Curious clay figurines that have been found in southern Arizona 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.
Dr. Mark Chenault of the firm Westland Resources was part of the team that found the most recent cache of figurines, during excavations for a Tucson road project in 2008.
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. [See a recent discovery from the Early Agricultural period: “Oldest Human Footprints in the Southwest Discovered at Tucson Construction Site“]
“I have done some limited research on Hohokam figurines in the past, but I had never seen anything like these Early Agricultural period figurines,” Chenault said in an interview with Western Digs.
“Because they were so unusual, I thought they needed a closer look.”
Vaguely anthropomorphic in shape, the figures 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 figurines were fashioned out of non-fired or low-fired clay, Chenault said, and were between 7 and 10 centimeters long (about 2.75 to 4 inches).
But while clay figures made and used by the Hohokam are widely thought to have been used to pay homage to ancestors, these more ancient artifacts don’t seem to have fit that purpose, he said.
“The ancestor veneration idea applies mainly to Hohokam figurines, and the Early Agricultural figurines look very different,” he said.
Most notably, the ancient Tucson figures appear to have prominently sexual traits.
Their shape is distinctly phallic, Chenault 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.
“The appearance of the figurines, with the male/female sexual characteristics, suggested something other than ancestor veneration,” he said.
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.
“I think that there may have been some similarity in beliefs over a wide area in that early time period,” he noted.
If the duality of male and female was indeed a cultural motif for people of the Sonoran Desert 3,000 years ago, 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.
“There is no real evidence that I’m aware of concerning specific rites, other than our evidence that they were part of a cache,” Chenault said.
[See another recently discovered ancient cache: “Stash of Obsidian Blades, Hidden for a Thousand Years, Discovered in Oregon“]
“I believe that they could have been used for both human fertility and agricultural fertility,” he added.
“However, I think that the sexual characteristics argue more strongly for their use in human puberty or fertility rites.”
More work needs to be done on these obscure artifacts in order to tease apart their meaning, Chenault said.
As the earliest known figurines from the Southwest, their use and function could provide insights about early Sonoran settlers that are more intimate than simply where they lived and what they farmed. [Read about a related find nearby: “Grave of Disabled Young Woman Reveals Touching Tale of Care in Prehistoric Arizona“]
“They give us a little glimpse of the people of that time period and of something other than house pits and agricultural features,” Chenault said.
What’s more, he added, they could help us understand the extent to which this ancient culture was both similar to, and different from, the later Hohokam culture.
“The traits of pithouses, irrigation agriculture, and clay figurines suggest that there was a developmental tie between the Early Agricultural people and the later-dating Hohokam,” he said.
“But the differences in morphology of the figurines suggests differences in function.”
Chenault reports on his research into the Tucson figurines in the journal Kiva.
Chenault, M. (2016). Ritual and Duality: Early Agricultural Period Figurines from the Tucson Basin KIVA, 1-16 DOI: 10.1080/00231940.2016.1239052