Rethinking Polity Formation: A Gendered Perspective on Formative Period Household Development in the Pacific Coast Region of Guatemala



Social complexity and polity formation involve volatile periods of political cycling with integration and decentralization occurring as elites vie for political power. Political economic interpretations, while valuable in understanding the social and political processes involved in polity formation, do not adequately trace changes in the social relations that comprise the formation of a polity. In this chapter, I examine three models (subsistence intensification, craft production, and exchange) that have been proposed to explain the political and economic development of the Pacific coast region of Guatemala during the Middle Formative period (ca. 900–600 b.c.e.) and the rise of the La Blanca polity. I contend that macroscale models obscure gendered interpretations of the past. I suggest that investigations of prehistoric gender patterns would benefit from a microscaled approach drawing attention to household activities and the diverse social and economic accommodations that must have been made by Middle Formative households. The La Blanca inhabitants may have responded to the changing political landscape by altering their daily rounds and by increasing coordination of household activities that affected all members of the household regardless of gender.

The Formative period (ca. 1650 b.c.e.c.e. 100) in Mesoamerica is characterized by political and economic processes that led to the development of early social and political complexity (Blake 1991; Clark 1991b; Demarest 1989; Fowler 1991; Pye and Demarest 1991). The Pacific coast of Mesoamerica has served as a case study for examining the emergence of social complexity and polity formation. Sites along the Pacific coast dating to the Early Formative display evidence of early ranked societies with two-tiered settlement hierarchies, intensification of agriculture, long-distance trade networks, and craft specialization (Clark 1991a, 1991b, 1994; Clark and Blake 1994; Coe and Flannery 1967). By the Middle Formative, at approximately 900 b.c.e., La Blanca emerged as a regional polity and functioned as a ceremonial center. Evidence of civic architecture, intensified agricultural production, and long-distance exchange has been identified at the site (Love 1990, 1991, 1999a, 1999b, 2002b). As La Blanca was transformed into a regional polity, household composition altered to meet political and economic demands. Household members must have negotiated differences of power as new forms of household social inequality appeared.

In this chapter I examine three macroscale political economic models that have been proposed to explain the political and economic development of the Pacific coast region of Guatemala during the Middle Formative period and the rise of the La Blanca polity. The models are (1) subsistence intensification, (2) craft production, and (3) exchange. These macroscale political economic models are beneficial in that they allow us to focus on the trajectory of long-term cultural change. However, this broad-scale approach obscures gender and social practice while emphasizing hierarchical shifts in power and elite control. A complementary approach would be a microscale analysis that would focus on the social practices of the La Blanca inhabitants to reveal the complexities of individual household strategies while emphasizing gender and class (Brumfiel 1992). My objective is to consider how the daily social practices of the La Blanca inhabitants were transformed by changes in the broader social system during the Middle Formative.

To enrich the current interpretation of polity formation at La Blanca, I suggest that we question and investigate gender patterns at the household level as a method for highlighting the diverse social and economic strategies employed by Middle Formative households. A gendered perspective on household archaeology enables us to explore polity formation and the social relationships that underlie political organization and dismantles fundamental assumptions of gendered divisions of labor implicit in notions of the public and private domains (Allison 1999; Carter 1984; Hendon 1996, 2004; Marti 1993; Pyburn 2004).

Polity Formation at La Blanca

Polity formation involves volatile periods of political cycling with integration and decentralization as local elites vie for political power. Elites use productive capabilities and exotic goods to maintain political and economic control (Blake and Clark 1999; Earle 1991; Gilman 1991; Johnson and Earle 1988; Kristiansen 1991) and social solidarity is maintained through public rituals (Clark 2004b; Earle 1997; Fox 1996; Love 1999b; Mann 1986; Marcus 1989). Elites negotiate political, economic, and ideological power to integrate distinct societies, promote social cohesion, and demarcate their territorial boundaries (Clark 1991b; Earle 1997; Feinman 1995; Mann 1986).

The site of La Blanca, located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala (Figure 7.1), is one of the largest sites in Mesoamerica from the Middle Formative period (ca. 900–600 b.c.e.). At its apogee, it controlled a polity estimated at three hundred square kilometers and covered an area of approximately one hundred hectares with more than 60 households and was a ceremonial center (Love 1999a, 1999b, 2002b). Local inhabitants constructed a monumental earthen mound (Mound 1) that measured 25 meters in height and approximately 140 meters by 120 meters at the base (Love 2002b). Political development of the La Blanca polity occurred during the Middle Formative period. The political organization became centralized, population densities increased, regional settlement patterns changed to reflect a system of social stratification, and a two-class system of elites and nonelites developed (Love 1999a, 2002b).

Figure 7.1.

Map of Soconusco region showing the location of La Blanca.

Prior to the rise of Middle Formative La Blanca, the neighboring Mazatán region of coastal Chiapas was home to the earliest regional polity during the Early Formative period (ca. 1650–900 b.c.e.) (Clark 1991b). Mazatán settlement patterns indicate that villages were nucleated, and social ranking and economic specialization existed (Blake 1991; Blake and Feddema 1991; Ceja Tenorio 1985; Clark 1981, 1994; Clark and Lee 1984; Lesure 1995). However, by the Middle Formative period (ca. 900 b.c.e.), population densities had declined in the Mazatán region. In contrast, population density increased in the region of La Blanca and a three-tiered settlement hierarchy emerged. It has been postulated that inhabitants from the Mazatán region migrated east to the La Blanca region as a result of unstable polities vying for power (Clark and Blake 1994). The decline of the Mazatán region coincides with the expansion of La Blanca as a regional polity with new forms of social inequality between households (Love 2002b). The political integration and dominance of La Blanca lasted approximately 300 years, and by 600 b.c.e. the site had declined in size and the polity disintegrated.

A linchpin for establishing political and economic control is the ability of emerging elites to intensify subsistence production to finance the political economy and to control the economic sector (D'Altroy and Earle 1985; Earle 1997). Love (1999a:98) argues that change in social relations contributed to economic transformations during Middle Formative La Blanca. These changes are manifested archaeologically at the household level, as evidenced by subsistence intensification and intensification of craft production. Differences in household wealth indicate that households employed varying strategies that enabled some to maintain differential access to foreign goods such as jade and mica through extensive exchange networks (Love 1999a, 1999b, 2002b). Interhousehold alliance and competition for status and power were the impetus for the growth of a surplus-producing economy. Feminist researchers have demonstrated that it is precisely at the household level that the study change in household composition and subsistence and craft intensification facilitates our understanding of the political and social processes involved in political development (Brumfiel 1991; Conkey and Spector 1984; Costin 1993; Crown and Fish 1996; Hastorf 1991; Hendon 2004; Pyburn 2004; Robin 2006; Tringham 1991).

Subsistence Intensification

La Blanca is situated on the coastal plain of the southern Pacific coast of Guatemala. The coastal plain gradually rises to the piedmont to an elevation of nine hundred meters within a distance of less than 20 kilometers (Love 2002b). Rivers and streams flow directly from the piedmont to the Pacific Ocean. Smaller streams create shallow estuaries and lagoons on the coastal plain that continually receive sediments from small rivers, tidal currents, and storms. As a result of volcanic activity, materials of volcanic origin are deposited into the soil, resulting in extremely fertile and productive soils. Rainfall on the southern coast averages three thousand millimeters per year, with 90 percent of the annual rainfall occurring within the six-month rainy season. The natural environment of the region enabled Early Formative inhabitants to employ diverse subsistence strategies that included hunting, fishing, and limited maize production. However, subsistence practices underwent significant changes as a result of political restructuring and integration during the Middle Formative period (Love 2002b).

Excavated materials at La Blanca reveal two important changes in Middle Formative subsistence patterns. Inhabitants of La Blanca increased their exploitation of domesticated dog as a source of protein and increased their production and consumption of maize (Wake and Harrington 2002). Changing patterns of animal exploitation were revealed by the number of identified specimens present (NISP) and minimum number of individuals (MNI) for each species collected. Dog (Canis familiaris), deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and turtle (Chrysemys picta) were the most abundant species by NISP, MNI (Figure 7.2), and weight (Figure 7.3). The faunal data collected from domestic contexts such as house floors and sealed midden deposits suggest that the most significant change in subsistence practices occurred in the rate of consumption of dog during the Middle Formative period. The use of dog as a dietary protein is inferred by the percentage of burned and fractured bones and the presence of main skeletal portions, not through evidence of butcher marks (Wake and Harrington 2002). During this period, the percentage of dog in the diet fluctuated, with the highest percentage occurring between 800 b.c.e. and 750 b.c.e. In the Conchas A phase (900–800 b.c.e.), dog only represented three percent of the diet. However, by the Conchas B phase (800–750 b.c.e.), dog consumption increased to 26 percent. This was followed by a slight decline in the Conchas C phase (750–700 b.c.e.) to 22 percent. By the Conchas D phase (700–600 b.c.e.), the presence of dog declined by approximately half, to only 12 percent.

Figure 7.2.

Comparative vertebrate data from three sites from four phases.

Figure 7.3.

Weights of faunal materials recovered from household excavations at La Blanca.

Love (1999a:96) argues that the increased use of dog as a source of protein reflects a strategy of minimizing labor investment in the procurement of protein and an increase in efficiency by allocating labor to other domestic activities. This shift from wild resources to domestic animals implies an increase in food production. I suggest that dog may have been favored for intensification because dogs served as multipurpose animals whose function changed throughout their lives. Dogs may have functioned as work animals, pets, ritual sacrifices, and food resources (see Kanne 2005 for detailed discussion). Dogs were most likely positioned around dwellings and used as watchdogs to protect property and rid the residential areas of human waste. As a food resource they could be harvested as needed with limited effort (Love 2002b:244).

Stable carbon isotope measures from human bone samples from the Soconusco region of the Pacific coast provide another view of Formative diet. Blake et al. (1992) examined human bone samples from three adjacent zones within the Soconusco region: Acapetahua, Mazatán, and the lower Río Naranjo. Twenty-nine bone collagen samples from 13 different archaeological sites were analyzed; the samples encompassed the time span from the Late Archaic to the Late Postclassic (see Chisholm et al. 1993). To control for higher δ13C values that may have resulted from the consumption of marine resources, stable nitrogen isotope ratios (expressed as δ15N) were examined. Of the 29 samples, eight were analyzed for δ15N values (Table 7.1), and none of these displayed nitrogen-enriched levels of marine-species consumers (Blake et al. 1992:86).

Table 7.1.  Stable carbon and stable nitrogen values of human bone collagen samples by period or phase
Period/PhaseZoneSiteBurial No.Provenienceδ13C ValueCarbon/Nitrogen Ratioδ15N ValueReference
  1. Source: Adopted and modified from Blake et al. 1992.

Early Formative
Barra (1550–1350 b.c.e.)MazatánPaso de la Amada Mound 5, pit 18−18.75.5 Ceja Tenorio 1985
MazatánSan Carlos1Pit 2, level 42−20.58.1 Clark et al. 1987
Lacona (1350–1250 b.c.e.)MazatánChilo   0.083Pit 2, ext SE−17.46.7 Clark et al. 1987
MazatánChilo2Pit 2A, level 2−18.79.3 Clark et al. 1987
MazatánChilo1Pit 1, level 7−16.94.5 Clark et al. 1987
MazatánChilo3Pit 2, level 7−21.84.6 Clark et al. 1987
Ocos (1250–1150 b.c.e.)MazatánAquiles Serdan Pit 3, level 3−19.65.8 Clark et al. 1987
MazatánPaso de la Amada3Mound 3, pit 6, level 6−18.46.3 Ceja Tenorio 1985
MazatánPaso de la Amada1Mound 1, pit 4, level 7−19.25.5 Ceja Tenorio 1985
MazatánPaso de la Amada4Mound 1, pit 7, level 7−18.76.4 Ceja Tenorio 1985
Cherla (1150–1000 b.c.e.)MazatánAquiles Serdan Trench 1K, level 13−18.25.4 Clark et al. 1987
MazatánPaso de la Amada2Pit 5, level 4−21.53.3 Ceja Tenorio 1985
Cuadros (1000–900 b.c.e.)MazatánVillo1Station 2−20.25.9 Clark et al. 1987
MazatánAquiles Serdan Pit 1A, level 5−22.423.9  Clark et al. 1987
MazatánAquiles Serdan1Trench 1E, level 8−21.211   Clark et al. 1987
Middle Formative
Conchas A–C (850–750 b.c.e.)NaranjoLa Blanca5Op. 27, sub 2, F39− 1989
NaranjoLa Blanca4Op. 27, sub 2, 230 cm− 1989
NaranjoLa Blanca2Op. 26, sub 5, 225 cm−13.33.3 Love 1989
NaranjoLa Blanca Op. 26, sub 5, 170 cm−20.84.7 Love 1989
MazatánHuanacastal1Pit 1, bottom−21.23.6 Clark et al. 1987
Late Formative (650 b.c.e.c.e. 100)
 MazatánAltamira3Mound 6, pit A, level 17−24.516.3  Green and Lowe 1967
MazatánAltamira2Mound 6, pit A, level 16−20.45  Green and Lowe 1967

The 13C/12C ratios for Early Formative Soconusco (expressed as δ13C values in parts per thousand [‰]) were relatively low, being between –22.4‰ and –16.9‰ with a mean value of –19.6‰. This indicates that subsistence practices of Early Formative inhabitants of the Mazatán region yielded a mixed diet of brackish/freshwater swamp (mojarra) and estuary species (catfish, turtle, iguana, and snake), terrestrial animals (white-tailed deer and dog), and limited amounts of C4 plants such as maize (Blake et al. 1992:89).

In contrast, bone collagen from Middle Formative La Blanca suggests a shift in dietary patterns to one emphasizing C4 plants (directly and indirectly). The 13C/12C ratios were relatively high, being between –13.3‰ and –10.8‰ with a mean value of –12.5‰ (Blake et al. 1992:90). The recorded values are within the expected range for consumers of C4 or CAM plants but low in comparison to δ13C values for other parts of Mesoamerica (Tehuacán Valley and Oaxaca) (Blake et al. 1992:91). These values establish a dietary shift from the Early Formative mixed diet to one consisting primarily of C4 plants such as maize in Middle Formative La Blanca (Love 1999a, 2002b). This shift coincides with the rise of La Blanca as a regional polity. Agricultural intensification may have been prompted by emerging elites who encouraged the increased production of agricultural resources in order to produce food surpluses that served as the economic base of the polity's formation (Clark and Blake 1994; D'Altroy and Earle 1985; Earle 1997).

A multigendered perspective enriches this macroscale view of subsistence practices at Middle Formative La Blanca. Abundant documentation from ethnographic and household studies suggests that differences in spatial patterning of artifacts in or near the domestic structures and differences in diet provide information concerning gender social relations, which is visible in the archaeological record (Cohen and Bennett 1993; Conkey and Spector 1984; Hastorf 1991; Hendon 1996). A gendered approach asks, How did subsistence intensification alter gendered household activities? Changes in subsistence practices, such as the intensification of the use of dog and an increased reliance on agricultural production, would have generated changes in daily household activities. This shift may have created changes in the use of space and activity areas surrounding household settlement areas (Hendon 1996; Hodder and Orton 1976; Robin 2004; Voorhies 1996).

During the Early Formative, the diverse nature of subsistence practices may have required cooperative hunting and fishing strategies by household members. Both men and women would have participated in daily subsistence activities. However, given the spatial dispersion of household settlements during this period, household members would have had less frequent contact with other households. This pattern changed during the Middle Formative period when household settlements became more nucleated. Although projecting ethnographic practices into the past is problematic, numerous ethnographic studies and archaeological evidence of subsistence practices reveal that both men and women engage in food collection to secure subsistence for themselves, their children, and other members of the group (Nelson 1997). Given the multiple lines of archaeological evidence—the small-scale nature of settlement patterns in the Early Formative and the location of the estuaries in relation to settlement areas—it can be postulated that estuary food harvesting (such as turtles, birds, and fish) was conducted by either men or women as a means of cooperative distribution of household activities.

During the Middle Formative, household clusters (see Winter 1976) would have changed to include garden plots with open spaces where agricultural production and animal tending would have occurred. Houses, situated on elevated earthen mounds, facilitated a view of the surrounding residential area. These changes may have fostered greater periods of time during which household members could have interacted and cooperated. While performing daily household activities, household members would have had greater visible access to one another for longer periods. This may have facilitated a more cooperative approach to the undertaking of daily activities that involved household members of all genders and ages.

Furthermore, surplus agricultural production was made possible at La Blanca by the fertile soils of the Pacific coast, the short growing cycles that allowed for multiple crops of maize to be harvested during the year, and the labor input of household members (Love 1999a:95). As subsistence practices changed during the Middle Formative to a resource base with a higher potential for surplus production, some households would have been more successful than others in generating larger surpluses (Sahlins 1972). This would have enabled some household members to engage in nonsubsistence-related activities such as craft production (Earle 1997; Feinman 1991).

Craft Production

Political development necessitates labor intensification to increase subsistence production, to sponsor public works as evidenced in monumental construction, and to produce material goods (Brumfiel and Earle 1987; Clark 2004a; Clark and Blake 1994; Earle 1997; Kristiansen 1991). Emerging elites competing for political power and prestige effectively mobilized a labor force in order to increase surplus production. This increase was initiated at the household level, where individuals or groups intensified their household production by increasing their household size (Sahlins 1972). In this model, households are perceived as flexible and adaptive units that change their size, composition, and labor allocation to meet the production and redistributive needs of the household members and the larger social unit (Sahlins 1972; Santley and Hirth 1993). Thus, polity formation should be accompanied by changes in household composition and labor intensification, archaeologically observable in spatial patterning of settlements, household clusters, and activity areas. Additionally, changes in the material culture should also reflect an increase in labor intensification.

Middle Formative La Blanca is characterized by changes in ceramic wares, vessel forms, and decorative motifs. Fine-paste ceramic wares (including Ramirez White, Ramirez Black, and Margarita Fine Red-on-White) became incorporated into the ceramic repertoire during this period. Many of these were decorated with fine-line incisions and diverse anthropomorphic representations that were restricted to fine-paste wares. These design elements include profiles of anthropomorphic beings, cleft-headed representations known frequently as “were-jaguars,” and star motifs (Love 1991, 2002a, 2002b). New vessel forms included plates, grater bowls, vases believed to be drinking cups, and cups with bulbous bases (Love 2002b:146). Given the increased labor investment in processing the clay and temper and the incorporation of fine-line decorative motifs, it has been suggested that these fine-paste ceramics represent luxury goods of high value (Clark 1991a; Love 1991, 2002b; Peregrine 1991; Schortman and Urban 1994; Stark 2003). Moreover, these fine-paste wares were restricted to elite domestic contexts, suggesting that elites participated more frequently in feasting and various ritual activities. I suggest that changes in vessel forms, from coarse ware to fine paste, elaborately decorated serving vessels such as plates, bowls, vases, and cups, represent a shift in the social importance of public feasting and ritual ceremonies. The motifs represented on the vessels may have been used by elites to claim a religious and ideological connection to distant locations that further served to legitimize their authority and social status (Helms 1979; Peregrine 1991). The increased use of decorated fine-paste serving vessels by a limited subset of elite households suggests that households employed various strategies that accelerated the social differentiation between elites and commoners. These wares may have accorded social prestige not only to the elite members of the society but also to the crafters and their households. The intensification of public feasting and ritual ceremonies by local elites not only served to transform social relationships between elites and nonelites but also altered the production of crafts at the household level.

The need for intensified production and changes in ceramic forms and styles would have required a greater investment of time in their production, resulting in the reallocation of time and resources for all household members. Moreover, social relationships between household members may have changed as the symbolic value of this task increased (Brumfiel 1987; Hendon 1996). Avoiding the precarious practice of attributing gender to specific artifacts, we can reasonably discuss how the intensification of labor via the production of ceramic wares would have altered household activities. Chemical composition data reveal information about the localization of pottery production.

Chemical composition data indicate that Conchas phase ceramics were locally produced. Paste samples (n= 373) were analyzed using laser ablation–inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), and chemical signatures reveal that ancient potters obtained their raw materials from a source local to the La Blanca region (Tejeda 2004, 2005, 2007a, 2007b) (Figure 7.4). The probability surface map shows that clays with peak probabilities of membership in the La Blanca core group are available in the immediate area of La Blanca. These results are consistent with those of ethnoarchaeological studies of modern-day potters that reveal that potters will travel no farther than seven kilometers to obtain the necessary raw materials for the production of their crafts (Arnold et al. 1991). Although the scale of ceramic production at La Blanca is currently unknown, it is reasonable to argue that the acquisition of raw materials for the production of ceramics and the acquisition of the fuel required to fire the ceramics would have required a cooperative effort that involved household members regardless of gender. For instance, the acquisition of raw materials for the production of ceramic wares may have been combined with other activities in order to increase levels of efficiency. Open firing of ceramic wares was most likely carried out, and the fuel used may have included wood, brush, branches, and agricultural by-products (Rice 1987) that could have been gathered while attending to other activities. Household activities would have varied spatially according to the location of necessary resources and the technology required in achieving the task (Kent 1984), with open firing conducted in the open areas adjacent to household settlements.

Figure 7.4.

Map showing probable source zone for La Blanca potters based on rare-earth element concentrations determined by LA-ICP-MS of raw clays. Axis coordinates are UTM coordinates in meters; distance between ticks is 10 kilometers. Y-axis is oriented to grid north. Dark grey areas denote those areas where clays have a higher probability of membership in the La Blanca core group. Triangles designate the location of some archaeological sites in the region.

My argument for the possibility of combining subsistence activities with ceramic production raises the question, Is there evidence of craft specialization at Middle Formative La Blanca? Specialized production includes organizational parameters such as intensity, scale, context, concentration, and meaning (Costin 1991; Costin and Hagstrum 1995; Costin and Wright 1998) that are fundamental for its identification in the archaeological record. The limited scope of household excavations at La Blanca precludes discussion of the intensity, scale, and concentration of specialized production. This area of research merits further exploration. While admittedly there is a dearth of information related to the organization of production, I suggest that Middle Formative crafters produced ceramics for consumption and distribution above the basic household need (Clark 1995). The localized production of fine-paste ceramics and their distribution in elite households provide tantalizing albeit limited evidence of product specialization. It is possible that La Blanca potters were part-time specialists who engaged in production seasonally. The scenario is quite different when we consider prismatic obsidian blades.


The development and control of regional and interregional exchange networks is another factor that has been linked to the development of social complexity and polity formation (Clark and Blake 1994; Flannery and Coe 1968; Parsons and Price 1971; Santley 1984). This model posits that elites derive political and economic power from the control of exchange networks that give elites access to exotic goods and rare commodities with prestige value (Blake 1991; Brumfiel and Earle 1987; Clark 1981, 1994; Clark and Lee 1984; DeMarrais et al. 1996; Earle 1997; Helms 1979). Differentiated access to exotic objects exacerbates levels of social inequality between households (Clark 1987). Thus, the increase in regional and interregional exchange networks is synonymous with the formation of political complexity and social inequality. The rise of the La Blanca regional center was due in part to the ability of emerging elites to monopolize and control the movement of goods in the region. On a local level, this involved control over the distribution of material goods from nonlocal sources. Long-distance exchange is archaeologically visible at Middle Formative La Blanca in the presence of obsidian prismatic blades. Obsidian sourcing reveals two significant changes in patterns of interaction on a regional and interregional level (Jackson and Love 1991).

Jackson and Love (1991) examine the introduction of prismatic obsidian blades to the tool assemblage of Middle Formative La Blanca. Briefly, x-ray fluorescence data on obsidian prismatic blades (n= 469) revealed that inhabitants of La Blanca obtained their obsidian primarily from El Chayal and Ixtepeque, located 195 kilometers and 275 kilometers away, respectively. Prismatic blades from San Martín Jilotepeque, 145 kilometers away, were introduced during the Conchas C phase (750–700 b.c.e.). The paucity of evidence of blade manufacturing at La Blanca leads the authors to suggest that obsidian prismatic blades entered the economy as a finished product and were not the result of local craft specialists. However, the distribution of prismatic blades was not restricted to elite households. Elsewhere, Love (1999a) argues that the vast majority of prismatic blades show evidence of retouch. This implies that households attempted to regenerate exhausted blades rather than produce new ones. He makes two suggestions: (1) the technology to produce prismatic blades was restricted to craft specialists not resident at La Blanca and (2) prismatic blades were considered high-value tools.

While these findings shed light on regional and interregional interaction patterns during the Middle Formative at La Blanca, they provide us with no information about the daily practice of the social actors that either engaged in these economic transactions or were the recipients of the prismatic blades. A gendered approach would seek to augment the current model by focusing on the household and foregrounding the importance of the social relationships and daily practices of human agents. Taking a microscale approach we can ask, How were these blades distributed?Clark (1987) argues that prismatic blades were distributed by chiefs as gifts in an effort to maintain the social order. Building on Clark's interpretation of gift-giving, it is possible that emerging elites at La Blanca used feasting to publicly distribute obsidian prismatic blades from nonlocal sources both as a method for maintaining the social order and as a means to engage in face-to-face interactions with the nonelite inhabitants.

In addition, we can ask whether these prismatic blades represent a capital investment on the part of emerging elites to increase household productivity. If during the Middle Formative elites used prismatic blades as a capital investment to increase the productivity of both elite and nonelite households, then we can expect to see changes in the range of household activities and activity areas between the Early and Middle Formative periods. Some or all household members would have had access to and used obsidian prismatic blades for daily household activities. Men, women, and children may have carried prismatic blades with them as they went about their daily chores and retouching of the blade edge would have taken place on the spot of the given activity.

Future Research

Providing a more nuanced understanding of the political and social changes that transformed La Blanca into a regional polity during the Middle Formative period will require more expansive horizontal household excavations at Early and Middle Formative settlements. As household excavations continue to be carried out we can expect to see more detailed accounts of how political competition transformed household production and social relations of the La Blanca inhabitants. Excavation of households in settlements on the periphery of the La Blanca center will also enhance our understanding of how polities integrate settlements on the periphery and allow us to see whether levels of political and economic control differ and whether household labor intensification and spatial allocation varied across time and space. This will highlight household variability, illuminate the social processes that transformed a loosely organized society into a dominant regional polity, and accentuate the human actors that created, shaped, and transformed their place within the broader social system.

Future research should also include an examination of labor intensification and the control of craft production by elites. To date, craft production locales have not been identified. This information would augment our current understanding of how elites controlled the production and distribution of household ceramic production. Did elites sponsor craft specialists? If so, who were the specialists? What was the social position of craft specialists? How did their households operate? Research on questions such as these will shed light on how household activities and the divisions of labor changed over time. In addition, research on the design motifs that emerged during the Middle Formative period will help to determine how households were drawn into political participation during the height of political control. Lastly, the spatial arrangement of the La Blanca settlement would yield important information on the nature of household social relations and political domination. The spatial arrangement of the polity will help us to determine whether access to particular areas was limited to specific members of the polity. For example, how did the construction of Mound 1, the monumental earthen mound, change everyday access to space? Did household daily routines change as a result of its construction? Were rituals conducted on or around the mound?

Concluding Remarks

The transition from the Early to Middle Formative was a period of social change at La Blanca that was characterized by increased social stratification. In this chapter, I have reexamined the three models presented to explain the formation of the La Blanca polity and have suggested a complementary approach that focuses on the importance of gender at the household level.

The archaeological data obtained from household excavations at Middle Formative La Blanca support the suggestion that regional polity formation required the intensification of subsistence, craft production, and exchange. I maintain that household production intensified specific tasks including hunting, farming, animal domestication, and pottery production, which required greater investments of time and energy expenditure that were shared by all members of the household regardless of gender and age. As workloads increased, the spatial organization of the house clusters and activity areas prompted more daily face-to-face social interactions between members of the society. First, the increased production and consumption of maize during the Middle Formative period required all household members to work longer and harder. Agricultural production would have required the reallocation of labor among all members of the household. Second, an increase in the manufacture of specialized fine-paste ceramic wares may have altered the social prestige that accrued not only to the elite members of the society but also to the crafters and their households. Third, differentiated household access to exotic and highly productive tools may have reinforced differences among households. Different households may have managed productive strategies and exchange networks in different ways, resulting in archaeologically visible differences in household wealth and power.

By examining the archaeological evidence from a gendered household perspective, we complement rather than replace the prevailing models that focus on the political and economic processes involved in polity formation. Archaeologists are in a unique position to observe the trajectory of social and political changes in prehistoric societies from a multiscalar approach (Hendon 2004). Focusing on the macroscale processes of social and political changes alone obscures the complexities of individual household strategies and variability. Conversely, applying a microscale approach without a political economic framework leaves us with a just-so story that fails to elucidate the recursive relationship of individual social actors and the broader social system. In effect, it is the intersection of the political economy and daily social practice of human agents that will enable us to better understand the impact of political and social processes that shaped and transformed the social milieu of Middle Formative La Blanca.

I am not the first to examine household gender relations during periods of emerging social and political complexity. Crown and Fish (1996) apply a gendered perspective to their research on the transition of Hohokam society during the Preclassic and Classic periods in the American Southwest. These researchers examined multiple lines of archaeological evidence relevant to developing social hierarchies and changes in women's production and social status. They conclude that women's workloads increased during the Classic period and their social status was equivalent to that of their male counterparts. The approach that I have presented in this chapter departs from their perspective in two ways. First and most notably, I am reluctant to equate gender with artifact classes. Using a cross-cultural perspective of the division of labor, Crown and Fish (1996:805) identify tasks performed exclusively by women and apply these gendered activities to the artifact assemblage. While this perspective offers an interpretation that acknowledges women's contribution to the evolving Hohokam political economy, it does not consider the complex negotiations and coordination that changes in production would require of all household members. By engendering household studies at La Blanca and avoiding attributing gender to specific artifacts, I have sought to accentuate the cooperative and competitive nature of households during the Early and Middle Formative transition. Second, I have chosen to focus my perspective on all household members regardless of sex because I recognize that social relations and roles are continuously shaped and reshaped by social actors through their daily practices (Hendon 2004). It is the daily practices of human agents and their social relations that give meaning to the world around them. The value of focusing on a gendered perspective without gender attribution of household activities is that it challenges unconscious assumptions about male and female roles in society and foregrounds the dynamism and variability of social relations and interactions within and among household members.


I wish to thank Elizabeth Brumfiel and Cynthia Robin for organizing the gender archaeology course at Northwestern University and for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this work. I also extend thanks and gratitude to Michael W. Love, whose pioneering research at La Blanca provided the data and inspiration for this chapter. Finally, many thanks to Robin Coleman Goldstein, Kristin De Lucia, Alex Miller, Chris Morehart, Dawn Pankonien, and Theresa Preston-Werner for lively weekly discussions from which this chapter grew. I bear sole responsibility for any errors and all interpretations in this chapter.