SIUE alum showcases research on early South American sexuality, culture

Mary Weismantel is not shy about her archaeological interests. The SIUE alum’s area of research centers on gender and sexuality studies.

Northwestern University anthropology professor Mary Weismantel, an SIUE alum, will host a lecture on prehistoric South American pottery called "sex pots." The pots, which depict erotic sexual acts, were created by the Moche people. The Moche lived in northern Peru from A.D. 150-800. (Photo courtesy of Mary Weismantel)

In addition to teaching anthropology courses and gender studies at Northwestern University she has also written books on race, sex and culture in the Andes. This week Weismantel will discuss a topic rarely studied by archaeologists: the role of sex in the lives of prehistoric people in the Americas.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, Weismantel will speak with undergraduate students about the unique pottery found in the burials of the South American indigenous people known as the Moche. The Moche civilization thrived along the northwestern coast of Peru from A.D. 150-800 and built irrigation systems and monuments called huacas. The anthropology professor will be discussing her research titled “Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America,” which was published in the American Anthropologist.

Her interest in Archaeological studies and anthropology was fostered during her time as an undergraduate student attending classes in SIUE’s anthropology department.

“I had amazing professors, especially (former SIUE faculty) Ted and Charlotte Frisbee, Sid Denny, and Fred Voget,” said Weismantel, now an associate professor in anthropology at Northwestern University. “They taught me about Native Americans, and gave me a great love of anthropology.  They were really inspirational teachers.”

While attending classes at SIUE, Weismantel worked as a tour guide at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. After graduation she went on to earn her PhD. at the University of Illinois in 1986. While studying at Illinois, Weismantel participated in a FAI-270 archaeology highway project along the American Bottom. Weismantel considers herself a cultural anthropologist whose interests include racial inequality and cultural materialism in addition to sexuality. She serves as associate curator at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and has earned funding for her work from the National Science Foundation.

“Students have an amazing opportunity to have a serious scholar here to talk about her research –interesting research, that students can be engaged in,” said SIUE anthropology professor Julie Holt.  “But also (she will) be speaking to them in a way that they’ll understand.”

On Tuesday Weismantel will discuss the mysterious pottery created by the Moche, which featured carved depictions of people engaged in various sex acts. The pottery had no known meanings or historical context and were buried with Moche elites. Moche society was divided among the very wealthy and the common people. The pottery, known as “Sex pots” were reserved for Moche’s elite and about 500 pots were confirmed in existence, mostly from private collectors. The pots were not professionally excavated at archaeological sites but were looted by pillagers, Holt said.

Weismantel notes that the cultural norms for the Moche far contrasted with what was acceptable in contemporary western society.  Norms that are considered normal and distasteful today does not apply to the ancient South American indigenous people, who did not separate associations with sexual intercourse and religion. The Moche valued the power of ancestors and in their social hierarchy the elders held the power. Weismantel said the act of intercourse was viewed as a sacred act, and different forms of intercourse were viewed as essential and nourishing toward the reproductive process.

“One of the most striking things about looking at Moche and other ancient Native American cultures is that you don’t see the same separations between religion and secular life, nature and culture, self and other, individual and society that we take for granted,” Weismantel said. “In the case of sex and reproduction, we have a long tradition of separating sex from family and reproduction, and from religion and spirituality … We don’t see those same separations at work in indigenous thought, where religiosity pervades every aspect of life, and where the body and its functions are sacred.”

Weismantel said that the Moche did not have the knowledge of modern science and likely did not understand what type of sex act caused pregnancy. The sex pots rarely depicted scenes of vaginal penetration and instead displayed sodomy or other forms that would be considered non-traditional acts by contemporary standards.

“A lot of previous researchers saw how explicit the ‘sex pots’ are and assumed that they must be pornographic or depict something forbidden,” Weismantel said. “But I think the opposite is true: these objects are things that were left in tombs, including the tombs of women and young children, because they were seen as imparting positive messages about the relationship between the living and the dead. We would call those messages ‘religious’, but I’m not sure that’s even a word that would make sense to the Moche, who saw religion in everything.”

The Moche had a holistic view of procreation, and placed high value on the entire process including the roles of social groups.  The South American people lived in a collectivist culture and emphasized the role of ancestors.

“In non-Western and pre-modern societies that emphasized the group over the individual, ideas about reproduction emphasized the entire process, not just insemination and birth; and they emphasized the roles that the entire social group has to play,” Weismantel said. “I believe that the decisions the artists made about what kinds of sex, what kinds of bodies, and what kinds of sexual actors to portray were shaped by a norm that de-emphasized the procreative powers of young adults, and instead taught them to always remember that their own bodily existence came to them from those who had come before, and that their responsibility was to pass that life on to future generations.

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