Archaeological finds from Mexico and Peru show that, long before Europeans arrived, women served as warriors, governors and priestesses.
An exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery includes little pottery jugs and massive stone images portraying women in a variety of roles in addition to traditional homemakers and care givers.
"Women were not only daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers, but also healers, midwives, scribes, artists, poets, priestesses, warriors, governors and even goddesses in pre-Columbian society," said Judy L. Larson, director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in announcing the exhibit.
There's Xochiquetzal, a Mexican goddess of love and beauty, modeled in clay with an elaborate headdress and flowers in both hands.
She may not look seductive by western standards, but she's more endearing than a stone image, half life-size, of another Mexican goddess — Cihuateteo — with staring eyes and ferocious teeth. Cihuateteo lurked at crossroads by night and caused illness.
The Moche people of northern Peru, whose tombs are among the most recently excavated, had an ugly goddess of their own, a moon goddess with a face like a skull who presided over the capture and sacrifice of human prisoners.
From Peru also comes a ceramic pitcher in the form of a central figure with a scepter, surrounded by seven women, and another of a long-haired young woman holding a baby.
Organized by the wives of the presidents of the two Latin American countries, the exhibition was promoted in Washington by first lady Laura Bush, who wrote in a foreword to the catalog that the objects in the show would inform Americans and visitors about women in the ancient Americas.
Of almost 400 objects in the exhibit, some go back as far as 4,000 years, comparable in age with civilizations in Egypt or Iraq. When Spanish conquerors followed Columbus in the 1500s, those in Mexico met mostly Aztec people, and the conquerors of Peru met the Incas.
But there had been other peoples before them, who had been absorbed by the ruling groups of the time or had disappeared entirely. Descendants of some, like the Mayas of Mexico, can still be identified by languages and customs today.
The exhibit will be on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, its final stop and the only one in the United States, until May 22.