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An Archaeological expedition at Lake Mensabak, Chiapas, and the Postclassic and Historic Maya of the Lowlands.

A hallmark of archaeology is the clarification of the origins of cultures and civilizations from multi-disciplinary research, studies of material culture, accurate chronologies, and evolutionary change (R.E. W. Adams 1977; R. M. Adams 1966; Trigger 1986). Likewise, the study of ethnogenesis –the emergence and maintenance of new cultures and ethnicities from extensive cross-cultural interaction, competition, and culture change in frontiers—is a significant pursuit in ethnohistory and historical anthropology (Hill 1996), but less so in archaeology, especially Mesoamerica (but see Deagan 1998; Ewen 2000; Gasco 1991). Importantly, some historical, archaeological, and ethnographic studies of select contemporary peoples, including the Seminoles and Choctaws of the U.S., demonstrated their Colonial Period origins in contested geographical areas (Galloway 1995; Sattler 1996; Sturtevant 1971; Weisman 1999; see also Deagan 1998; Ewen 2000). These studies and settings for ethnogenesis are similar to our proposed project.

Unfortunately, archaeology, ethnography, and ethnohistory are rarely combined to analyze the actual process and dynamics of ethnogenesis with original field work. Furthermore, few archaeological or historical anthropology projects are designed to directly elucidate the process and evidence for ethnogenesis, partly since ‘origins’ are not currently popular in the field, but mainly because it would take a large collaborative effort from ethnohistorians, archaeologists, and anthropologists to accomplish the task. Through written documents we learn that ethnogenesis has taken place and we may know the social groups involved. Yet archaeology will allow us to refine the timelines of ethnogenesis, identify the cultural dynamics involved in the process, and examine the economic, material, and religious factors involved. Anthropologists can examine oral histories and cultural information on changes in a living society and document how indigenous people view their origins and cultural maintenance. Only when these approaches are combined will we understand how and why ethnogenesis occurs and under what circumstances.

The proposed project has its roots in a study of the Lacandon and other unconquered Maya in the lowland rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, and Peten, Guatemala, funded by a NEH summer stipend awarded to Palka in 2004. A one-year NSF High Risk grant was awarded to Palka in 2005 which allowed the present collaborators to determine if pre-contact and historic Maya sites could be identified on the ground. Numerous sites of the Lacandon and their predecessors were discovered in the study area. We determined that the Lacandon Maya of lowland Chiapas provide a unique case study in the history and archaeology of ethnic origins. While a previous generation of anthropologists believed that the Lacandon were the direct descendents of the Classic Maya , they are not mentioned in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish documents of the Lacandon area. It is most likely that they emerged as a distinct society in the late Spanish Colonial Period according to recent historical analysis of Spanish documents dating to the late 1700’s.

Importantly, the appearance of the Lacandon Maya in the late Colonial Period documents fits perfectly into scholarly notions of ethnogenesis in a frontier of multi-cultural interaction. The lowland Lacandon forest of the Pethá Region in Chiapas (see map) was a boundary between Ch’olti Maya to the south and west, and Yucatec speakers to the north and east in the early Colonial Period. The Post-Colonial lowlands of Chiapas were and still are inhabited by several Maya groups: Lacandon, Ch’ol, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, and Tzotzil (Ch’olti and Yucatec Maya were assimilated, eliminated or relocated by the mid-1700’s). During the Spanish colonization of Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala, a free Maya territory was maintained in the Lacandon rainforest. In this region, early cultures disappeared and indigenous people entered from surrounding areas, mainly the Chiapas highlands, lowland Guatemala, and Yucatan, to escape Spanish subjugation. This social and geographic situation created the perfect backdrop for culture change and ethnogenesis. Indigenous people from different cultural backgrounds were in contact and they exchanged materials, ideas, and marriage partners in a frontier zone. In this scenario the different societies came together to form the Lacandon culture we know today.

Besides the ideal intellectual conditions for studying ethnogenesis with the Lacandon, the extensive research experiences of the project members are well suited for the investigation. For one, previous archaeology and ethnohistory in the Maya lowlands of Chiapas and adjacent areas will provide excellent comparative information on chronologies, ethnicity, and past social interaction. Secondly, the principal investigators participated in a pilot study in the summer of 2006. This study involved an archaeological reconnaissance of late pre-contact to historic period Maya sites in the project area called the Pethá Region and talking with local Lacandon inhabitants about their perceptions of the project and its research focus.

In addition to previous reports of late prehistoric to historic Maya sites on a Lacandon lake named Itsanokuh in the Pethá Region, we located extensive archaeological sites surrounding another lake populated by the Lacandon called Mensabak. How are these archaeological cultures related to the modern Lacandon and what can they tell us about culture change? No archaeological remains were encountered at the neighboring Lake Naja, but the Lacandon residents (many who came from Itsanokuh) have valuable information on culture contact, culture change, and the ancestors that they are willing to share with us. Furthermore, there are archives in the area that deserve further scrutiny. Documents in local towns, Guatemala City, and in Mexico City will provide additional historical information for the study of Colonial Period Chiapas, cross-cultural interaction, and Lacandon origins. Importantly, the Lacandon Maya can add an indigenous historical perspective regarding the archaeological and historical data related to culture contact and social transformations.

We will map and excavate archaeological sites at Lakes Mensabak and Itsanokuh in the Pethá Region to learn about the region’s chronology, population, ethnicity, and interregional interaction through trade and exchange. We will also study the function of the archaeological sites, whether habitational, ritual, or administrative in nature. An ethnohistorian and team members will visit regional archives for written information on the Lacandon and their predecessors and comb the files for information on culture contact and culture change.

The proposed project is significant on many levels. We will obtain crucial archaeological and historical information on the creation of a new ethnic group that was formed during the European conquest and colonization of the New World. The project takes advantage of the particular strengths of archaeology and history to examine the material and social evidence for ethnicity and culture change over a long period. We know ethnogenesis occurred following colonization by Europeans, but we do not understand its periodicity, causes, social and economic underpinnings, or its general direction in culture change. Our project will gather data to examine these unknowns of the ethnogenesis process. We will also look at ethnogenesis in cultural evolutionary terms: the origin of societies and their tribalization during colonial expansion as a response for the preservation of native ethnicity.

Dr. Joel W. Palka, Project Director,

Associate Professor, Anthropology and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC)

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