17 November 2006

On Ancient Mayan History.

Mayan history is of great interest to many people. There are several great ancient civilizations of Central America (Olmec, Toltec, Maya, Aztec). The ancient Mayan civilization leaves most people with several major impressions:
The first should be their impressive calculation of Mathematics. As is the case for most civilizations, Astronomy serves as the first road into mathematics. The famous Mayan Calendar was calculated to measure lunar cycles with an error of a day off every ten thousand years or so (making it more accurate than the twelve-month solar Christian calendar).
A second impression is of an impressively complex social organization and urban areas. Though buildings rarely exceeded two stories in Mayan civilization, cities of hundreds of thousands of people existed, and Central America at one point in history included the largest cities in the world. Cultural enclaves, clear economic classes, and industrial districts all existed in these enormous cities.
Inextricably linked to the complex social organization was religion and government. The governmental structure included a system of taxing its rural hinterlands through labor -- one month per year of labor was demanded of all male adults-- as well as religious-governmental ceremonies and clear ruling classes.
Upon contact with Europeans, most Mayan groups were destroyed outright or formed alliances with the Spanish that were terminated once they had served the needs of the conquerers. Unlike most cases of European invasion, however, the population was not entirely destroyed. While in Tanzania, Australia, and North America the population was almost entirely wiped out, in Guatemala, India, and most African colonies (which can be considered a fundamentally different type of colonization), native populations remained dominant. There are three reasons for this that I am aware of.
During much of Spanish domination of Guatemala, religious Friars and Jesuits were the only Westerners to infiltrate the areas more difficult for military or economic domination. The bulk of the native population throughout Central America lived in such places. The famous Bartolome de las Casas was one such friar in Guatemala. Moved by the suffering of enslaved natives, he made the (likely inevitable) suggestion of using African slaves for the labor of cutting down the forests and mining the resources of Guatemala. He made this suggestion due to the natives' increased risk for dying due to European illnesses and the idea that African slaves were of better composition for hard labor. So began the most contentious industry of the Western Hemisphere of the millenium.
Another significant reason is the physical geography of the nation. Due to the isolation of many areas, Guatemala was a difficult colony to dominate. Mountain ranges and impenetrable forests made the dominance of every region of Guatemala more trouble than it was worth for the Spanish, so they maintained the areas easier to dominate or of particular economic value (such as the Western gold mines). As a result, the indigenous people living throughout the bulk of the country lived without the everyday dominance or even contact with the Europeans that claimed to own the land. Some areas may have scarcely been aware of the existence of Europeans.
The third reason is also linked to the physical geography of Guatemala. Race is a strange idea that demonstrates its independence from biology throughout Latin America. The two primary races in existence in Guatemala are ladino and indigenous. The biological definition usually given of each is that ladino, or mestizo, are a mixture of indigenous and European, while indigenous people have no European blood. However, actual identification with race has much more to do with cultural points, such as belief system, language, economic class, and upbringing. As blacks in the United States are rarely without any white ancestors, indigenous people may have one European ancestor generations back, and ladinos may have few or no European ancestors. Nonetheless, each group has undeniable sociocultural differences. Given a lack of biological requisite to maintain one's identity, an indigenous population may maintain its identity without concerning itself with biological purity.
This places Guatemala in a rare circumstance where people identifying themselves as indigenous make up roughly half of the population of the country, and demand a right to practice and live according to customs that associate themselves with pre-Columbian contact. A particularly interesting component of this is the heterogeneity of indigenous groups. The indigenous groups of Guatemala lack cohesion because of linguistic barriers, historical conflicts, resource competition, and class infighting due to poverty, and I'm sure other reasons. In Guatemala, 21 languages are spoken, each as unintelligable as English is to French is to Spanish. Dialects of each language vary from area as well. These barriers have served as barriers to organizing for their rights since European contact and have prevented organization throughout the past century.
During the middle decades of the 20th century, indigenous peoples were relocated similar to reservations in the United States, placing poor indigenous groups on poor land, only to be moved a decade later onto worse land. During the 1970s and 1980s, the basic makeup of indigenous groups was altered by the 'Civil War.' By the early 1980's, the war clearly had been won by the government, but small groups of guerrilas survived sufficiently to give the government an excuse to continue murdering suspected traitors (translate: an unwanted indigenous population). Entire villages were destroyed and a diaspora of indigenous people relocated cultural groups throughout the central and western parts of the country. While murder and poverty all but eliminated some populations, diaspora and stealing land moved many indigenous groups to areas foreign to them, some never returning.
As a result, cultural and linguistic groups in Guatemala today hardly resemble the populations or geography of pre-European Guatemala in any way. In addition, considering that one's identification as a Mayan today is voluntary instead of genetic and geographical, and is somewhat based on the idea that a person is not ladino. Also, the historical affects of centuries of Spanish colonialism and current Western (mostly American) economic dominance have left an indelible mark on all Guatemalans. As a result, to be a Mayan today is very different than being a Mayan 500 years ago.
I personally can't help but equate it to being a Catholic today versus being one 2,000 years ago. While one may be able to trace a historical continuance, cultural schisms (such as the idea of non-Catholic Christians), influences of dominant cultures (such as Romans), and demographic changes (due to conversions of entire continents), and the drift of time have all contributed to a very different culture, despite great efforts to maintain contancy.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Andrew, nice history lesson. Good to hear from you. Have you reached your assignment destination? Should we send packages now?----Pete

jessica said...

Hey Andrew. Thanks for all the information! You should check out this video about Mayan Cities : http://travelistic.com/video/show/327

Gutemala said...

Nice post. National park in Guatemala and Tikal National Park is the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Monument. Unearthed Tombs 19 and 23 depicted remnants of high standing nobles from central Mexico flanked by symbols of high status like pottery with effigy lids, plates, jade beads having carvings of miniature face and skulls, specially woven cloth mattress.

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