Independent of the intriguing comparisons between the Mayan and other civilizations, including the Russian, the primary goal of this essay has been to make the case that Mayan civilization is one of the oldest, most persistent, and complex civilizations in world history. An attempt has also been made to emphasize the importance of studying the continuities as well as the changes in civilizations through time. In the preceeding sketch of power, hierarchy, and culture in Mayan history, the concepts and methods employed derive from the emerging field of Historical Anthropology.
As with other regional civilizations, the importance of Mayan civilization in Mexico and Central America, and for Latin America in general, is enormous, and for that reason and others we should give more attention to the Mayas (and Mesoamericans) in comparative research on civilizations, whether the comparative scale be global, regional, or individual cases.
The Historical Anthropological Perspective
Historical Anthropology may be defined as the discipline by which cultural studies are carried out using historical methods; its main concepts, theories, objects of study, and humanitarian goals are those of anthropology in general. Methodologically, Historical Anthropologists tend to be eclectic; they draw data from documentary, archaeological, ethnographic, biological, and geographic among other sources. The term ‘Ethnohistory’ can be seen as a more specialized label that refers to the historiographic methods applied within Historical Anthropology (Carmack 1972). One of the main reasons for adopting Historical Anthropology as а working framework is to emphasize anthropology's current global perspective; anthropologists no longer focus only on native, non-Western peoples – as the term ‘ethnohistory’ still connotes to many – but on the wider field of interaction between both native and highly modernized peoples.
Conceptualizing Historical Anthropology in this broad manner also invites us to consider its close ties to other historical sciences, and thus to exploit their well-established theoretical traditions in the conduct of historical research. Perhaps the closest cognate field to Historical Anthropology is Historical Sociology, and one of the most useful discussions of that field is by Theda Skocpol (1984). She claims that а genre of Historical Sociology has been created that is ‘transdisciplinary’, and it includes Anthropology as well as History itself. Skocpol further argues that Historical Sociology has its roots in the classic writings of scholars like Marx, Durkheim, Weber (and, we might add, Spencer), scholars who sought a satisfactory integration of theory and empirical historical studies.
The key issues studied within the historical disciplines are related to the sociocultural transformations that gave rise to the modern world; it is our position that these same issues are relevant to studies of the pre-modern world. Some of the central issues concern the origin and development of economies and states, the creation and spread of ideologies and religions, the causes and consequences of revolutions, the relations between macrosocial networks and microsocial communities. The general theoretical models by which these issues can be studied, following the Weberian, Marxian, Durkheimian, and Spencerian traditions, would include for example ‘Social Action’ theory, ‘Historical Materialism’, ‘Interpretivism’, ‘Evolutionism’. The theoretical position adopted in this study is most closely associated with Weber's Social Action perspective.
Preference is given to Max Weber (Roth and Wittich 1968; Giddens 1971) because he insisted that we construct histories by placing economic and political relations within their cultural contexts, and vice versa.
Such sociocultural relationships must be studied not only from the inside (endogeny) but also from the outsided (exogeny); that is to say, we must take into account internal influences that come from within the constituent social units as well as external relations (intersocietal) between these units. Weber further insisted that comparative studies provide the best way to obtain an understanding of particular societies and their intersocietal relations. Finally, this theoretical perspective includes the mandate that historical studies are carried out at local, regional, national, and international levels.
For the purposes of this essay, two master concepts that follow from the Weberian genre of Historical Anthropology are highlighted: ‘World Systems’, and ‘Civilizations’. World systems provide crucial social contexts within which large cultural traditions, civilizations, are created and transformed. According to David Wilkinson (1995), these two concepts refer to the same sociocultural ‘entity’, and thus together they make it possible to take into account both the social (world systems) and the cultural (civilizations) dimensions in the widest scope of historical studies. Embedded in the Weberian approach as well are two historical tendencies or strategies that are useful: ‘primordialism’, and ‘instrumentalism’ (A. Smith 1986). The primordial strategy is designed to understand the historical antecedents by which cultural forms such as ethnicity, nationalism, and civilization are constructed. The Instrumental approach requires that we study the contemporary social contexts to which cultural traditions are continually responding and in the process changing.
From a Social Action perspective both tendencies are useful and, despite the popularity of instrumentalism (or ‘constructionism’) in the social sciences today, in this essay preference will be given to primordialism.
The rationale for this is that without an understanding of historical antecedents we can never determine the extent to which instrumental constructions have actually taken place. As the great historian of Russia, Nicholas Riasanovsky (1993: 11), put it: ‘Con-tinuity is the very stuff of history... [and] continuity is indispensable for group culture’.
In summary, our approach to Mayan Civilization requires that we study it historically, in its aboriginal, imperial, and modern phases; examine it in terms of both its social institutions and cultural patterns; take account of the internal and external relationships of its constituent societies; compare it with other civilizations in order to comprehend both its particular and general features; and determine both its continuities and changes. The complex nature of this approach means, of course, that the following account must be limited and more illustrative than comprehensive.
А Historical Summery of the Mayan Civilization
Based on the author's our own research and reading of the relevant literature, it is posited that the civilized traditions shared by the Mayan-speaking peoples have existed in the Mesoamerican region (roughly, Mexico and Central Americal) since at least the late Preclassic Period (ca. 200 B.C.), and that these traditions and languages have been reconstituted in diverse forms down to the present. Alongside sociocultural continuities, of course, there have been major transformations of the Mayan traditions, in part the result of such changing social contexts as the collapse of the Classic Mayan states (ca. A.D. 900), the subsequent formation of more militant Mayan states (ca. A.D. 1200–1500), the reorganization of colonial Mayan societies under imperial Spanish rule (ca. A.D. 1500–1800), the genocidal assault on the Mayas during the recently ended revolutionary period (1970s and '80s), and the recent emergence of large-scale Mayan ethnic movements (1990s to present). (See Map 1; adapted from Henderson 1981).
Map. 1. Aboriginal Mayan States and Sites
As with all civilizations, it is important to recognize that the Mayan cultural tradition has always been highly pluralistic, constituted by numerous sociocultural variants created largely in the context of social conflicts between states, towns and countries, classes, regions, and local communities. Perhaps the argument that an integrated Mayan civilization has persisted over this long time period is the most controversial claim in this summary, but it is presented as a proposition that is consistent with the above-stated theoretical position on primordial tendencies. This, however, is not an ‘essentialist’ argument, for it will be assumed that continuities as well as changes must always be seen to result from struggle and sociocultural reconstitution through the agency of the Mayas themselves. There is no attempt here to advocate some form of romantic or mystical process of cultural survival.
The Aboriginal Phase of Mayan History
The ‘Golden Age’ or Classic period in the history of Mayan civilization took place in the central lowland areas of southern Mexico and northern Central America, and is usually dated to ca. A.D. 300–900. During this period, the Mayas, numbering in the millions, created a multitude of kingdoms and small empires, built monumental palaces and temples, engaged in grandiose ceremonies, and developed an elaborate hieroglyphic writing system (Henderson 1981; Sharer 1994). The social basis of this exuberant civilization was a large political and economic intersocietal network (world system) extending throughout the Mayan region and beyond to the wider Mesoamerican world that included most of present-day Mexico and Central America.
The political, economic, and culturally dominant ‘core’ Mayan units of the Classic Mayan world system were located in the central lowlands, while its corresponding dependent or ‘peripheral’ Mayan units were found along the margins of the southern highland and northern lowland areas. But as in all world systems, the Mayan core centers shifted through time, starting out during Preclassic times in the southern highlands, moving to the central lowlands during the Classic period, and finally shifting to the northern peninsula during the Postclassic period. In this Mayan world system the semi-peripheral (mediational) units generally took the form of trade and commercial centers (Sharer 1994: 67; Carmack et al. 1995: ch. 3).
The structure of the aboriginal Mayan states is an issue of considerable debate within Mayan studies. Archaeologists and epigraphers such as Schele and Freidel (1990) point to the centralizing political role of divine ‘kings’, and to legitimacy derived from dynastic lines traced back to lineage ancestors and the gods themselves. The Mayan kings – who were like highly institutionalized ‘shamans’ – mediated between the village commoners and the state through ritual contact with the patron gods of earth and sky. They engaged in blood sacrifice and vision quests as part of an elaborate ritual repertoire. Relations between rulers and rural peoples are said to have been reciprocal and close.
It is generally agreed (Chase 1992) that the aboriginal Mayan polities through time became larger, more hierarchical and militaristic, and increasingly integrated by ‘middle’-sector artisans, officials, warriors, and priests. Nevertheless, some scholars conceptualize the ancient Mayan polities as consisting of small ‘segmentary states’, in which competing elite lineages formed the basic building blocks of a highly decentralized political system (Fox et al. 1996). From this perspective Mayan states are said to have exhibited ‘neither strong central authority nor a bureaucracy and ... [were] largely incapable of maintaining control over distant territory’ (cf. Chase 1992: 308). A compromise position taken by the archaeologist and epigrapher Joyce Marcus (1993) posits that aboriginal Mayan polities alternated through time between centralized kingdoms and decentralized segmentary provinces.
Mayan Cultural Themes
Most scholars define civilizations in cultural terms (Lipson 1993; Huntington 1996; Wolf 1982), and therefore some account – however cursory – must be given to the basic cultural themes and values of aboriginal Mayan civilization. The Mesoamerican scholar David Carrasco (1990), for example, identifies a general cosmology, of great symbolic importance to the Mayas that had as its central element the cosmic tree.
With roots in the underworld, trunk on the earth, and branches in the upperworld, this tree served as the axis mundi between the sacred and profane, living and dead, light and darkness. The tree was closely associated with vegetative regeneration and the solar cycle; thus, as seeds regenerate plants, so the sun is sown under the earth only to dawn again, just as the dead are buried in the earth and then regenerate as sparks of light. Mayan kings and other rulers became symbols of this sacred axis mundi, ‘living cosmograms designed to inspire awe, respect and obedience’.
The historical anthropologist Munro Edmonson (1993) elaborates further on basic Mayan cultural themes, identifying five additional existential ideas reproduced by the Mayas through the ages: namely, that (1) time is sacred, as are the numerical associations with cycles of time; (2) deities have multiple identities, such as male/female, old/young, human/animal; (3) public life is highly ritualized and requires ‘а thoroughgoing repression of all hedonistic impulses through the inculcation of a powerful sense of duty, guilt, and shame’ (p. 71); (4) language is а highly esoteric medium that is expressed through extensive use of poetic parallelism; (5) religion is strongly mystical, and therefore can only be modified by means of ‘authentic prophecy’.
The Contested History of the K'iche-Mayan State
It will be useful to illustrate the historical characteristics of aboriginal Mayan civilization and controversies surrounding their interpretation, by briefly describing the development of the K'iche-Mayan state in the highlands of Guatemala during the last phase (Postclassic period) of aboriginal Mayan history. The University at Albany department of anthropology has carried out extensive historical anthropological research on this polity, and our interpretations of its history have provided the basis for considerable discussion on aboriginal Mayan civilization in general.
How, when, and where the K'iches rose to power, and the internal and external forces that shaped that rise have elicited numerous and often contradictory explanations and interpretations. Most of the information available on K'iche historical developments derives from written accounts found in such Mayan chronicles as the Popol Wuj and Title of Totonicapan, as well as from archaeological remains located across the K'iche plains of Guatemala and from ethnographic studies in surviving K'iche communities.
In our own initial attempt to summarize K'iche history (Carmack 1968, 1979), we attempted to reconstruct K'iche cultural developments during the late Postclassic period of aboriginal Mayan history (A.D. 1200–1524) and place K'iche social developments in the context of the wider Mayan and Mesoamerican cultural networks. We argued for important cultural diffusion from hybrid ‘Mexican-Mayan’ societies of the Gulf Coast of Mexico into the central highlands of present-day Guatemala. According to the chronicles, this diffusion largely took the form of migrations of relatively small numbers of Mayan-speaking warlords into the highlands, who later adopted the K'iche language of the local peoples residing there. The immigrants brought epi-Toltec (central Mexican) ideas and symbols with them, such as those associated with the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl) cult, jaguar and eagle warrior orders, ‘heart’ and ‘tree’ human sacrificial rites, and fortified town (tinamit) settlement patterns. Also brought by the invaders were certain lowland Mayan cultural ideas associated with the female deity Ix Chel and the political arrangement of quadripartite rule (joint rule by four lords). Later, as a result of the University at Albany research team's fieldwork (and with the invaluable aid of local K'iche guides), we discovered archaeological sites mentioned by the ancient K'iche scribes.
We identified the initial settlements of the invading Mayan warlords in а small valley north of the K'iche plains, in particular the first capital of the emerging K'iche state referred to in the chronicles as Jaqawits.
Nearby we also located other settlements mentioned in connection with the early phase of the K'iche rise to power, and on the plains below we identified many sites occupied by the native K'iche peoples who were encountered by the invading warlords. Especially important was the identification of the twin towns of Pismachi and Pilocab (Chisalin), located just across the ravines from the well known final K'iche capital of Q'umarkaaj (Utatlán). Together these three sites formed an urban complex that physically symbolized the centralization of the K'iche state.
By combining the archaeological information from these archaeological sites with references in the Mayan chronicles, supplemented by historical traditions still held by present-day K'iche peasants, it was possible to reconstruct the historical sequence by which the K'iche state rose from a rather humble ‘chiefly’ polity to a full-blown Mayan conquest state that went on to imperialize most of the highland peoples of Guatemala. In our reconstruction of this historical process, we paid considerable attention to internal contextual factors that influenced the development of the K'iche state, including such endogenous processes as local ecological adaptations, centralization of authority, urbanization, social differentiation and stratification, transformation of kin to territorial organization, imperialistic struggles over political power, and ‘ethnogenesis’ by means of a highly ‘rationalized’ version of the Mayan cosmology (Carmack 1981: ch. 12).
Our interpretation of the origin and development of the K'iche state has been challenged on many points by scholars working from different theoretical perspectives than ours. For example, the archaeologist Ken Brown (1985) employs an evolutionary model to argue for an endogenous development of the K'iche state, rejecting the claim in the Mayan chonicles that exogenous migrations played a primary role in the process. The interpretive anthropologist Dennis Tedlock (1985; 1993) postulates cultural connections between the Postclassic K'iche and the Classic lowland Mayan peoples, employing deconstruction of the accounts in the chronicles to assert that they largely consist of political rhetoric rather than history per se. And the Marxian scholar Susanne Jonas (1974) posits that the K'iche state was a ‘proto-class’ polity founded on the infrastructure of а Mayan ‘tributary mode of production’; thus, it developed social formations that shared important features with the feudal polities of medieval Europe.
Partly in response to criticism from scholars such as these –particularly critiques of our acceptance of an important role played by external factors in the rise of the K'iche state, including the proposed invasions by external Mayan peoples – we have recently applied the World Systems model to K'iche history (Carmack et al. 1996; Carmack 1996). According to Susan Kepecs and colleagues (1994), the World Systems model offers important new insights into the long-term debate over the rise and nature of the Chichén Itzá state. Whereas previous scholars had pointed to Toltec invasion from the outside, commercial influence from Gulf Coast merchants, and endogenous sociopolitical developments, Kepecs et al. (1994) argue that Chichén Itzá is best understood as a core Mayan state in the newly transformed early Postclassic Mesoamerican world system. Other contemporary core centers of that world system included Tula and Xochicalco in Central Mexico, El Tajín in the central Gulf Coast area, and El Baúl located on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. When the world system of which Chichén Itzá was a core state broke apart rather suddently around A.D. 1200, the Chichen Itza state went into decline.
Our colleague at the University at Albany, Michael Smith (1997), brings the application of the World Systems model to Mesoamerica up to the final aboriginal phase with his account of the emergence of the Aztec empire in the late Postclassic period and the reemergence of the Mesoamerica-wide world system between A.D. 1350–1450. Various regional state networks were linked together through political competition, trade and shared art style; but the most powerful core region of this final Mesoamerican world system was Central Mexico, dominated by the Aztec ‘empire’. The K'iche-Mayan state, along with similar states in Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Yucatan, also became core powers in this final aboriginal Mesoamerica world system.
Our application of the World Systems perspective to K'iche history is consistent with recent reconstructions of the wider Mesoamerican world order. References in the Mayan chronicles to the Gulf Coast Mexicanized-Mayan peoples indicate that they functioned as key semi-peripheral units, mediating between Aztec and other core peoples in Central Mexico on the one hand, and Mayan peoples on the other. The indigenous K'iche-Mayan peoples of highland Guatemala mentioned in the chronicles had been peripheral to this latter-day world order, and their rapid rise to power under the leadership of the invading warlords corresponds closely with the emergence of the Aztec state and the reformation of the Mesoamerica-wide world system during the late Postclassic period as described by Smith. Through the mediating agency of small migrating militant groups from the most important semi-peripheral region at that time, the Gulf Coast, the K'iches were able to move from peripheral to core position within both the Mayan regional sphere of interaction and the wider Mesoamerican world system.
The World Systems interpretation of K'iche history constitutes а credible social context for the appearance of both lowland Mayan and Mexican cultural patterns in the K'iche rise to power. Of course, other interpretations of the K'iche-Mayan ascendancy are possible and may have considerable merit. We insist, however, that the World Systems model provides a realistic and expansive perspective on these historical developments. It also supports our contention that the Mayan chronicles contain useful historical information in the so-called Western sense of history. Given the long-term use of writing and calendrical systems by ancient Mayas, and their consuming interest in political power, it can plausibly be argued that a high level of historical consciousness on the part of the K'iche-Mayas should be assumed in any interpretation of their documents.
The Imperial Phase of Mayan History
Beginning in the 16th century, the Mayan peoples became subject to colonial domination by the Spanish conquistadors. Most historians interpret this imperial period as one of total destruction of the Mayan civilization; but a Historical Anthropology that takes into account primorial tendencies can point to evidence that in fact Mayan peoples under imperial rule were able to reconstitute much of their traditional civilization. It must be added, however, that this phase of Mayan history is still not well understood, and accordingly the account to follow can be painted only in broad strokes. It will also be necessary to rely heavily on the author's own historical research of colonial Mayan communities in the highlands of Guatemala.
The initial encounter between the Spanish empire and the Mayan intersocietal network revealed the weakness of the latter relative to the former: the Mayas were unable to present a united front against the European invaders. Communication between the highland and lowland Mayan regions was interrupted, and as a result the Mayan world began to break apart in piecemeal fashion. The highland Mayas were already under Spanish rule by 1530; in the northern lowlands the ‘conquest’ phase lasted into the 1540s, while in the central lowlands the Itza-Mayan polity held out for more than a century after that. By 1700, with the exception of a few tribal societies in the jungle lowlands, all the Mayan peoples had been subjected to Spanish imperial authority within the jurisdiction of either New Spain or Guatemala. From the beginning, the Mayas began adapting to this new imperial reality. As the ethnohistorian Nancy Farriss (1984: 20) points out, numerous prior invasions of the Mayan area by central Mexican peoples prepared the Mayas ‘psychologically and cognitively’ for the encounter with the Spanish imperialists.
The state-level of the Mayan political organizations did not long survive the Spanish colonization process, largely because the economic and political intersocietal relations between the Mayan states were quickly severed by the European invaders. The Mayas attempted to maintain regional hierarchies, and in Guatemala for a few years the K'iche ‘king’ was given an office adjacent to the Spanish governor in the colonial Royal Palace and was allowed to retain some authority over peoples formerly subject to the aboriginal state. In both the highlands and lowlands, however, the Mayan states were soon reduced to ‘provincial’ or even local community levels.
Members of the Mayan ruling class, generally referred to by the Spaniards as ‘caciques’ (or ‘principales’), were allowed to serve as native governors and mayors, but always subject to the controlling authority of higher district and regional Spanish officials. Within the Spanish adminstrative hierarchy, the former Mayan provinces often survived as districts, or more commonly as ‘pueblos’, towns and their rural hamlets. In all matters related to the empire the Mayas were subject to higher Spanish authorities.
Colonial Mayan Communities
According to the geographer George Lovell (1988: 32), the ‘Indian’ communities organized by the Spaniards in the highlands were able to reconstitute Mayan culture by melding hispanic cultural elements with the traditional Mayan institutions that they had tenaciously held onto. Since these newly constituted community cultures were synthesized in the context of colonial rule, they were now embued with a strong element of ‘suspicion, lack of confidence, hate, and fear’. In the author's comparative study of highland Mayan communities under Spanish rule in the Guatemalan colony (Carmack 1986), it was found that the Mayas were able to achieve considerable community autonomy, and to reconstitute diverse local versions of Mayan civilization. The rural Mayas continued to be organized along lineage lines, priestly ritual geared to the aboriginal calendar systems continued in full force, and stratification between town elite and rural peasant remained, albeit in less hierarchical form. Even many of the aboriginal social divisions continued under the guise of competing ‘parcialidades’ (wards, districts) within the Mayan communities.
Similar processes were at work in the northern lowlands. Matthew Restall (1997) asserts that despite the centuries of imperial rule a Mayan cultural world persisted within colonial Yucatan. From colonial documents we learn that the Mayas remained ‘sophisticated, largely self-governing, and in many ways culturally independent’ (p. 315). Restall claims that the key to this cultural reconstruction was the preservation of the aboriginal polity known as the caj, constituted by a town and its surrounding rural territories. With the Mayan Caj serving as the basis for Indian pueblos organized by the Spaniards, some l00–200 of them provided the main source of identity for the Mayas in Yucatan. As in the highlands, the primary internal social units of the Mayan communities consisted of lineages and households, which is to say kinship groups. Local political stratification remained in the form of elite Mayan governors (batabob) and town officials (alcaldes, regidores, etc.), who mediated between the vast Mayan peasantry on the one hand and the Spanish officials and landlords on the other.
Nancy Farriss, who rejects all essentialist arguments about Mayan cultural continuities in colonial Yucatan, nevertheless points out that the Spaniards were unable to destroy Mayan culture because of the Mayas' ability to aggressively adapt it to the colonial situation. Mayan social agents, especially from the elite class, created new cultural traditions and in the process preserved Mayan identity (even Mayanizing a significant percentage of the Spanish creole and mestizo populations). An analysis of colonial Mayan documents by the linguist William Hanks (1986) reveals that the Mayas were also able to create ‘a new discourse, within which Maya and Spanish systems of representation were encompassed’ (p. 739). And John Chuchiak (2000) presents evidence that the Mayan priests of Yucatan continued to produce and use hieroglyphic codices all the way down to the 18th century.
The reduction of the Mayas into relatively closed communities, and the loss of their autonomous intersocietal networks, resulted in their becoming participants in a new and much larger world system. The Guatemala and New Spain colonies functioned as marginal provinces of imperial Spain, which itself had fallen into a peripheral position relative to the emerging Modern World System. The Mayas became part of the ‘periphery of the periphery’. Under these conditions, the reconstitution of a unified Mayan civilization was not possible, despite the preservation of many Mayan cultural patterns within the hundreds of Mayan communities that made up the colonial world of New Spain and the Kingdom of Guatemala.
Colonial Mayan Rebellions
The main hope of reconstituting the regional Mayan civilization as an independent and integrated cultural tradition would have to be through rebellious liberation movements, the formation of powerful neo-Mayan states, and the development of extended political and economic relationships between any such reconstituted polities. Historians are generally in agreement that the Mayas failed to achieve either their own neo-Mayan states or civilization during the Spanish imperial period. This conclusion, however, may be biased by the tendency of historians to view colonial rebellions as fundamentally attempts by the Mayas to adapt to Spanish culture and Christian religion. It could argued that it may be more accurate to interpret these rebellions as attempts to reconstitute Mayan identity and civilization by adapting Spanish culture and religion to the native traditions.
Civilizations always have diverse and even contradictory cultural models embedded within them, and this should apply to the Mayan civilization as much as to the Spanish Western civilization. А ‘primordial’-oriented analysis of the role of Mayan rebellions during the Spanish colonial period and the 19th century (Carmack et al. 1996) suggests that Mayan rebels were more successful in creating neo-Mayan political organizations and regional cultures than heretofore imagined (especially in the cases of the 19th-century Cruzob rebellion in Yucatan and the Carrera rebellion in Guatemala). We should consider the possibility that colonial and later Mayan rebellions, despite minimal coordination between them, played a role similar to that played by other types of intersocietal networks in history and, therefore, at least the idea of a Mayan civilization remained alive during the so-called imperial period of Mayan history.
The Issue of Latin American Civilization
Before leaving the imperial phase of Mayan history, some reference needs to be made to the ‘Hispanic’ or Latin American civilization that was in the process of being created in the Mayan region and elsewhere in the Americas. According to scholars such as Claudio Véliz (1980) and Richard Morse (1974), the Spaniards imposed their own version of Western civilization on native peoples such as the Mayas, and later creole nationalists were able to synthesize the Spanish cultural tradition into а Latin American civilization that has culturally dominated the region ever since. Véliz claims that Spanish culture has predominated in this new civilization, with relatively little contribution coming from native peoples. Thus, peoples like the Mayas, it is said, failed to contribute any essential component to the Latin American cultures, whether judicial, political, or religious. The particular Spanish legacy to the Latin American civilization is indeed extensive, and consists of such sociocultural patterns as political centralization, Catholic religion, city life, and mercantile economics.
It can be argued that the Hispanic or Latin American thesis is deficient in several ways, even though it has become a powerful resource for political and cultural discourse in recent times. With respect to the history of Mayan civilization, the thesis badly underestimates the capacity for survival of native civilizations such as the Mayan during the colonial period and thereafter. Even if the proposed Hispanic civilization is conceptualized as having embedded within it a variety of cultures, the concept as it is presented fails to accomodate adequately native cultures such as the Mayan. The anthropologist Charles Wagley (1968) has argued that the native cultures in fact exercized considerable influence on the emerging Latin American civilization, and that in countries like Mexico and Guatemala the unique cultural variants found there might appropriately be referred to as ‘Indo-American’. Even Wagley, however, insists that all the Latin American ‘subcultural’ variants, including the Indo-American ones, have been profoundly ‘hispanicized’, and that the same basic patterns characterize civilization throughout the entire Latin American region.
The Modern Phase of Mayan History
Let us now turn to the modern phase of Mayan history, and to the factors that have influenced the Mayas' attempt to modernize their surviving cultural traditions. The 20th century has brought powerful forces for change to the Mayas in the form of modern capitalism (the henequen plantations in Yucatan, and coffee plantations in Guatemala and Chiapas), modern education and religion (Liberation Theology in Guatemala and Chiapas), militarization of the state, revolutionary movements, urbanization and associated migrations to the cities, democratization. As we shall see, the Mayas' response to these forces has been extremely dynamic.
The Mayas today reside in hundreds of local communities (‘municipios’, townships) in the Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, and in the Central American states of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras (see Map 2).
Map. 2. Modern Mayan Communities
In a remarkable record of physical survival, the Mayan population has more than doubled in size since the final phase of aboriginal history.
According to scholarly estimates (Gerhard 1993: 25; Lovell and Lutz 1994) there were approximately four million Mayas at the time of the Spanish arrival, while today peoples identifying themselves as Mayas number over eight million. Furthermore, the 31 Mayan languages spoken at the time of the Spanish invasion continue to be used today in the region. Most Mayas live in the same rural communities that were established under imperial Spanish rule, although increasingly they have also taken up residence in cities such as Mérida, San Cristobal de Las Casas, Quetzaltenango, and Guatemala, as well as in the numerous export plantations. According to а recent survey of the Guatemalan Mayas (Adams and Bastos 2001), various other types of Mayan communities have been recently established, including communities made up of repatriated refugees, military internees, urban migrants, agrarian reform recipients, and political and economic refugees residing in Mexico and the US.
Not only have the Mayas preserved demographically and linguistically, but also culturally. The anthropologist John Watanabe (2000) has reviewed ethnographic studies of the Guatemalan Mayas and, despite his ‘constructionist’ tendencies, concludes that the Mayas have been able to create ‘self vindicating ideologies of ethnic continuity, autonomy, and resistance’. World views within the Mayan communities retain many traditional cultural ideas and symbols about space, time, fate, ancestors, and earth deities. The Mayanist ethnographer Edward Fischer (2001) argues that in many Mayan communities the ‘Maya culture is dynamically constructed... [but a]t the same time, innovation is constrained by aspects of an internalized cultural logic’. One articular element of this cultural logic is the concept of ‘heart’ (k'ux), which for the Mayas symbolizes the essence of humans (and other phenomena as well) and provides ‘the point of contact between individuals and the cosmic force animating the universe’. Even the traditional Mayan calendars continue to be used in many contemporary Mayan communities, defining time as sacred and associating it with divinatory fates (see especially B. Tedlock 1982).
There is, then, indisputable evidence that the values, ideas, and symbols of traditional Mayan civilization have survived into the modern era, although in scattered and syncretized forms. Significantly, two recent 20th century developments have initiated processes of elevating the surviving Mayan cultural elements to higher levels of regional and transcendental cultural synthesis: namely, revolutionary war, and ethnic nationalism.
The Impact of Revolution on Mayan Civilization
The Mexican revolution in Yucatan and Chiapas (1910–1940s) did little to spur on the revitalization of Mayan civilization there. In both these Mexican states the strategy of the revolutionaries was to transform the Mayan ‘indios’ from rural peasants to Mexican citizens, and in the process extinguish Mayan languages, dress, and customs. The Mexican revolutionaries viewed the Mayan Indians as socially inferior because of their prior colonial enslavement. Enrique Montalvo Ortega (1988) observes that, unlike the massive Mayan rebellion of 19th century Yucatan (the so-called ‘Caste War’), the goals of the Mexican revolution did not include that of helping the Mayas to achieve political or cultural autonomy; rather, the primary goal was to proletarianize them and thus provide workers for the henequen and sugar plantations that fueled the economic engine of revolutionary Mexico in the Yucatan area.
Guatemala's revolution (1962–1996) was very different than Mexico's in terms of its impact on the Mayan peoples. The Mayas of Guatemala, mostly peasants concentrated in the central and western highlands, were slow to participate in the revolutionary movement, but in the 1970s when the military government launched genocidal attacks against them, they finally began to join in large numbers (Carmack 1985). The two most important guerrilla organizations (EGP, ORPA) were ensconced squarely in Mayan zones, and the bulk of the guerrilla soldiers (a few thousand) were Mayas. Furthermore, most civilian support of a logistical nature came from the Mayas (at one point as many as 250,000 Mayas gave aid to the guerrilla forces), most people killed in the war were Mayan Indians (estimated at over 100,000), and almost all the refugees, both internal (ca. 1 million at its peak) and external (ca. 300,000, mostly in Mexico and the U.S.) were Mayas as well.
The Mayan presence obviously was a dominant factor in Guatemala's revolution. The guerrilla leaders themselves, most of whom were mestizos from the urban middle class, recognized this fact. One of their spokesmen (García Pérez) stated that the Guatemalan revolution was ‘unique’ because the highly developed prehispanic native cultures, in contrast with the weakly developed Spanish capitalist culture, made possible the perpetuation of many ‘autocthonous social organizations and cultural patterns’.
Therefore, he asserted, ‘orthodox Marxist’ ideas about revolution and class did not apply in Guatemala, where ‘the contribution of “ethnic-nationalism” constitutes one of the essential factors for any possible revolutionary change’. George Black (Black and Stoltz Chinchilla 1984) in his influential analysis of the Guatemala revolution argues that the Mayas were the ‘principal force behind the revolution, with their “double suffering” of national and class oppression’.
Even though Mayan participation in the revolutionary struggle was extensive, it varied greatly depending on class position, community affiliation, education, and attitude about traditional Mayan culture.
Rural proletarian and urban Mayas were the most susceptible to the revolutionary ideology, while peasants tied to traditional Mayan culture were the least susceptible (Smith 1984; Carmack 1985). The Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1992, Rigoberta Menchú, came to symbolize the crucial participation of Mayan rural proletariats in the revolutionary war (the author of this essay provided the Nobel Peace Committee with a scholarly report on the role played by Riboberta Menchú in the Gutemalan revolutionary process). The factual accuracy of Rigoberta's own account of the war has been challenged by the anthropologist David Stoll (1998), but her claim that the Mayas, especially the proletarianized rural Mayas, played a critical role in the Guatemalan revolution cannot be disputed.
The main point to be made here is that the Guatemalan revolution had a profound impact on the capacity of the Mayas as a people to strengthen and reconstitute their historic civilization. This is because the war in a multitude of ways forced the different Mayan groups and sectors to participate in its terrible events, and as a result pushed them to establish greater transcendental cultural unity. The following examples illustrate how the process worked:
(a) The Guatemalan army's counterinsurgency program forced all Mayas, just by being Mayas, to experience the fear of physical extinction or suffering, and thus to share the perception of unified victimhood;
(b) thousands of Mayas were forced to flee their homes into refuge outside their traditional communities, and in the mountains of Guatemala and in other countries such as Mexico, or Nicaragua they intermingled and eventually negotiated more comprehensive sociocultural forms of unity, as Mayas;
(c) the Mayas were exposed to revolutionary propaganda that glorified their cultural legacy and offered the vision of a more just nation in which they would be recognized as legitimate ‘peoples’ with the corresponding rights and privileges.
It would seem, then, that the Mayas' revolutionary experience, as terrible as it was, forced them to recognize their inter-connectedness, and in the process to adopt more universal and transcendental cultural ideas. This unifying process has been so powerful that it may be virtually impossible to reverse in the future. It has also become a primary factor in the emergence of ethnic, national, and pan-Mayan movements, the topic to which we now turn.
Ethnic, National, and Pan-Mayan Movements
The so-called Liberals who ruled in both Mexico and Guatemala at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries provided little opportunity for Mayan cultural revindication. According to the anthropologist Carol Smith (1990), in Guatemala after 1870 a ‘strong state’ was established that transformed the Mayas into a class of forced laborers on newly established coffee plantations. Accordingly, rather than drawing on Mayan culture as a source for Guatemalan nationalism, the Liberals denigrated and attempted to destroy it. Steven Palmer (1990, 1997) explains the Liberals' rejection of Mayan culture as a source of national culture on the grounds that it worked against their modernization goals.
To meet these goals, the Ladino rulers determined that the Mayas had to be ‘civilized’ by assimilating them into their own creole-mestizo culture.
Despite the continuing policy in Guatemala of assimilation of the Mayan cultures, the author of this essay predicted more than twenty years ago (Carmack 1979) that some day Mayan ethnic and national movements would project the Mayas into positions of power within their respective nation states. Specifically, it was noted that ‘the great civilizations of the ancient world have had a notably strong influence on the structuring of the modern world, and it would appear that the ... [Mayan] culture is destined to have that kind of influence also’. Largely as a result of the dominant role played by the Mayas in the above-mentioned revolutionary wars, the day when the Mayas will exercize power on the national level is now arriving. Led by educated Mayas with strong ties to the middle class, powerful Mayan ethnic and national movements are currently shaking the foundations of the Mexican and Guatemalan states.
Armed with the vision and knowledge necessary to understand Mayan civilization in its historical and national parameters, Mayan leaders are creating versions of that civilization specifically designed to unify the diverse Mayan groups while also providing answers to the problems they face as subordinate ethnic peoples within modern nation states. In the case of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, made up mostly of militant Mayas, the anthropologist Gary Gossen (1994, 1999) points out that in the struggle with the Mexican government its leaders draw on traditional Mayan ideas, such as belief in the determining power of the ‘co-essence’ or companion soul. Some of their political actions are even ‘scripted and timed to coincide with the period of annual Maya rituals of solar renewal’.
With respect to the Mayan movements in Guatemala, the leading student of these movements, Kay Warren (1992, 1998), claims that Mayan leaders have considerable ‘cultural capital’ through their knowledge of Mayan languages and cosmologies, as well as access to modern technology and media. Drawing on this capital, they are creating an ‘internationalized and hybridized [version of] Maya culture’. Edward Fischer (1996) confirms this observation, noting that ‘Maya cultural activism is centrally concerned with assigning new meanings to traditional symbols in an attempt to construct a unified, internally defined pan-Maya identity’. While there is danger that the project for revindication of Mayan civilization might end up benefiting primarily the elite Mayas leading the movement, Fischer suggests instead that a cultural convergence is taking place between the urban educated and the rural peasant Mayas based on shared ‘paradigmatic structures’.
Mayan ethnic and national movements in Mexico and Guatemala are more cultural than political, ‘of signs and symbols’, and yet they also project important political agendas. Thus, the Zapatistas call for political and economic changes, not only in Chiapas but throughout Mexico (Collier 1994). They act against the loss of lands that had been guaranteed to them by earlier revolutionary governments, the destruction of local commerce resulting from the penetration of global capital (NAFTA), and the widespread corruption of local and state authorities. The Zapatistas argue for the lack of current political accountability to the people, which they insist exists within their own Mayan community assemblies.
The political designs of the Guatemaln Mayan movement are perhaps even more radical than those of the Zapatistas, although they do not employ the latter's threat of military action. Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil (1994, 1996), the leading Mayan intellectual of the Guatemalan movement, has proposed an ambitious program to create an autonomous Mayan nation within the Guatemala state, not through violence and force but by means of constitutional change and political dialogue with the government. Cojtí's plan would not eliminate the ethnically ‘ladino’ nation of Guatemala, but end its dominance over the Mayas by giving the Mayas an autonomous nation of their own. Both nations would be free to promote their respective languages, cultural traditions and values, and to negotiate the kinds of political relationships needed to bind them together in a restructured state. In negotiating the constitution of the state, the Mayas would insist on equal representation in parliamentary and governmental agencies, as well as the guaranteed human rights granted to native ‘peoples’ by the UN and other international charters. Negotiations between the Mayas and the Guatemalan government with respect to these and other proposals are currently on-going.
The noted Mayan scholar and literarian, Victor Monejo (1997), warns that whatever the arrangement worked out between the Mayas and their respective state governments, the Mayan movement cannot be successful unless it unifies all the diverse Mayan groups within the larger Mayan region (Guatemala, Chiapas, Yucatan, Belize, Honduras). We would add that for any Mayan culture to qualify as a full-fledged modern ‘civilization’, and not merely as ethnic or national cultures, it will have to be reconstituted within the context of expanded, intersocietal networks that tie all of the Mayan groups together. At the present time such networks do not exist, but their construction may very well be the next step in the Mayas' three-millennia struggle for cultural and political independence.
Comparing the Mayan with Other Civilizations
There have been relatively few attempts to compare the Mayan civilization with other world civilizations, partly because the broader Mesoamerican civilization, rather than the Mayan civilization, is usually taken as the preferred unit of comparison. Even comparisons between Mayan and other cultural traditions within Mesoamerica (e.g., Central Mexican, Zapotecan, Tarascan) are somewhat rare, and they invariably refer only to the aboriginal periods. In this final section, an attempt is made to summarize briefly a sample of studies, including our own unpublished studies, that compare the Mayan with other civilizations. Let us start with the aboriginal civilizations of the Americas, move on to cross-cultural comparisons of more global scope, and end with one-to-one comparisons between individual civilizations.
Comparisons with the Mesoamerican and Andean Civilizations
With respect to the aboriginal Mesoamerican civilizations, the archaeologists William Sanders and Barbara Price (1968) in their classic study of Mesoamerican ‘evolution’ argue that compared to the Central Mexicans the Mayas (1) relied more on swidden than irrigation agriculture, (2) had populations that were smaller and more dispersed, (3) organized states that were less urbanized and slower in developing, and most crucially (4) developed civilization only as a result of external influences from the more technologically developed region of Central Mexico. The archaeologists Richard Blanton and colleagues (1981) in а similar argument point to specific contrasts in sociocultural developments between Central Mexico and Oaxaca on the one hand, and the Mayas on the other. Compared to the Mexican and Oaxacan cases, the Mayan intersocietal networks are said to have been more horizontal (vs. vertical) in organization, their states smaller and less stable, and the ties between elite and commoners relatively more egalitarian; Mayan intersocietal ties are said to have been based less on political relations and more on trade, kinship, language, and ritual relations.
From comparative studies of the Central Mexican (Aztec) and Andean (Inca) civilizations (Collier et al. 1982; Conrad and Demarest 1984), it appears that aboriginal Mayan civilization differed from both the Aztecs and Incas not having created strong imperial states. In some ways the Mayas were more similar to the Andeans than to the Central Mexicans; e.g., in both the Mayan and Andean civilizations imperialism was superficial and weak, while sub-imperial ethnic units remained strong in both aboriginal and colonial times. The Mayas also seem to have been more similar to the Andeans than to the Central Mexicans with regard to the ethnic composition of their political systems – as suggested by the preva-lence of the so-called ‘segmentary’ Mayan states – and the elaborate use of non-coercive means of political control, such as ritual exchange. Nevertheless, the Andean decimal system and its application to the administration of internal social units was lacking among the Mayas, despite the fact that the Mayan focus on numbers and writing might have made their use feasible. It should also be noted that the aboriginal Mayas were more deeply involved in trade and marketing than the Incas and other Andean peoples.
Global Cross-Cultural Comparisons
Mayan civilization has been included in only a few global comparative studies, the most important early example perhaps being Julian Steward's (1955: ch. 11) ‘Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilizations’. The Mayan case is presented alongside the Central Mexican case as a joint cultural unit within the wider Mesoamerican civilization, and both are said to have experienced ‘parallel evolution’ similar to the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Northern Peru. Steward's account is extremely general, and primarily concerns the political and economic stages of development that the Mayas shared with other early civilizations. Steward refers to the set of parallel global stages of development as (1) ‘Formative Peasant Communities’, which develop into ‘States’, (2) ‘Regional Florescent States’, and (3) ‘Initial Empires’; and he argues that the Spanish conquest of the Mayas prevented the latter from developing the subsequent stages of (4) ‘Dark Ages’, and (5) ‘Cyclical Imperial Conquest States’.
Joyce Marcus (1993, 1998) more recently compared the aboriginal Mayan states with the Central Mexican, Zapotecan, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Aegian ‘ancient states’. Like Steward, Marcus finds broad shared patterns of historical development, particularly with respect to the centralization processes by which chiefdoms became states, subsequent decentralization processes resulting in smaller states or chiefdoms, and finally political centralization again. She finds such cyclic processes operating in all her ancient state cases, the cycle being initiated when а network of competing chiefdoms was dominated by one of them, which then went on to create the first large, primary state. For example, the Egytian chiefdoms from the north and south formed the unified Old Kingdom (ca. 3100 B.C.). Similarly, competing chiefdoms in the central Mayan lowlands gave rise to the large pristine state of Tikal (ca. A.D. 250). Decentralization occurred later in both Egypt (Intermediate Period) and the Mayan area (Classic Hiatus), only to be followed again by centralization processes (in Egypt the Middle Kingdom period, and in the Mayan area, the Late Classic period).
Trigger (1993) compares aboriginal Mesopotamian, Egyptian, North Chinese, Central Mexican, Peruvian, Southwestern Nigerian, and Mayan civilizations in terms of shared general features as well as contrasting particular features. His emphasis is particularly on the Egyptain civilization, while unfortunately the Mayan civilization receives perhaps the least attention.
In terms of economic features, Trigger finds that compared to other civilizations the Mayan was rather underdeveloped: while the Mayas had intensive agricultural practices (raised fields, irrigation), they lacked utilitarian metal tools, and had no large domesticated animals. With respect to social institutions, the Mayas stand out as having particularly strong patrilineal descent groups but paradoxically relatively equal treatment of women. With respect to religion, the Mayas, like the Egyptians, built elaborate pyramids to glorify their kings and to serve as ritual burial places; also like the Egyptians, the Mayas developed an elegant art style expressed in sculpture, painting and other media. The Mayas shared with all the early civilizations beliefs about the identification of kings with the sun and powerful birds and animals. Also like the other early civilizations, Mayan cosmology conceptualized an ethnocentric world, at the center of which were located their own people and from which the universal cardinal directions stretched outward (for other recent global comparative studies that include the Mayan case, see Mann 1986; Burns et al. 1986; Fernández-Armesto 2001; Scarre and Fagan 1997; Kowalewski 2000).
Comparing the Mayan with Individual Civilizations
One-to-one comparisons between civilizations tend to reveal contrasting rather than shared features, and thereby make it possible to perceive the unique characteristics of each civilization. Limiting the comparative set in this way, also makes it feasible to compare the entire longitudinal history of respective civilizations. Nevertheless, without strategic shared features between two civilizations, the method tends to yield limited results in terms of the knowledge gained. The author's own unpublished one-to-one comparisons between Mayan civilization and Arabic, Chinese, and Western civilizations would seem to fall into the relatively unproductive category. However, for reasons that will be made clear below, comparison between the Mayan and Southeast Asian civilization would seem to be uniquely productive.
Comparing Mayan and Southeast Asian Civilizations
Various scholar have pointed to the similarities between the ABORIGINAL Mayan civilization, especially in its Classic lowland manifestation, and the ancient civilization of Southeast Asia, especially its manifestations in the present-day territories of Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia (Coe 1965; Geertz 1980; Tambiah 1976; Demarest 1992). The Southeast Asian civilizations undoubtedly were less autochthonous in origin than the Mayan civilization, as indicated by the fact that the former received pervasive Hindu and Buddhist influence from India. Nevertheless, both regions have important tropical lowland as well as highland geographic zones, and within these zones elaborate variants of pre-modern civilizations were created in each case. In both regions too, the ancient civilizations have exercized significant influence on the making of the modern nation states.
With respect to aboriginal civilizations, Michael Coe (1965) points to generic similarities between the Classic lowland Mayan and the Classic Khmer state of Angkor, Cambodia (A.D. 802–1431) (see also Fernández-Armesto 2001). The two civilizations shared such features as highly ceremonial political centers that formed architectural cosmograms of the divine world, surrounded by peasant villages that replicated such civilized features as writing, elaborate art styles, monumental buildings, and ritual authority.
In both cases the state was integrated through belief in divine rulers deemed to have direct links to ancestors and deities. Rulers were glorified by temple cults officiated by loyal, priestly subalterns in capital and provincial centers. Arthur Demarest (1992) finds similar parallels between the Classic Mayas and so-called Southeast Asian ‘galactic’ polities.
Clifford Geertz's (1973, 1980) studies of ancient Javanese and Bali cultures reveal further parallels with the aboriginal Mayan civilization (although he does not draw out these parallels himself). For example, Geertz describes the traditional religion of Bali in terms similar to those ascribed to the Mayas: Bali religion was characterizied by elaborate ceremony, temples, intersecting calendars, ruling priests, cults of death and witches. Balinese ideas about time were remarkably similar to Mayan concepts: e.g., a divinatory calendar round of days numbered from 1 to 10 (1 to 13 in the Mayan case), a calendar cycle of 210 days (the Mayas have а 260-day cycle), an elaborate formula of divinatory fates associated with particular calendric days, and permutating lunar and solar calendars geared closely to the agricultural cycle.
The IMPERIAL history of Southeast Asia begins with a phase during which the region was invaded by militant Muslim traders who, rather than establishing an imperial colonial system employed Islamic religion and external trade as means to dominate the aboriginal polities of the region (MacKerras 1995). By the 14th century Muslim sultans ruled over a string of Islamic commerical states – such as Srivijaya and Melaka – that were more centralized, trade-oriented, militarized, and religiously unified than the aboriginal Southeast Asian ‘galactic’ polities. This phase contrasts with Mayan imperial history because, while the Spaniards also employed the Christian religion as a way to dominate the Mayas, centralized imperial rule from Spain was established from the beginning and it eliminated all possibility of independent ‘syncretic’ states like the Muslim states in Southeast Asia.
The European phase of imperialism in Southeast Asia, and especially Dutch rule over the islands of the region, in broad terms corresponds well both in time and manner with Spanish rule over the Mayas. The Dutch in Southeast Asia exploited the natural resources of the region (especially spices, coffee, rubber) even more aggressively than did the Spaniards in the Mayan area (cacao, sugar, indigo) (Wolf 1982). Also like the Spaniards the Dutch set up a highly centralized colonial government in order to secure these resources. Nevertheless, compared to the Spaniards in the Mayan area, the Dutch dismantling of the aboriginal and Muslim states in Southeast Asia was a much more drawn out process. In marginal areas a few native states survived under Dutch tutelage down to the 20th century, along with more local ‘self-admini-stering’ districts within the Dutch colonial territories (MacKerras 1995: 174).
Clifford Geertz (1973) has studied the cultural consequences for the Balinese and other aboriginal Indonesian peoples of Dutch imperial rule. For example, he examined the processes by which the traditional Bali religion was severely challenged by the universalistic Christian and Islamic religions of the imperialists, especially the Islamic. The Balinese responded with strong nativistic movements that extended beyond the island of Bali itself. They were able to construct new religious institutions and doctrines, in an attempt to ‘rationalize’ traditional religion so as to better meet the challenge of the wider world to which they were subjected. Basic ideas of the traditional Bali religion, such as those associated with the priests and temples, were consciously elevated to the level of theological debate and reorganization. These kinds of nativistic reactions to colonial and neo-colonial rule have many parallels with Mayan movements mentioned above, particularly the ‘Caste War of Yucatan’ and the ‘Carrera Rebellion’ of Guatemala.
The most instructive Southeast Asian comparative case with the MODERN phase of Mayan history is perhaps Indonesia. The nation state of Indonesia was created out of the former Dutch colony, much as the nation states of Mexico and Guatemala – to which the Mayas belong – were created as a result of independence from Spain (130 years earlier than Indonesia). The Indonesian ‘revolution’ was primarily a rebellion against continuing Dutch political and economic domination, but like the Mexican and Guatemala revolutions it also was a struggle between liberal democrats and Marxian socialists over what kind of political economy would be instituted. The compromise Sukarno government adopted features of both political tendencies, and relied heavily on military power and broadly shared cultural themes (e.g., belief in god, and in the people's sovereignty) in its attempt to unify the socioculturally fragmented Indonesian state. The Mexican and Guatemalan nation states share with Indonesia these and other ‘Third World’ features, and in a very general way the large Mayan populations there are socially equivalent to Indonesia's large indigenous population.
Clifford Geertz (1973) in a series of essays attempts to understand how the multiple cultures of modern Indonesia are being integrated into а wider ‘civil’ culture, a process of nationalization that is similar to the way civilizations are created and recreated. One of the general phases in the formation of over-arching ‘civil’ cultures, according to Geertz, consists of establishing a common cultural identity for members of the state versus other states. What makes the creation of a national identity or culture so difficult is that it raises the problem of which meanings and symbols will go into the makeup of this culture and whether they will come from indigenous or outside (usually Western) sources. In the Indonesian case, both indigenous and modern ideas have been drawn upon, but the indigenous sources are extremely heterogeneous: hundreds of diverse ethnic peoples, as well as Indians, Chinese, Muslims, and creole Dutch. Furthermore, the struggle between these sociocultural units to define the dominant civil culture has been extremely intense.
Despite Sukarno's genius for adopting multi-cultural symbols and inserting himself as the key political symbol, cultural integration has been difficult to achieve in Indonesia. In many ways the ‘primordial’ ethnic divisions have been excentuated even more, and the army has stepped in to provide unity through force. In the failed coup attempt against the military regime of General Suharto in 1965, several hundred thousand people were killed, presumably communists, but in reality traditional peasants and middle class Buddhists (the latter killed by Muslims). These events in Indonesia in some ways parallel events in Guatemala during the 1970s and '80s, when the military took control of the government and launched genocidal attacks against Mayas suspected of seeking their own national goals.
Despite many setbacks, Benedict Anderson (1983) cites Indonesia as an example of a Third World state that is creating an ‘imagined [national] community’ of shared values and ideas (culture). He points to the development of language vernaculars, expanding use of these languages through newspaper and other printed outlets, and defining territorial units on the basis of the ‘pilgrimages’ engaged in by educators and administrators carrying out their duties throughout the state. In Indonesia the lingua franca of ‘Behasa Indonesian’ became the vernacular language even though originally it was spoken by only a few of its peoples. ‘Today there are perhaps millions of young Indonesians, from dozens of ethnolinguistic backgrounds, who speak Indonesian as their mother-tongue’ (p. 134). The parallels here are close to recent pan-Mayan movements, which similarly involve the creation of a Mayan lengua franca, publication of newspapers and books in the Mayan languages, and intense imagining of Mayan ‘nations’ that would share political power in the proposed reconstituted and multicultural states of Mexico and Guatemala.
Mayan and Russian Comparison
The differences between the Mayan and Russian civilizations seemingly could scarcely be greater, suggesting that a comparison between them is likely to be of limited productivity. Consider such factors as territory, geography, demography, and political power: the Mayan region is miniscule compared with Russia, and it is largely tropical in geography while Russia has no tropical zones; the Mayan population is roughly one-twentieth that of Russia's; Mayas are ethnic subordinates in the relatively undeveloped countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, while ethnic Russians dominate the industrially developed and powerful Russian Federation. One must also consider the New World origins of the Mayan civilization in contrast with the Old World origins of the Russian civilization, with all the differences that these origins entail in terms of language (Mayan vs. Slavic and many other languages in Russia), religion (traditional Mayan religion and Roman Catholicism vs. Russian Orthodox Catholicism, Islam, Atheism), technology (Mayas traditionally used basic stone tools, had no beasts of burden nor wheeled vehicles vs. Russian metal tools and weapons, horses and wagons, and recently industrialization), and cultural values (Mayan ideas about cyclic time, the power of oral tradition, divination vs. elaborate Russian historiography, literary tradition, and science).
It must also be admitted that information on the Russian case available to the author of this essay is inadequate for a credible comparison with the Mayan case. Despite this deficiency, and the profound differences between the Mayan and Russian civilizations, interesting parallel developments nevertheless can be found in their histories, and seem quite worthy of our consideration however superficially. The intent here is not to argue that the two civilizations are culturally similar, nor even to suggest that they have similar historical developments. Rather, the goal is to briefly comment on a few noteworthy historical developments that for reasons we will not attempt to explain here were common to both cultural traditions.
The first similarity that emerges from a Russian/Mayan comparison concerns the rise and development of the Kievan Rus state (Riasanovsky 1993; Lawrence 1993; Channon and Hudson 1995; Yanin and Travkina 1995), since it raises controversies similar to those surrounding the rise of the ABORIGINAL K'iche-Mayan state in Guatemala. References in the Russian Chronicle to the founding in the 9th century of the Kievan state by Rus Vikings are distinctly similar to claims in the Mayan chronicles that the founders of the K'iche state were ‘Toltecs’ from Mexico. The point to be stressed here is that external influences (world system ties) invariably were important in political developments in both case. Such a perspective does not detract from the perhaps even more important indigenous contributions – whether the latter were provided by Russian Slavs or K'iche Mayas. Numerous parallels also exist between the early Kievan and K'iche states, such as absorption of immigrant outsiders by the native populations, political expansion through conquests of surrounding polities, dynastic struggles of succession, breakdown of federated state networks through internal divisions and external wars, and the adoption of new religious symbols and ideas (Byzantine Catholicism in the Russian case) in order to legitimize the new political order. These early states in Russia and Guatemala have exercized lasting historical influence on developments in their respective regions and, however controversial, their origins and development deserve our continuing historical attention.
The second development in Russian and Mayan history that is worth commenting on concerns the IMPERIAL domination of the native peoples of the two regions. Although the imperialization of the Russian and Mayan peoples began at almost exactly the same time (ca. A.D. 1500), there was а major difference between the two cases: the Mayas were imperialized by an outside European power (Spanish), while in the Russian case the imperialist rulers came from within. The Muscovite state and later Russian empire were similar in many ways to the Spanish empire as it operated in the Mayan region, and the derogation of the Mayas to serfdom and peasantry was remarkably akin to the fate of the Russian peasantry (see especially Pokrovsky 1995). In both cases highly centralized imperial rulers gave expansive concessions to collaborating landlords (boyars in Russia, creole hacendados in the Mayan area), placed imperial officials throughout the provinces, and in the rural areas permitted only limited local rule.
Nevertheless, in both Russian and Mayan rural communities, resistance to outside rule was continual and resulted in considerable local autonomy. Not unexpectedly, both Mayan and Russian peasants have been blamed for the failure of their respective nations states to achieve revolutionary and other forms of modernization.
While the Mayan rural peoples under imperial rule contrasted in ethnic terms with their overlords more than their Russian counterparts, the ‘caste’-like nature of social stratification was similar in both cases.
Furthermore, the ‘distinctive culture based on religion and ritualism’ that emerged in later imperial Russia and ‘had a great hold on the people’ (Riasanovsky 1993: 197), was altogether reminiscent of the development of the Latin American or Hispanic culture that emerged in the Americas. The Mayan majority largely failed to adopt this revitalized culture as its own, and it has become increasingly apparent that this was true also of the Russian peasantry (Balzer 1992). It is also clear, based on the research by Russian ethnographers and historians (Veletskaia 1992; Bernshtam 1992), that the syncretic apocalyptic movements (‘Old Believers’) in imperial Russia, involving many thousands of followers, were similar in significant ways to the Mayan nativistic movements that broke out during the Spanish imperial and subsequent periods of time.
Finally, some brief comments on comparisons between MO-DERN Russian and Mayan historical developments. Here the differences again loom large, given the fact that Russia came under Communist rule for a long period of time, during which it also experienced major industrial transformation. As noted above, both Mexico and Guatemala – where most of the Mayas have resided for centuries – were also involved in Marxian revolutions, but in Mexico the revolutionary regime became only weakly socialist and had only limited impact on the Mayan areas of Yucatan and Chiapas. In Guatemala the Marxian revolutionaries failed to take power. A more promising topic for comparison might be the ethnic, national, and wider civilizational movements carried forward by the Russian and Mayan peoples in their respective nation states.
The Soviet Union was a multinational and multiethnic state, but the so-called autonomy of its diverse cultural divisions was greatly diminished as a result of central control exercized by the Soviet rulers and preferences given to Russians residing in the various national republics (Chinn and Kaiser 1996). Furthermore, in some cases ethnic peoples (e.g., Crimean Tatars) within the Soviet Union were removed en masse from their homelands through processes that verged on outright genocide (Legters 1997). Russian nationalism was strongly promoted through the teaching of Russian language and history in the schools. Nevertheless, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union a ‘dramatic rise of nationalism’ (Channon and Hudson 1995; Melvin 1995) has occurred, resulting in fifteen ‘successor states’ organized along ethnic and national lines, as well as a Russian federation with an even larger number of autonomous ethnic areas. The loosening of political control has further led to a multitude of ethnic and national conflicts that in cases like Nagorno-Karabakh and Chechnya have resulted in the death of thousands of people. Partly as a response to this extreme multiculturalism, ultranationalists have asserted that Russia constitutes ‘a special, unique civilization, uniting the most diverse people and ethnic groups’, and thus should develop an ‘ethnic Russian nation as the core of a revival of Russia as a [pan-Slavic] whole’ (Melvin 1995: 16–17).
The Russian case contrasts in many ways with recent political and cultural transformations in the Mayan region, most fundamentally because the latter's ethnic and national movements are more comparable in scale to developments in smaller Soviet successor states such as Kazakhstan (Cutler 1999; Chinn and Kaiser 1996: ch. 8) and semi-autonomous Russian territories like Chechnya than in Russia itself. Guatemala, the one country in which the Mayas make up the majority, for the first time is the site of а movement to create a multinational state consisting of at least two nations: Ladino and Mayan. In contrast with Russia where the ethnic Russians have long held power over diverse ethnic minorities, in Guatemala the Mayas are attempting to create a pan-Mayan nation despite having long been dominated by the Ladino minority. An important question to ponder is whether the Ladinos residing in communities located within the proposed Mayan nation would suffer a drop in status similar to that experienced by Russians living in the successor states of the former Soviet Union (Chinn and Kaiser 1996). In the case of Mexico the Mayas do not constitute the largest ethnic group, and the most important Mayan movement there – the Zapatista – has called for a more just Mexican nation-state rather than separate national status. Ideas about a pan-Mayan civilization that might integrate the Mayas residing in all the different nation states of Mexico and Central America remain in about the same stage of underdevelopment as their Russian counterparts.
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