Events 2020-2021

2020–2021 Lecture Series

May 7, 2021: Dr. Logan Kistler

Archaeogenomics and the Complex Domestication Journey of Maize

Some 9,000 years ago, corn as it is known today did not exist. Ancient peoples in southwestern Mexico encountered a wild grass called teosinte that offered ears smaller than a pinky finger with just a handful of stony kernels. But by stroke of genius or necessity, these Indigenous cultivators saw potential in the grain, adding it to their diets and putting it on a path to become a domesticated crop that now feeds billions…

For many years, conventional thinking among scholars had been that corn was first fully domesticated in Mexico and then spread elsewhere. However, after 5,000-year-old cobs found in Mexico turned out to only be partially domesticated, scholars began to reconsider whether this thinking captured the full story of corn’s domestication.

Then, in a landmark 2018 study led by Kistler, scientists used ancient DNA to show that while teosinte’s first steps toward domestication occurred in Mexico, the process had not yet been completed when people first began carrying it south to Central and South America. In each of these three regions, the process of domestication and crop improvement moved in parallel but at different speeds…

Dr. Kinstler will take us through this interesting science and history of agricultural and cultural transmission. The complete article can be accessed here.

Workshop: Saturday, April 10th, 2021

Political Transitions in Western Belize

The upper Belize River valley was home to a string of closely spaced centers, extending from Las Ruinas de Arenal in the southwest to Blackman Eddy in the northeast.  Thanks to over six decades of concerted fieldwork by several long-term projects, we have excellent data for reconstructing the region’s political landscapes.  Many of these centers were initially occupied in the Early or Middle Preclassic, but they had distinct histories, becoming powerful political centers at different times over the course of the Preclassic and Classic period.  Their declines occurred at different times, as well, and with varying impact on nearby hinterlands.  In this workshop, I sketch the valley’s political landscape and its major and minor centers; identify political dynamics and patterns of shifting political sovereignty; discuss the roles of hinterland communities and minor centers in those processes; and examine the influence of outside kingdoms like Naranjo, Tikal, and Caracol in the valley’s politics.

March 12, 2021: Brent Woodfill, Ph.D. 

War in the Land of True Peace: The Fight for Maya Sacred Places

For the ancient and modern Maya, the landscape is ruled by powerful entities in the form of geographic features like caves, mountains, springs, and abandoned cities—spirits who must be entreated, through visits and rituals, for permission to plant, harvest, build, or travel their territories. Consequently, such places have served as points of domination and resistance over the millennia. Guatemala’s Northern Transversal Strip has always been a  strategic region with its wealth of resources—fertile soil, petroleum, and the only noncoastal salt in the Maya lowlands, and it is also home to some of the most sacred Maya places. In this talk,   Woodfill delves into archaeology, epigraphy, ethnohistory, and ethnography to explore the biographies of several of these places, covering their histories from the rise of the Preclassic Maya through the spread of transnational corporations in our time, and show how they have continuously served as battlefields between foreign conquerors and local struggles for autonomy.

Workshop: Saturday, March 13th, 2021

Collaborative Research and Community Engagement in Guatemala and Mexico:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of 21st Century Maya Archaeology

Archaeology—especially in the Maya world—is often depicted as a romantic endeavor in which great individuals head into the untamed jungle to make great discoveries.  While this has certainly happened, it is increasingly rare due to several factors.  Guatemala currently has the second-highest population density in the New World, meaning that humans have encroached upon and taken up residence in most of the far-flung corners of the country.  After the brutal civil war in Guatemala and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the Maya have been able to take increasing ownership of their patrimony, history, and ancestral places.  Hydroelectric dams, mining operations, African palm plantations, and illicit landing strips are proliferating in the few remaining areas without a strong local presence.  Because of all of these reasons, more archaeologists are working closely with contemporary Maya communities and finding ways to combine archaeology with initiatives that address local interests, be they development, education, or human rights.  In this workshop, Woodfill will lead a frank discussion of the challenges, goals, advantages, and accomplishments of his 20 years of conducting community research in Guatemala and Mexico.

Suggested reading prior to workshop: Addressing Problems beyond Heritage, Patrimony, and Representation:  Reflections on Twenty Years of Community Archaeology in the Southwestern Maya Lowlands

April 9 2021: Dr. Jason Yaeger 

Classic Maya Divine Kingship and the Royal Burials of Buenavista del Cayo, Belize

In 2014, excavations by the Mopan Valley Archaeological Project (MVAP) recovered a fifth-century royal burial in the Central Plaza of Buenavista del Cayo.  The individual was accompanied with a shell gorget bearing an inscription naming its owner as the ajaw of Komkom, and thus we infer him to be an early king of the Komkom polity, centered at Buenavista.  This is the site’s earliest known royal burial, and it was covered by a subsequent tomb, which was reentered and emptied in antiquity.  Following that, the preferred location for royal burials shifted to Structure 3, on the Central Plaza’s east side.  Through a series of Early Classic modifications, Structure 3 was configured into a towering substructure capped with three masonry shrines:  a taller central shrine flanked by two smaller shrines.  MVAP excavations in 2018 below the southern shrine recovered another Early Classic tomb, dating to the late 5th century.  The tomb’s occupant was laid to rest on a wooden bier, with 19 ceramic vessels, two pyrite mirrors and other mosaic objects, a jade bead, and bloodletters.  The following season, we excavated a Late Classic royal burial in the central structure, the occupant of which was accompanied by a rich assemblage of ceramic vessels, eccentric flints, and five fine bifacial axes.   In this paper, I describe these burials, their architectural contexts, and their contents, and I discuss their implications regarding the establishment of divine kingship at Buenavista and the nature of royal authority at the site.

February 12, 2021: Lisa J. Lucero, Ph.D. 

The Power of Water: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Kings

Everything in Maya life, including kingship and agriculture, was rainfall dependent.  The Maya adapted quite well to the seven-month dry season in various ways.  Kings became water managers, sponsoring the construction of massive and sophisticated reservoirs that increasingly became interlinked with urban layout.  They applied their traditional ecological knowledge to keep reservoir water supplies clean throughout the dry season, sustaining tens of thousands of farmers.  When a series of prolonged droughts struck the Maya area between c. 800 and 900 CE, kings eventually lost the support of their subjects when reservoirs dried up and crops died.  An urban diaspora from the interior of the southern Maya lowlands ensued.  While each of the hundreds of Maya centers had its own king, suite of resources, circumstances and histories, the reasons for the diaspora were dire enough to be permanent; the Maya had abandoned centers permanently.  The majority of Maya, however, persevered; they achieved this through what I term a cosmology of conservation.

Workshop: Saturday, February 13th, 2021

The Maya Cosmology of Conservation and Our Future

For the first part, the focus will be on detailing and discussing the Maya inclusive worldview and how it allowed the Maya to live sustainably as farmers for 4,000 years without destroying their environment.  Their world is the opposite of our current anthropocentric worldview, one that has led us to the Anthropocene.  The Maya worldview is expressed in their daily existence—rituals, farming, hunting, socializing, etc.  A cosmology of conservation espouses that humans are one of many entities (animals, birds, trees, clouds, stone, earth, etc.) with mutual responsibilities to maintain the world.  Everything was animated and connected.  The Maya thus worked with nature, not against it.  As such, it was a non-anthropocentric, sustainable existence.  I will show how such a view promoted biodiversity and conservation based on how the Classic Maya (c. 250-850 CE) interacted with their environment.  This embedded system worked for the agricultural Maya for millennia and supported more people in the pre-Columbian era than presently—and without denuding the landscape.  The second part will focus on how we can implement and insert insights from the Maya to our sustainability planning.

January 29, 2021: Francisco J. Gonzalez J.D. &  Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, J.D. 

Taino daka…I am Taino: Origins, development and survival of the Taino Arawak peoples of the Caribbean 

This presentation is intended to provide a community-based overview of the history, culture, resistance and resilience of the Taino Arawak people of the Caribbean. The Taino, a branch of the Arawakan ethnic family of South America, were skilled navigators, agriculturalists and artists that settled the islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles (West Indies), their culture flourishing beginning around 600 AD until the arrival of the Spanish in 1492. The Taino culture shared several traits with Mesoamerica, such as practice of the ball game and the construction of associated ball courts, and Spanish chroniclers observed the presence of Taino individuals in Yucatan as well as certain products from Mesoamerica in Cuba, pointing to some seaborne contact and presumably trade.
 The Taino were also recruited to participate in the early Spanish explorations of Central and South America, and many words of Taino origin passed into Spanish and other languages in the last 500 years.
Despite the catastrophic population losses caused by the arrival of the “Guamikena”, the “covered ones” or Europeans, and the erosion of their native culture, the Taino are still present today, a key component of the cultural heritage of the peoples of the Caribbean.

December 4, 2020: Dr. Christa Schieber de Lavarreda

Faces of Rulerhip at Tak’alik Ab’aj

The rich evidence of ritual activity throughout time is manifested in the public and daily spheres of Tak’alik Ab’aj. This is particularly visible in branches of activities that converge indicating centralized government programs within the philosophical framework and backbone of the Market of Rituality. These programs arise from the determining condition of the geographical position to participate in the network of the pan-Mesoamerican exchange system, which pulsed along the Pacific coast, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and beyond to provide the range of diverse materials required for the daily and sophisticated ceremonial ritual program.

  1. Astronomy, Architecture and Sculpture Program
  2. Ritual Program
  3. Lapidary Art Program
  4. Production and Distribution Program of local “specialties” and import of foreign “specialties”

The sculpted monuments in stone, precious artifacts worked in jadeite and modelled figurines in clay of Tak’alik Ab’aj, are registers of images and ideas, to convey messages to the ancient viewer. The sophisticated sculpture, lapidary and above mentioned other programs, driven by the ancient leaders of Tak’alik Ab’aj during centuries along the Middle and Late Preclassic, includes the beginnings of writing and counting, and the production of conventionalized cosmogonic and royal symbols of outstanding quality. With this the intuitive messages of image and ideas were underscored, tagged with words and numbers to tell a story/event in the frame of time and profusely “dressed” with royal titles and cosmological symbols.

The representation of a ruler receives his name and a date, a place in time; the character becomes a historical figure, the sculpture becomes a historical record. But more than that, the representation of the ruler and insignia transmits to the observer his cultural identity. The faces of government convey the aesthetic conventions of the culture they represent or purport to represent.

Interactive Talk: December 5, 2020

Ancient Maya Politics Through the Ages
Workshop 1 and 2 – each 1.5 hours

Workshop 1 “Voice of Power and Time written in Stone” and Workshop 2 “Symbols of Cosmovision and Faces of Kingship in Jade (Jadeite)”, provide the opportunity to look into the details and development of the sophisticated sculpture and lapidary tradition and its evolution through time.

November 13, 2020: Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, Ph.D., Davidson College, Anthropology Department  

Postcolonial La Corona: Political Transformations during the Later Classic (750-900 AD)

The small ancient Maya center of La Corona is located in Northwest Peten, Guatemala. La Corona emerged in the Early Classic Period on the geopolitical scene thanks to an asymmetrical alliance formed with the emerging Snake Kingdom, Kaanul, then anchored at Dzibanche, Quintana Roo. Epigraphic and archaeological evidence indicate that La Corona resembled what we’d define as a Kaanul colony, rising alongside its overlords in the Middle and Late Classic Period. However, in the early 8th century, Kaanul imploded after two centuries of hegemonic expansion. Instead of following suite, the La Corona regime would transform and endure until the early 10th century. 

In this talk I will present results from 5 years of work in the political heart of La Corona, its regal palace. Once combined, archaeological, geoarchaeological, and epigraphic data open a window onto how the La Corona royals reinvented their regime and adapted to a changing geopolitical context. Lying at the margin of history, the fate of Postcolonial La Corona is one of political resilience, innovation, and fragility.

Interactive Talk: November 14, 2020, 9:00 am

Ancient Maya Politics Through the Ages

We will first look at comparative case studies of ancient politics which help us understand Classic Maya political dynamics. This “archaeopolitical” workshop will then explore the diverse fabric of Maya regimes, key political agents at Maya royal courts, and aspects of political infrastructure. Unlike most studies of Classic Maya politics, this workshop will be more archaeology-oriented than epigraphy-driven.

October 16, 2020: Dr. Joel W. Palka, Arizona State University  

Professor Palka has done research in the Maya Region for over 30 years. He specializes in Maya art, ethnohistory, religion, settlement archaeology, hieroglyphs, and culture change following the Spanish conquest. He has directed the Mensabak Archaeological Project for over 15 years in Chiapas, Mexico, which examines culture contact, pilgrimage, conflict, and contemporary Lacandon Maya society.

Maya Rock Art as Pilgrim’s Marks

Investigators recognize rock art’s ritual importance around the world. They typically associate this art form with initiation, hunting rituals, spiritual quests, visions, and sometimes pilgrimage. In this presentation, based on my research in Mesoamerica and at Lake Mensabak, Chiapas, Mexico, I discuss Maya rock art in the context of “pilgrim’s marks” from other cultures. For pilgrims visiting landscape shrines for religious ceremonies, the touching and taking of sacra, such as leaving hand prints or taking earth, are essential for gaining divine merit and assistance. Therefore, the consideration of Maya and global “rock art,” “graffiti,” “cupules,” and “mutilations” takes on new meanings.

Interactive Talk: October 17, 2020

Maya Parentage and Political Organization: Classic Maya Inscriptions and Anthropology

Parentage statements often appear in Classic Maya hieroglyphic texts. Maya elites were obsessive about listing their parents, often their mothers first or singularly. This talk discusses Maya inscriptions and goes over the different types of parentage statements that viewers can learn. Furthermore, we will contemplate Maya gender and social and political organization based on these texts rather than merely reconstruct marriage alliances and royal dynasties.

September 18, 2020: Dr. Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona 

Location: Zoomed to the comfort of your homes!

Important note: Please join us for our MSM “test drive” of Zoom technology for this years lecture series. The implementation of this process will be an incremental adaptation for those who have not used Zoom before (we will be sending out specific instructions in early September). This will give you a chance to download and practice using the technology before we go to a live presentation format for the following lectures. For the first lecture we will be using the excellent lecture given by Dr. Takeshi Inomata last fall on Aguada Fenix and the impact of Lidar technology in project development and his research on this early monumental construction. Not only has Dr. Inomata graciously agreed to allow us to use this recorded lecture, he has also offered to join us from Tucson, AZ  for a live Q&A session at the end of the presentation.  

 Please read the following article for the recently published research article related to the Aguada Fenix project: 

Large ceremonial constructions at the dawn of Maya civilization

(Prerecorded Lecture from Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, 7:00 pm)

Recent investigations in Tabasco have identified the large ceremonial center of Aguada Fénix, dating to 1000-800 BC. Its platform measures 1.4 km in length. This center and other related ceremonial groups in the region were constructed during the transition from mobile lifeways relying heavily on hunting, gathering, and fishing to a sedentary lifestyle with a strong commitment to maize agriculture. These finds indicate the importance of ritual and collective work at the beginning of Maya civilization.