| 6 December 2016
Southwestern clay figurines may be fertility symbols
Curious clay figurines that have been found in southern Arizona (USA) appear to be fertility symbols used by desert farmers as much as 3,000 years ago, according to new research. Only a few of the figures have been found, primarily at the sites of two pre-contact villages excavated near Tucson.
The long, bulbous objects are likely the earliest clay figures yet found in the American Southwest. And since the first of them was reported in 2005, experts have speculated about what they were, with theories ranging from healing charms to children's toys. The prevailing theory has held that they were objects of ancestor veneration, perhaps the representations of departed family members or more distant kin. But new research based on the most recently discovered figurines suggests that they are distinctive tokens of fertility, using both male and female symbolism to signify sexual duality.
The artifacts were found among ruins dating back to what's known as the Early Agricultural period, a time from about 1,850 to 3,500 years ago, when settlers in this part of the Sonoran Desert had begun farming as well as foraging, but well before the advent of the more advanced irrigated farming developed by the Hohokam.
"I have done some limited research on Hohokam figurines in the past, but I had never seen anything like these Early Agricultural period figurines," said Dr. Mark Chenault of the firm Westland Resources who was part of the team that found the most recent cache of figurines.
Vaguely anthropomorphic in shape, the figures are 7 to 10 centimeters long (about 2.75 to 4 inches) and consist of a long body sometimes decorated with human features like eyes or braided hair. At the bottom are two oblong bulbs that had been interpreted as legs or buttocks.
"The ancestor veneration idea applies mainly to Hohokam figurines, and the Early Agricultural figurines look very different," Chenault said. Most notably, the ancient Tucson figures appear to have prominently sexual traits. Their shape is distinctly phallic, he noted, but some have also been found to include female traits, such as breasts. This suggests to Chenault that the objects may have represented both sexes at once, embodying a duality of male and female sexuality in a single figure.
Such gender fluidity doesn't appear elsewhere in the archaeological record of the Early Agricultural period, Chenault said, but the concept of sexual duality figures prominently in other pre-contact cultures in Mesoamerica from the same period, such as the Tlatilco culture from the Valley of Mexico.
It's still unclear what specific purpose these figurines served. The fact that some of them have been found in caches, where they were intentionally stored or hidden, suggests they may have been used only for certain rituals, like to commemorate an individual's entry into puberty, or to stimulate the fertility of the earth for growing crops. But what ritualistic role, if any, that the objects might have played remains unknown.
Edited from Western Digs (22 November 2016)
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