Study of Fingerprint Impressions Reveal Pottery Produced by Both Sexes

New research from Dr. John Kantner, a University of North Florida professor specializing in anthropological archaeology, suggests that pottery making wasn't a primarily female activity in ancient Puebloan society, as had long been assumed based on historical evidence that women produced pottery for each household.

John Kantner et al. Reconstructing sexual divisions of labor from fingerprints on Ancestral Puebloan pottery, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). 

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1901367116

The evolution of the sexual division of labor within human societies is difficult to reconstruct because of the scarcity of direct evidence recovered from archaeological contexts, and yet many disciplines make assumptions regarding how labor first became specialized in our species. We propose an innovative method for identifying the sex of potters through the analysis of fingerprint impressions recovered from material culture. An application of the method to ancient pottery demonstrates that males and females were both significantly involved in producing vessels. The study further suggests that the exact proportion of each sex involved in pottery making was quite fluid, and may have varied among different groups in the same community, as well as changed from generation to generation.

Abstract: An understanding of the division of labor in different societies, and especially how it evolved in the human species, is fundamental to most analyses of social, political, and economic systems. The ability to reconstruct how labor was organized, however, especially in ancient societies that left behind few material remains, is challenged by the paucity of direct evidence demonstrating who was involved in production. This is particularly true for identifying divisions of labor along lines of age, sex, and gender, for which archaeological interpretations mostly rely upon inferences derived from modern examples with uncertain applicability to ancient societies. Drawing upon biometric studies of human fingerprints showing statistically distinct ridge breadth measurements for juveniles, males, and females, this study reports a method for collecting fingerprint impressions left on ancient material culture and using them to distinguish the sex of the artifacts’ producers. The method is applied to a sample of 985 ceramic sherds from a 1,000-y-old Ancestral Puebloan community in the US Southwest, a period characterized by the rapid emergence of a highly influential religious and political center at Chaco Canyon. The fingerprint evidence demonstrates that both males and females were significantly involved in pottery production and further suggests that the contributions of each sex varied over time and even among different social groups in the same community. The results indicate that despite long-standing assumptions that pottery production in Ancient Puebloan societies was primarily a female activity, labor was not strictly divided and instead was likely quite dynamic.

Keywords: archaeologydivision of laborhuman fingerprintsUS SouthwestChaco Canyon