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Body Modifications in Mesoamerica

By sammieweidauer Dec 12, 2013 2611 Words
For thousands of years humans have looked for numerous ways to modify their appearance. From ancient times to today’s pop culture, body modifications have remained a consistent part of human life and society. Body modifications serve many purposes, including: social acceptance, self- expression, gender identity, and as a way to exhibit status within a culture. In ancient Mesoamerica this was especially popular among the indigenous peoples and marked not only their rank but also their accomplishments and social identity. Elites, non-elites, men, women, and children of all ages were subject to different clothing, hairstyles, body modifications, and appearance expectations of this ancient society. What then, was the importance of body modifications to the ancient Mesoamericans and why was modifying their bodies such an important aspect to not only their lives, but their gender identity?

Throughout the early years of a child’s life, their body was often manipulated and altered in many different ways. During an Aztec lifecycle ritual that was held every four years, a ceremony beginning at midnight consisted of in the piercing of a child’s –sometimes as young as four years old - ears. This ritual, known as the Izcalli, was only the beginning of a long process involving the expansion of a perforation in the ear lobe that would soon allow use of an adult ear ornament. The pierced holes would be slowly stretched so that as young adults these young children could wear ear ornaments usually over two centimeters wide. The Izcalli ritual was only completed once the child was subject to the same disciplines as their adult counterparts.1

Body modifications not only marked infants and children and were used as a symbol for their transition to adulthood but also could be used to show their intended adult work and sexual status. For example, children who were destined to enter the temples and would therefore remain celibate lacked the lip plug that was given to boys destined to training for war. Instead, they were scarred on their hips and chests as a symbol of the life they would lead dedicated to the temple. Teenage boys upon entry to the temple or after the capture of their first prisoner, as well as by girls and boys in their marriage ceremonies often wore adult ornaments. The importance of wearing adult ornaments sometimes was not significant however, because from an extremely young age, children were adorned in and marked by adult clothing.2 Marking of a person’s past and future work was an important concept in Mesoamerica. Not only were their expectations and part in society highly regarded. They were marked and chosen for them from a very young age. Gender and sometimes even future work was displayed on each individual plainly and unquestionably.

Gender identity was indisputably one of the most important ideas and focuses of the culture. However the concept of gender did not have the same meaning placed on it as gender in Europe at the same time research suggests and thus, records of the Mesoamerican ideal of gender was neither unified amongst European records nor was it innate. Many sixteenth-century records suggest that Mesoamerican deities of the time period failed to establish identification as male or female and often seemed bi-gender in nature. Although this phenomenon is not unique to Mesoamerica, it does argue that dual-gender was an active role in founding lines of descent and shows that ancestors were not separated into First Mother and First Father figures. Furthermore, it is said that materialization of the body or changing of the body for decorative or ritualistic purposes was used as an attempt at controlling gender practices. Dress, ornamentation, and hair treatments were all controlled and used to create a certain adult gender identity and sexual status. We have learned of these acceptable practices of gender identity through images and imperishable items demonstrating different phases of life. Concluding that, although deities may have not been specified as male or female, there was a concern to produce heterosexual adult men and women with these ancient societies.3 Through practices of not only ornamentation, but also body modifications as well, people of Mesoamerica shaped the destinies of their children and set them on clearly marked paths.

Body modifications and ornamentation were not the sole markers of gender identity in Mesoamerica, but were in many ways the most important. Enforcement of gender identity began at birth. Practices such as umbilical cord disposal, bathing, divination, and naming all played a part in a child’s adult future. However, true definition of a child’s future life within the community was not differentiated until the beginning of disciplinary practices that revolved around the appearance of the body and everyday practices. Rituals of transition and the adoption of adult dress and hairstyles marked a child’s future and adulthood; but adulthood was not fully reached until these Mesoamerican children were marked physically by new hairstyles, body ornamentation, and dress. Yet, gender identity began mostly within the their own home and parental expectations. As children moved into adulthood they became more a product of their gender than of themselves and as they aged would experience these materialization practices not as events unique to their own bodies; but, as a testament to their gender and role within the society.4

There were so many distinctive varieties of different body modifications in Mesoamerica each serving a unique purpose for these civilizations. One of the most common was cranial distortion. Stimulated distortion of the cranial dome is one form of a permanent modification of the body that has been performed by human beings for centuries as a way of differentiating from others. These measures were particularly prevalent in Mesoamerica. The Spanish Franciscan Diego de Landa described how the Mayas distorted the skulls of their children. He describes the women as bringing up their children with extreme roughness and says that as a rule children went naked. Hardly four or five days after birth the baby was stretched out on a little crib made of slips of material. After this, the crown of the child was placed between two planks, one at the back and one at the front. These were then pushed together and tied. For days at a time the child was left in misery. Scholars reveal that skull deformation was categorized by a distinct social pattern. The overall population could only perform certain distortions. On the other hand, if children were ordained to become chiefs, priests, soldiers or attain another high-ranking position, they were given slanting distortions. Important Mayan families of the Classic period distinguished themselves from the lower classes with their head shape. It became a social status that only a few were worthy enough to obtain. According to some anthropologists, slanted distortion was intended to shape a child’s head to resemble the head of a jaguar, a holy creature and image of power for the Mayas. Another theory, based on study of images, suggests that the Mayas were trying to shape heads to look like the head of the maize god, who was the icon of fruitfulness.5 Many theories exist, yet it is certain that many induced deformities and body modifications were limited to elites within these societies. In addition to cranial molding, the Maya also practiced dental modification. This originates in the form of filing their teeth into unusual figures or drilling holes in the teeth so that jewels can be placed in them. Based on archaeological results it would appear that the procedure of dental decoration began with around 60 percent of the total population appealing in some form of dental alteration. Filing the teeth was more communal among ladies and the inserting of jewels was more common in males; however, both practices are found among each gender. Unlike cranial modification, which occurred evenly among males and females, dental alteration is more common among females with about 65 percent of women of the time having adjusted their teeth, while only about 58 percent of males had adapted teeth. Stories tell that older women executed the process and that they used stone abraders and water to file the teeth as opposed to shaving away at them. Unfortunately, the process of setting jewels into the teeth was less usual than filing the teeth so there is no record determining how the process was performed or who was responsible for the process. It is believed that toughened bone drills with water and sand or some other rough material would have been used to shape the holes for inlays in teeth. Stones that were located in the teeth could be jade, obsidian, pyrite, or turquoise and the gravels were held in place with cement. There are many ideas as to why the Maya willingly went through such a painful form of adaptation. Early Maya generally performed vertical filing on the teeth. Maya from the later period practiced a broad range of different patterns of inlays and teeth filings. It is notable that the Spanish talk about a sort of royal status that the Maya citizens had in respects to teeth filing. Many nations around the world today still use practices common to the Mayas and can attest to the fact that the technique is very sore and very slow.6 Painful processes such as this were common among the people of Mesoamerica and are just another example of modification. Although dental modification was more of a decorative sort of process, it nonetheless was limited to those who were willing to withstand the pain.

A less painful sort of body ornamentation is that which was most widely used in Yucatan - body paint. Mixing bright clays and water usually made these paints. In many instances, applying these clays to the body would be used as a display for battle. Paints of different colors were in some cases associated with different people. Yellow pigments were connected to beautiful women amongst the Aztecs, while blue was commonly a pigment exhibited on classic Maya figurines. Young men often adorned themselves with black paint until their marriage or until they were permitted to tattooing themselves. Most commonly painted places on the body tended to be the foreheads, lips, and eyes or the indigenous. Designs appeared on many parts of the lower body including the thighs, arms, and torso.7

Hair treatment was another important aspect of early Mesoamerican society. The indigenous had exceptionally elaborate treatments for their hair. Aztec children, boys and girls alike had their hair trimmed short using sharp instruments so that is followed the shape of their head. This persisted until they were anywhere from age 10 to 12 when the change of letting their hair grow long in the back was acceptable8 Because hair was so easily changeable, easily regenerated, and connected to the body at all times it was an important feature on many Mesoamericans and used as an identifier in many circumstances. Most times the transformation of a young Aztec boy’s hair was directly correlated to his distinction as a warrior9 Each young boy was rewarded for every captive he had captured and was allowed to have a different lock of hair grow long in the back for each. Another example would be that of a child who had dedicated his or her life to the temple at a young age. In this circumstance they were able the keep their hair in a long lock of youth. However, women who transitioned into adult status were almost required to bind their hair, because controlled hair marked control of adult sexuality. Different combinations of long hair and shaved areas were used to mark different forms of adult labor and sexuality. In turn, hair was important for continued modification of the body and required much attention.10

Another important aspect of Mesoamerican society was that of burials. Burials began incorporating body ornaments between 1200 and 900 BC ranging from Central Mexico to Honduras. Body ornaments were often used as badges of social status and even during death this was not to be forgotten. With the artifacts found amongst the dead there are many examples that preserve practices of body modification and ornamentation. Hand-modeled ceramic figurines present us with an idea of the control of personhood and gender within the population of the peoples of Mesoamerica. The imprinting of these practices shows a history that is linked by the materialization of sex and the inscription of bodily appearance. Ear spools, neck pendants, and strands of round beads at the neck and wrists were common elements found in burial sites. Ear spools, being one of the greatest identifiers among all bodily ornaments, were limited to use of adults and appear to be one of the greatest distinguishers of age. These markers of adult status were only allowed after someone had taken a prisoner or given birth.11 Even during death, status and gender were not to be forgotten and were still a very important part of Mesoamerican tradition and life and exhibited largely by ornamentation.

From cranial deformations to getting a hair cut, body modifications and ornamentation have been around for a long time. Body modifications not only were decoration for these ancient peoples; but a mark of the life they lived and of their role within their respective societies. The importance of body modifications and ornamentation ranged from expressing social status to decoration to displays during battle. Body modifications were so important to people of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica because they were a way of life. It was a tradition for them and marked not only their gender and work but, their right of passage from child to adult. They wore these traditions with pride and in turn created a way for us to remember their culture and accomplishments forever.

Endnotes
1. Joyce, Rosemary. "Girling the Girl and Boying the Boy: The Production of Adulthood in Ancient Mesoamerica." World Archaeology 31.3 (2000): 473-483. Print. 2. Joyce, Rosemary. "Beauty, Sexuality, Body Ornamentation, and Gender in Ancient Meso-America." In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches. Ed. Sarah Milledge Nelson and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 81-83. 3. Joyce, Rosemary. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001. 109-123. Print. 4. Joyce, Rosemary. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001. 109-123. Print. 5. Vargas, Romero. "A Look at Mayan Artificial Cranial Deformation Practices: Morphological and Cultural Aspects." Neurosurg Focus 29 (6):E2, 2010, 2 Feb. 2010. Web. 13 April 2013. 6. Huff, Leah. “Permanent Body Modification Among the Maya.” BME. 11 November, 2009. http://bme.com/ritual/990201/maya/perma 7. Toby Evans, Susan, and Joanne Pillsbury. Palaces of Ancient New World. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2004. 368. Print. 8. Joyce, Rosemary. "Beauty, Sexuality, Body Ornamentation, and Gender in Ancient Meso-America." In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches. Ed. Sarah Milledge Nelson and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 81-83. 9. Joyce, Rosemary. "Girling the Girl and Boying the Boy: The Production of Adulthood in Ancient Mesoamerica." World Archaeology 31.3 (2000): 473-83. Print. 10. Joyce, Rosemary. "Beauty, Sexuality, Body Ornamentation, and Gender in Ancient Meso-America." In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches. Ed. Sarah Milledge Nelson and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 81-83. 11. Joyce, Rosemary. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001. 109-123. Print.

Works Cited

Huff, Leah. “Permanent Body Modification Among the Maya.” BME. 11 November, 2009. http://bme.com/ritual/990201/maya/perma Joyce, Rosemary. "Beauty, Sexuality, Body Ornamentation, and Gender in Ancient Meso-America." In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches. Ed. Sarah Milledge Nelson and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 81-83. Joyce, Rosemary. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001. 109-123. Print. Joyce, Rosemary. "Girling the Girl and Boying the Boy: The Production of Adulthood in Ancient Mesoamerica." World Archaeology 31.3 (2000): 473-83. Print. Toby Evans, Susan, and Joanne Pillsbury. Palaces of Ancient New World. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2004. 368. Print. Vargas, Romero. "A Look at Mayan Artificial Cranial Deformation Practices: Morphological and Cultural Aspects." Neurosurg Focus 29 (6):E2, 2010, 2 Feb. 2010. Web. 13 April 2013.

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