Context And Content of The Conference

Release Date: March 20, 1998

Mayan Culture at the Millennium: Retrospect and Prospect will provide a forum for presentations by, and conversations among, scholars who approach Mayan culture from many different perspectives. The conference will pair scholars with expertise in similar domains so that they, along with other participants, might find common ground during discussion periods.

The richness of the Mayan cultural tradition has attracted the research interest of many archaeologists, historians, cultural anthropologists, linguists and art historians. The field of Mayan studies lacks an international, interdisciplinary forum, however, in which diverse perspectives and research can be discussed openly.

Most Mayanists have tended to frame their work too narrowly, addressing only members of their own subdiscipline, or too broadly, vying for the attention of the popular press. In an attempt to rectify this state of affairs, this conference will bring together world-renowned scholars to present their research on Mayan culture.

The vast Mayan region (some 325,000 square kilometers) encompasses a range of environments -- from the steep Pacific slope, up to the volcanic highlands of Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, down into the tropical lowlands of the Petén and Belize, to the dry, flat lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula. The great expanse of this area, its environmental variation and the historical depth of its occupation by Mayans have contributed to the splintering of scholarly discourse on Mayan culture.

Archaeologists have tended to concentrate their research efforts on the lowland region, where pre-Columbian Mayan culture flourished within the many city-states that developed there. The two largest sites are in the highlands -- Kaminaljuyu and Copan. Only Copan has been studied extensively, however.

After the so-called "collapse" of these sites, a number of smaller kingdoms developed in the highland region. Scholarly research on the evolution of these kingdoms has failed to make connections with Kaminaljuyu and Copan, however. Instead, many scholars have found the catalyst for the development of the smaller kingdoms in the supposed migration of an ethnic group that traced its roots to the valley of Mexico. Recent settlement pattern studies, analysis of ethnohistorical materials and reassessment of later kingdoms are a local Mayan development.

The conference will bring together proponents of these different perspectives on the development of the later smaller kingdoms to discuss past and present data that bear upon this question.

Its resolution has ramifications for contemporary Mayans in the context of the peace accords recently signed in Guatemala. In discussing the repatriation of lands appropriated by the government, the military, and various corporations, the Guatemalan government has entertained the migration theory to challenge Mayans' claims to traditional lands.

Partly because of the influence of the idea that the great Mayan sites "collapsed" in a catastrophic fashion, archaeological research has been separated from ethnographic research on contemporary Mayans. One of the ways in which the conference aims to bridge this gap is by bringing together some of the leaders in archaeological and epigraphic research.

Over the past 15 years, the revolution in hieroglyphic decipherment has opened our eyes to the world as Mayans conceived and wrote about it during the pre-Columbian period. Hieroglyphic texts are inscribed on monuments and pottery, and in the four known codices that escaped destruction by Spanish friars. Recent work on these codices has begun to clarify their role in statecraft, ritual, and divination. This work illuminates the connection between the contact-period hieroglyphic books and hieroglyphic texts from the earlier Classic Mayan period.

At the same time, one of the conference presenters known for her path-breaking ethnographic work on contemporary Quiché Mayan divination has discovered a Quiché document, written in 1722 in the Roman alphabet, that shows strong parallels with the hieroglyphic codices. In an attempt to span historical periods, the conference will bring her into dialogue with an epigrapher who is internationally acclaimed for the advances he has made in deciphering the codices and other hieroglyphic texts.

In a similar vein, two scholars will explore parallels between the sound patterns in contemporary Mayan poetry and those found in the reconstructed phonology of hieroglyphic narratives.

Conference participants also will address how contemporary Mayans draw upon and reconstruct the pre-Columbian Mayan language when relating to contemporary nation-states and broader international forces. Invited speakers will address this question as it is played out in the context of both the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and post-civil-war Guatemala.

For each case, the conference will bring together cultural anthropologists known for their work in either symbolic-interpretive studies, which often trace links to pre-Columbian culture, or in political economics, which focuses on the changes in political structure and economy, often obfuscating pre-Columbian connections. Anthropologists who meld these often-antithetical perspectives produce the most compelling and creative scholarship in the discipline today. The conference contributors expect it will move Mayan studies further in this direction.

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