Violence directed against women is an ancient practice. Using broad temporal and spatial approaches to understanding violence directed against women among ancient and historic groups, archaeologists and bioarchaeologists have found that it is particularly sustained and extreme among groups that practiced raiding and abduction of women and children. While the Atlantic slave trade has been well-studied, less is known about slaving in ancient non-state groups. Integrating data from the bodies and bones of individuals believed to have been captives with archaeological and ethnohistoric data provides a rich and nuanced approach to understanding this enduring and violent cultural practice and the lives of captive women.Female aged 30–35 with cranial and post-cranial trauma located in abandoned pit structure (circa AD 1100). Line drawings courtesy Robert Turner, Office of Archaeological Studies, Department of Cultural Affairs, Santa Fe, NM
Ancient Practice of Raiding for Women
The practice of taking female captives goes far back into human history. Azar Gat (2006) presents a sweeping overview of ethnohistoric and archaeological data in War and Human Civilization and convincingly shows that early tribal warfare was present in many foraging societies. As far back as the Bronze Age, there is evidence that foraging groups engaged in male coalition-based raids, and more complex tribal groups in extensive warfare. Cyclical raiding is a critical part of endemic warfare strategies with economic and political implications for males and females. Women were bought, sold and traded as commodities, suggesting culturally sanctioned and deeply embedded structural violence. Women were used to pay off debts and accrue wealth for their owners. The cyclic nature of raiding was captured by Herb Maschner and Katherine Reedy-Maschner in their article “Raid, Retreat, Defend (Repeat): The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Warfare on the North Pacific Rim” (1998; Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17:19-51). Catherine Cameron has shown that women and children are the most common captives both cross- culturally and through time (2011; “Captives and Culture Change”, Current Anthropology 52:162-92).
Anthropologists have learned to reconstruct early forms of slavery from patterns observed in the material culture, architectural features and human remains recovered from archaeological sites (see Invisible Citizens, Captives and Their Consequences Cameron, 2008). Further, they have found that at the core of captive-taking and enslavement was culturally-sanctioned violence. From the Amazon, to Africa, to the American Southeast and beyond, ethnographic and ethnohistoric data show similar patterns—victors in battle seized reproductive aged women and forced them to a new home. As members of an enemy group, captives often faced rage and hostility as they entered their captor’s settlement, especially if any captor warriors had died in battle. As Brenda Bowser put it, “Generally, captives experience a loss of social personhood that is complete at the time of their capture. They are completely vulnerable, disposable persons with no rights, including the right of life” (from Invisible Citizens, p 268).
The most salient fact about the captive woman was their total lack of kinship to any member of their captor’s society; they were outcasts in communities where people without kin could be considered sub-human. Yet, a social space had to be opened for them. The rights of social personhood offered captive women in different societies varied along a continuum of incorporation from full wife to abject slave. Captive women were usually owned by the community’s most prominent men; this could give them some level of social standing. But more commonly, they became secondary wives or “drudge” wives who could suffer abuse at the hands of their co-wives. Or, they became concubines who were barred from marriage and by definition ineligible for full benefits of societal membership. As in sex traffic today, many young women were simply disposable sexual partners living short, brutal lives.
Whether wife or slave, captive women were most highly valued in non-state societies for their labor. From the Northwest Coast of North America to the jungles of central Africa, captives did the most arduous, dirty and difficult labor. They hauled water, gathered wood for fires, prepared hides, carried heavy burdens, and paddled canoes. Agriculture and craft work were sources of power for male leaders. For example, Laura Junker (in Invisible Citizens) has shown that in the coastal chiefdoms in Southeast Asia, captive women spent long days working in fields or making pottery or textiles. In the fullest sense of the concept of structural violence, captive labor was coerced; captive women lived in societies whose ideology and practices promoted and obscured social inequality.
Beaten Down and Worked to the Bone
We have learned much about the biological effects of the Atlantic slave trade and slaving practices from bioarchaeologists such as Michael Blakey, Lesley Rankin Hill and others who have documented the ways skeletons can reveal accumulative effects of subjugation and hard labor. Their findings show how injury recidivism (ie, repeated beatings throughout a lifetime) and musculo-skeletal markers leave signs that suggest excessive, grueling and long hours of physical labor. Bones tell a story of individuals being worked beyond their physical capabilities—fractured vertebrae from carrying heavy loads all day and higher frequencies of infectious and nutritional diseases. These pioneering studies have paved the way for bioarchaeology to make significant contributions to the understanding of the effects of captive-taking and enslavement on ancient people. While we are beginning to understand the biocultural implications of the African slave trade, much less is known about other forms of slavery in precolonial and pre-state societies.
One well-studied example comes from an 11th century community in northern New Mexico. Integrating skeletal analysis, mortuary context, archaeological reconstruction, and neuropathology, Debra Martin and her colleagues used multiple lines of evidence to identify raiding, forced captivity and enslavement of women (“Beaten Down and Worked to the Bone,” Landscapes of Violence 1). Captured women had healed cranial depression fractures likely due to blunt force trauma obtained during raiding and abduction of females. These women also had a variety of healed fractures on the lower body, as well as localized trauma to the joints (eg, dislocated hip joint), likely the result of punishment or harsh treatment. The women had indicators of poor health (infections and nutritional problems). They were recovered from burial contexts different from individuals who did not have evidence of trauma and pathology. Abused women were placed without any intentionality or grave offerings into abandoned pit structures.
The bioarchaeological signature of forced captivity includes healed head wounds, healed broken bones, and a variety of trauma-related musculo-skeletal changes. Captives and indentured servants form a category of targeted individuals who show repeated trauma and injury over their lifetimes. These nonlethal forms of violence are perhaps the most powerful of all coercive techniques available. Fear of being hurt (or killed) or actually being hurt (and not killed) creates an immediate situation of power imbalance and subordination that can be exploited in many different political-economic contexts. Captives with healed fractures, inflamed muscles, infections, and other signs of abuse reveal the biological costs of this form of debt service.
Implications of Culturally-Sanctioned Violence
Today and in the past, culturally-sanctioned violence in the form of warfare, captive-taking, torture and submission normalizes violence so that people stop questioning its use. Archaeology and bioarchaeology are uniquely suited to provide data on direct, structural and cultural violence because they use multiple lines of evidence. We can examine the bones of those that suffered, the manner that they were interred, the larger community in which they lived and the regional context in which political and economic events played out.
Our work on ancient violence is a form of archaeological witnessing of horrific past events that sharpens our understanding of what motivates and drives ancient systems of power. Culturally-sanctioned violence continues today, with between 20 and 30 million people enslaved. Kevin Bales (see the TED talk “How to Combat Modern Slavery”), Jane Covey and Desmond Tutu (see www.freetheslaves.net) provide compelling data on the horrors of modern day slavery. Our understanding of historic and ancient slavery are vital for explaining cultural systems, ideologies, and human behaviors that normalize these practices and keep them in use.
Catherine Cameron is professor, associate chair, and undergraduate director in the department of anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Debra L Martin is Lincy Professor Anthropology in the department of anthropology at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.