Mayas Saving Maya Culture – The Archaeology Channel

The latest offering from the Archaeology Channel is now online, and in this 22 minute video produced by Timothy Knowlton, which in brief is described thus:

An association of Tz’utujil Maya people from Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, struggle to establish a cultural center and archaeological site museum at the nearby lakeside site of Chuitinamit, once home to the Pre-Hispanic Maya King Tepepul and now badly looted.  Including a tour of the museum, this film documents their accomplishments thus far and current endeavors in the face of artifact looting and natural catastrophe in the form of Hurricane Stan, which struck in 2005.

We get a pretty interesting tour of the museum in which traditional clothing and associated artefacts are shown and described, but it’s a much starker experience as we are shown around nearby sites that have been looted – this time the culprits don’t appear to be avaricious collectors with an eye for the illegal antiquities trade, rather local people who see items such as stelae, altars and sacrificial stones as ideal material for local construction projects. According to the film, such people contend that these ancient artefacts have no cultural relevance to them, and considering that many people struggle to earn anything approaching a decent wage, it’s hardly surprising they exploit free building materials when opportunity arises.

Those artefacts have now disappeared and can never be replaced, and whether there are plans to educate people in order that they understand and protect their own heritage is uncertain, although it could of course be argued that even those people who do come to realise the value of similar artefacts will still be poor over the coming years, and understandably will likely view heritage they can recover from local sites as an income stream – just as has been the case in recent years in places like Iraq, Cambodia and so on.

Obviously we hope that the efforts of those appearing in the video as our guides will fare better in the coming years, and be able to stem the flow of losses currently afflicting this site and many others in a similar predicament.

There are several outgoing links from the video page, and the image of Chuitinamit, also known as Chiyá, is from one of them, Authentic Maya.

This  seems a good opportunity to mention a news item that appeared last week from the University of California, Santa Barbara, which features archaeologist Anabel Ford, who is also a director of the university’s MesoAmerican Research Center. It is her contention that contrary to the idea that the Maya brought about their own downfall about 1,000 years ago by imprudent slash-and-burn treatment of their lands, they were in fact highly sophisticated in their land management. In a recent paper, Origins of the Maya Forest Garden: Maya Resource Management, Ford begs to differ with previously held views, as we see from the abstract:

There is growing interest in the ecology of the Maya Forest past, present, and future, as well as in the role of humans in the transformation of this ecosystem. In this paper, we bring together and re-evaluate paleoenvironmental, ethnobiological, and archaeological data to reconstruct the related effects of climatic shifts and human adaptations to and alterations of the lowland Maya Forest. In particular, we consider the paleoenvironmental data from the Maya Forest area in light of interpretations of the precipitation record from the Cariaco Basin.

During the Archaic period, a time of stable climatic conditions 8,000–4,000 years ago, we propose that the ancestral Maya established an intimate relationship with an expanding tropical forest, modifying the landscape to meet their subsistence needs. We propose that the succeeding period of climatic chaos during the Preclassic period, 4,000–1,750 years ago, provoked the adaptation to settled agrarian life. This new adaptation, we suggest, was based on a resource management strategy that grew out of earlier landscape modification practices.

Eventually, this resulted in a highly managed landscape that we call the Maya Forest Garden. This highly productive and sustainable system of resource management formed the foundation for the development of the Maya civilization, from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago, and was intensified during the latter millennia of a stable climatic regime as population grew and the civilization developed. These strategies of living in the forest evolved into the milpa cycle—the axis of the Maya Forest garden resource management system that created the extraordinary economic value recognized in the Maya Forest today.

Reference: Origins of the Maya Forest Garden: Maya Resource Management – Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, Journal of Ethnobiology 29(2):213-236. 2009 doi: 10.2993/0278-0771-29.2.213

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