Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: February 2015

Chapter Two - Before Columbus: Women in Indigenous America and Africa


Aztec birth ritual: “Thou wilt be in the heart of the home, thou wilt go nowhere, thou wilt nowhere become a wanderer, thou becomest the banked fire, the hearth stones. Here our lord planteth thee, burieth thee. And thou wilt become fatigued, thou wilt become tired; thou art to provide water, to grind maize, to drudge; thou art of sweat by the ashes, by the hearth.”

Andean burial ritual: “The women have their spindles and skeins of spun cottons, the men their tacllas or hoes to work the fields, or the weapons they used in war.”

[Among the Bijago] the women build the houses and work in the fields, and they fish and gather shellfish, doing all that men do elsewhere.

The Iberian experience in the New World put the Spanish and Portuguese into immediate and intimate contact with peoples from two very different cultures: the indigenous inhabitants of America and Africans transported to the region as slaves. Although historians have examined the dynamics and results of the meeting of these three groups, few have considered the role of women in the Americas or Africa before these peoples were subjected to Iberian control.

Although Indians had inhabited America for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spaniards and Portuguese, we know very little about women in those earlier Indian societies. A multitude of Indian cultures had risen and fallen before 1492, ranging from hunting-and-gathering peoples to builders of sophisticated city-states. Because of the geographical proximity of some of these peoples, it was not unusual for one culture to borrow, adapt, or be subjected to the cultural and religious practices of a nearby people.

de Sahagún, Bernardino, General History of the Things of New Spain (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1950–1982), 6:33:172–173
de Arriaga, Pablo José, Extirpación de la idolatria del Piru (1621) (Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1968), 27–28
d’Alamada, Andre Alvarez, Brief Treatise on the Rivers of Guinea (c. 1594), trans. and ed. Hair, P. E. H. (Liverpool: University of Liverpool, 1984
Salomon, Frank and Urioste, George L., trans., The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), 78