beaters/drivers for spear or net hunts (as Mbuti women are in the 21st century), or for setting and checking snares.82 Spear hunting was labor intensive and seemed to need at least ten people, with drivers of game as well as spear throwers. Hunter-gatherer groups are unlikely to have had enough able-bodied men to perform both tasks, so spear hunts in the Stone Age probably included women.83 Snares are extremely reliable suppliers of meat, and they can be set by children or adults of any age. They empower those people who may otherwise depend on others for meat. While meat was generally a much-desired food and hunting a high-status activity, Deacon thought that southern and eastern Cape (South Africa) Stone Age populations scheduled their movements to take advantage of plant seasonality, rather than animal movements.84 In particular, Watsonia corms are an excellent carbohydrate-rich food source; so plant food gatherers, who may have been women, were responsible for synchronizing seasonal band movements.

Stable carbon isotope analyses of human bone collagen enable the testing of hypotheses about dietary practices. The stable carbon and/or nitrogen isotope ratios of marine foods versus terrestrial foods are discernible. Foods from the sea have high δ‎ 13 C values, while terrestrial leafy plants have lower δ‎ 13 C values. Sealy used a population of seventy-four Western Cape skeletons to demonstrate that nearly three thousand years ago there were gender-based diets.85 Male skeletons had more positive δ‎ 13 C values than those of women, indicating that men’s diets included marine foods such as seal meat and fish (both of which they ate without sharing with women and children). Skeletons three thousand years or older revealed more even carbon isotope ratios for men and women, implying that social change occurred, perhaps altering gender relationships.86 Large shell middens two to three thousand years old with few domestic features support the interpretation of high marine food consumption by men.87

The dates of the “mega-middens” overlap to some extent with other significant changes on the landscape. Herding of livestock supplemented hunting and gathering in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and this obviously had implications for gender relationships and behavior. Herder women from non-Bantu-speaking groups of eastern Africa (e.g., the Maasai, Samburu, and Nuer) were responsible for dairying activities. And as “milk managers” they controlled the distribution of milk from their animals.88 Pastoralist women may also have had some influence in exchange networks. Gifford-Gonzalez suggests that Nderit ceramics in East African sites enabled women to maintain widespread social influence and membership.89 Ceramic design empowers women to network across a vast region, thereby giving them access to distant resources in times of local shortage.90 However, herder social dynamics in southern Africa are unlikely to have mirrored those in East Africa because of the nature of the southerly migrations. It seems that at least two separate herder infiltration events occurred in southern Africa.91 One route appears to have been along the Atlantic seaboard, and the other arrived in the Limpopo River Basin. A link is suggested between separate herder infiltrations into southern Africa, and the shift from backed-tool to scraper-dominated assemblages.92 Amalgamation of San and the immigrant herders left no traces in the maternal genes of southern African San, suggesting that the migration from East Africa was mainly by male herders.93 This gender issue complicates the social dynamics of the region and makes it uncertain what traditions would have been adopted by the women that became wives of the immigrants. We can only speculate, as the situation is complex and under-researched. However, traditions may have been expressed through personal ornamentation or ceramic style, and they may have involved local variants, some of which then changed through time with new herder infiltrations. For example, perforated goat or sheep phalanges, which symbolize children, were strung on a leather thong and given to newlywed OvaHimba pastoralist women in northwestern Namibia.94 Much farther south, the 1st- and 2nd-millennium ad herder settlements at Kasteelberg B, Western Cape, South Africa, can be distinguished most clearly through their ceramic vessels. Spouted pots with shell-edge stamped decoration were used in the 1st millennium ad (lower Kasteelberg B), and undecorated lugged pots were used in the early 2nd millennium ad.95 Since the first immigrants seem to have been men, we do not know whether the pots were made by men or women—nor do we know why the style changed.

Some social and gender changes come about rapidly. Namaqua female pastoralists in the Richtersveld still practiced traditional initiation rites in the 20th century, but male initiation rites had disappeared before that around the time large game hunting ceased.96 Furthermore, migrant labor in farms and towns altered men’s former roles.

As in this example, externally imposed conditions or environmental constraints are obvious causes of behavioral modification that affect social relationships. Sometimes gender roles are involved, but the change may not always be at the individual or household level; task specialization or controlled centralization of resources may be implicated. In west-central Ghana, cloth production experienced this kind of change. In the 18th century, cloth was principally made and used within the household; husbands grew cotton and wives harvested indigo. Wives cleaned, carded, and spun the cotton that husbands later wove.97 Earlier sites dating between 1300 and 1650 ad yielded spindle whorls (circumstantial evidence for cloth production) in only some of the households. The implication is that cloth production was a specialist task and not a household gendered task in the earlier period and that the gendered role within households developed later.98 The spatial configurations in the Iron Age village of Olifantspoort in South Africa changed through time, probably alongside political changes that seem also to have affected attitudes to gender. In the first phase of Tswana occupation, male and female space is clearly demarcated in huts, but by the third phase huts lacked the former structural arrangements.99 Furthermore, men’s activities such as metalworking and hide preparation increased close to the chief’s court, pointing toward centralization of labor and resources.100

In Bantu-speaking Africa, the use of iron was widespread by the 1st millennium ad, but iron working probably began somewhere near Lake Victoria in the last few centuries bc.101 The traditional view of anthropologists/archaeologists is that smelting was done by men and usually conducted secretly, in seclusion, and at a distance from the residential village; this is because they did not want women, in particular, to see the process. In central Africa, smelting villages were used, and the secluded smelting expeditions could last for two to three months.102 Some behaviors during metal production mirror those of initiation ceremonies. The process is ritually powerful and accompanied by the sorts of dangers that can beset young people at their initiations into adulthood. Fertility symbolism is especially associated with furnaces.103 Sometimes the symbolism is restrained as is the case in the Interlacustrine Early Iron Age, where motifs decorating furnace bricks made by men imitate those on Urewe ceramics made by women.104 Elsewhere the symbolism is more explicitly sexual: the furnace may represent the body of a woman with clay breasts and vaginal openings, while the bellows are testicle-like, and the blow pipes penis-like.105 Furnaces then mimic reproductive systems by combining female and male body parts through ritual motions.106 The female bodies of Shona furnaces in Zimbabwe are scarified like those of adult women and show representations of the protective, beaded waistbands for women in childbirth.107 Such furnace types are forced draft furnaces, but a second smelting tradition used by Zhizo communities (Nkope Branch of Urewe) used natural draft furnaces.108 Nonetheless, Schmidt makes the point that the external form of the furnaces is less important than the processes taking place internally.109 Menstrual blood and semen are the bodily fluids that transform the furnace cask into a fertile human uterus. Herbal medicines must be administered to the furnace to protect it from the sorts of danger that threaten reproductive processes.

The traditional interpretation of male/female taboos associated with smelting is challenged by Chirikure and colleagues.110 They make the point that clay crucibles and pottery from Mapungubwe were both made by women from the same materials, thereby including them in the work of metal transformation. They also suggest that the taboos were not strictly adhered to because Kalanga women may have helped their husbands to pump the bellows during smelting if other personnel were scarce.111 Here, as elsewhere in this narrative, it is plain that gender stereotypes are a simplification of reality. At KwaGandaganda, KwaZulu-Natal, 7th- century cattle byres (men’s public spaces) and their surroundings yielded scarified figurines together with smelting and forging evidence.112 Thus initiation and iron smelting took place in the village, implying that there was change through time in the social rules in Iron Age sites. Furnace bases and initiation artifacts were also found in a central activity area at Ndondondwane (8th and 9th centuries) and Magogo and KwaZulu-Natal. In Limpopo Province there was evidence for smelting in 10th-century Beauley and Schroda villages.113 Herbert also points out that old women in Katangan (Democratic Republic of Congo) villages both keep and transmit knowledge of copper work, so it is not exclusively the preserve of men.114

Gender stereotypes of the division of labor and power between the sexes in Africa tend to be flawed. One common stereotype is that men in Africa have absolute control over society and resources while women are wholly disempowered. The reality is different, even though examples of unequal power relations can be cited. Iron Age villages organized in the Central Cattle Pattern had spatial arrangements of houses (which belong to women) that carry information about status. House decoration used during the Zimbabwe culture shows that some powerful women were recognized. For example, the ritual sister’s hut at Danangombe, Zimbabwe, was of high status. The stone wall in front of her quarters was decorated with a herringbone design marking senior female status.115 Such designs were also present on the ritual sister’s area at Nalatale, Zimbabwe.116 Similar designs are found on divining dice that are still used in Zimbabwe.117

The queen’s residence at Great Zimbabwe had a room with a bench to the left of the doorway. This implies that she held audience here as would be appropriate for an important leader.118 What is unusual about the spatial arrangement is that traditional Shona huts in Zimbabwe have men’s benches to the right of the doorway while the women’s space (without benches) is to the left. The placing of the queen’s bench therefore combines apt female use of space with male iconography. Furthermore, a special sister of the Zimbabwean ruler, called the Mazarira, was charged with curating sacred medicines that were needed to enable the king to rule.119 Another female ritual leader was the Rain Queen of the Lovedu.120 It is possible, however, that commoner women sometimes performed important ritual roles.

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Figure 2. Eiland medicine pot from Uitkomst, Limpopo Province. It was found hidden in a crack in a high rock on a rainmaking hill. It measures 15 cm across.

Photograph by L. Wadley.

Farmers emigrating to the plateau of the Waterberg, South Africa, made distinctive Eiland pottery with herring-bone patterns that was popular between the 11th and 16th centuries. Such pots (Figure 2) are frequently found in crevices on hilltops or cliffs unsuitable for habitation.121 And these areas are often associated with grindstones and small cupules ground into bedrock, at times alarmingly close to a cliff edge (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Medicine cupule at rainmaking site. Thaba Nkulu, Waterberg, Limpopo Province, SA.

Photograph by L. Wadley.

Pots, grindstones, and cupules probably represent the preparation and storage of medicines to be offered to ancestors during rain-making ceremonies. The practice was widespread: pot sherds discovered under a granite boulder in the Tong Hills, northern Ghana, seem also to have been used as medicine containers for ritual; organic geochemical (GC-MS) and compound-specific isotopic analyses of residues identified plant-derived substances.122 Both potting and grinding of plants and herbs were considered women’s work. Thus when these items are found at rainmaking sites, we have a situation in which either women were the rain “doctors,” or men subverted female technology for ritual purposes. Gender ambiguity is undoubtedly implied because in southern Nguni rainmaking ceremonies from the early to mid-1700s, young men would dance “as girls do” to bring rain.123

Transformative Gender Relationships in Africa

Transformation relevant to the study of past gender relationships in sub-Saharan Africa can be found in hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, and farmer archaeological sites. In the Stone Age, transformative technologies such as heat treatment of stone represented social transformation. In the Iron Age, transformation was visible in the creation of ceramics and in the smelting of metal from ore, and these acts were symbolically linked to perceived gender roles of individuals and groups. Male and female rites of passage to adult status can be inferred from motifs that occur in art throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but women’s initiation rites are particularly well represented in the art of Central Africa. Material culture dating to the last few thousand years also incorporates figurines or masks with markings that appear to be scarification and/or dental modification. The style of such marking is usually gender specific.

In death (the final transformation) gender roles seem to have been deemphasized, and at some sites the same categories of grave goods are placed with the bodies of men, women, and children. This may imply the concept of a gender category that does not fit the binary definition.

Notwithstanding its presence, gender ideology is fragile, and examples given here have demonstrated that ideas about appropriate gender behavior or iconography can readily change to meet the social needs of the time. This should not deter archaeologists from gender studies; such studies enrich archaeological interpretations of the African record. Indeed, no research into past behavior would be satisfying or complete without them.

Discussion of the Literature

Archaeological interpretation has always been gendered, although the early renderings were implicit (and often simplistic and inaccurate): for example, “Man the Hunter,” “Woman the Gatherer,” “Evolution of Man.” Some of the first feminist challenges tackled not only such gender stereotypes in the archaeological record but also in the workplace.124 The early literature concentrated on the discriminatory silencing of women’s voices. This perspective quickly broadened to include other excluded voices, such as those of children and homosexuals. The early literature sought to create a sound theoretical basis for gender studies, explicitly using feminist theory. It also made the distinction between sex and gender and pointed to unique life experiences for women of different races, classes, religions, and/or education levels. Such topics were the kind of issues gender research initially focused on.

In African archaeology, ethnographic examples have provided a rich source of inspiration for the creation of gender models and for the interpretation of gender iconography. It is theoretically naïve as well as insulting to 21st-century society to compare their behavior directly to past societies. Nonetheless, gender relations and gendered material culture from the past can be understood better when compared against the social behavior of people living in pre-state or even pre-agricultural communities. It would be a mistake to ignore ethnographic evidence in regions where there is an element of cultural continuity between past and present communities. Africa has a particularly rich ethnographic archive. Two examples cited here are among many in the African literature suggested for further reading.125 There has been considerable resistance to placing southern African rock art in a gendered context, yet ethnography and feminist theory have sometimes been used to this end.126 The study of modern African iron smelting practices and the gendered belief systems accompanying this technology have gone a long way toward explaining the spatial distributions of smelting sites in relation to their associated Iron Age villages, as well as the symbolic decoration on artifacts such as furnaces.127

Archaeological analytical techniques have developed by leaps and bounds since the early feminist archaeologies were written. The scientific developments in fields such as isotope and DNA analysis enable micro-scale studies that in turn permit far more sophisticated interpretations of behavior than were possible before.128 While the traditional feminist focus was on women, the postmodern concern is more with the recognition of social complexity, differences in behavior, diverse identities, and the acceptance that multiple genders can be present.129 Gender fluidity is no longer considered exceptional and, as seen in this article, a person’s gender ascription as well as social position may change through time as part of his or her normal life cycle.

What all the writings recommended here have in common is an agreement that archaeological interpretations of gender must be made contextually, specifically avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach and rejecting the concept of gender constructs as static.


Lyn Wadley receives research funding from the National Research Foundation, South Africa. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily held by the funding body.

Further Reading

Bolger, Diane, ed. A Companion to Gender Prehistory. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.Find this resource:

Donald, Moira, and Linda Hurcombe, eds. Gender and Material Culture in Archaeological Perspective. London: Macmillan, 2000.Find this resource:

Gero, Joan, and Margaret Conkey, eds. Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.Find this resource:

Gilchrist, Roberta. Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past. London: Routledge, 1999.Find this resource:

Nelson, Sarah, ed. Handbook of Gender in Archaeology. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2006.Find this resource:

Nelson, Sarah, and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon, eds. Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2002.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Peter, R. “Tropes, Materiality, and Ritual Embodiment of African Iron Smelting Furnaces as Human Figures.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16 (2009): 262 ̶ 282.Find this resource:

Solomon, Anne. “Gender, Representation, and Power in San Ethnography and Rock Art.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 11 (1992): 291 ̶ 329.Find this resource:

Sørensen, Marie, L. Stig. Gender Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000.Find this resource:

Wadley, Lyn, ed. Our Gendered Past: Archaeological Studies of Gender in Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Wylie, Alison, and Margaret Conkey, eds. Doing Archaeology as a Feminist. Special Issue: Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14, no. 3 (2007).Find this resource:


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(2.) Ian Watts, “Red Ochre, Body Painting, and Language: Interpreting the Blombos Ochre,” in The Cradle of Language, ed. Rudi Botha and Chris Knight (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 62–92.

(3.) Joan Gero and Margaret Conkey, eds. Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).

(4.) Teresa A. Meade and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, eds., A Companion to Gender History (London: Blackwell, 2008).

(5.) See Anne Solomon, “Gender, Representation, and Power in San Ethnography and Rock Art,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 11 (1992): 291–329; Eugenia W. Herbert, Iron, Gender and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Lyn Wadley, “The Invisible Meat Providers: Women in the Stone Age of South Africa,” in Gender in African Prehistory, ed. Susan Kent (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1998), 69–81; and Peter R. Schmidt, “Tropes, Materiality, and Ritual Embodiment of African Iron Smelting Furnaces as Human Figures.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16 (2009): 262–282.

(6.) See Solomon, “Gender, Representation, and Power, 291; and Thomas Dowson, “Homosexuality, Queer Theory and Archaeology,” in Interpretive Archaeology: A Reader, ed. Julian Thomas (Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 2000), 283–289.

(7.) Timothy Insoll, Material Explorations in African Archaeology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(8.) Frans E. Prins and Sian Hall, “Expressions of Fertility in the Rock Art of Bantu-Speaking Agriculturists,” African Archaeological Review 12 (1994): 171–203.

(9.) Prins and Hall, “Expressions of Fertility in the Rock Art of Bantu-Speaking Agriculturists,” 171.

(10.) Peter J. Mitchell and Gavin Whitelaw, “The Archaeology of Southernmost Africa from c. 2000 BP to the Early 1800s: A Review of Recent Research,” Journal of African History 46 (2005): 209–418.

(11.) Insoll, Material Explorations in African Archaeology, 15.

(12.) Alan Morris, “Mtemankhokwe: Human Skeletal Remains from a Late Iron Age Cemetery in the Mangochi District of Southern Malawi,” Southern African Field Archaeology 2 (1993): 74–84.

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(14.) David W. Phillipson, African Archaeology, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Insoll, Material Explorations in African Archaeology, 24.

(15.) Phillipson, African Archaeology, 235.

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(17.) Mitchell and Plug, “Ritual Mutilation,” 147.

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