Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Parts and Their Counterparts: Spatial and Social Relationships in Mopan Maya

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Parts and Their Counterparts: Spatial and Social Relationships in Mopan Maya

Article excerpt


It is a literary and anthropological commonplace to remark that, in symbolic behaviour, it is very often not the entities invoked that constitute the matter at hand, but the nature of the relationships between them (Durkheim & Mauss 1901; Levi-Strauss 1963; Ohnuki-Tierney 1981; see also Gentner 1983). It is perhaps less common, however, to address the question of whether ways of thinking about relationships can themselves have a specific cultural content. Data from the language and culture of the Mopan Maya people of Central America indicate that relationships may be conceptually homologous across content domains in culturally-specific ways. In particular, there are logical commonalities in Mopan across the two content domains of spatial and of social ('kinship') relations.(1)

Language-specific grammatical structures are important in encoding these cross-domain commonalities. The experience of using language in social interaction therefore helps to engender culturally-specific modes of thinking.

The Mopan

Mopan is a member of the Yucatecan group of Mayan languages, and is spoken by several thousand people in the Peten regions of Belize and Guatemala.(2) Belizean Mopan cultivate maize and beans for subsistence, and plant rice which they sell for cash in the nearby market town. Cultivable land is available to all; any Mopan household is, in principle, the economic equivalent of any other. Rotation of ritual and administrative offices takes place yearly, under a strong egalitarian ethic.(3)

The embodiment of the collectivity in this setting is the quarterly pajiina (Spanish fajina) gathering. Every three months, all male heads of household contribute a morning's labour to clearing the public village space of weeds and undergrowth. All those who participate in this labour also participate in a general meeting immediately afterwards, at which matters of public interest are discussed and voted upon. The tone of the pajiina meeting is argumentative and noisily cheerful, but the true power of the collectivity resides here. This loosely-structured and highly egalitarian gathering is the final voice of authority in the village, and the incumbents of administrative office in any particular year explicitly state that they take their orders from it, and not vice versa.(4)

Because of the highly consensual nature of the pajiina gathering, it is never clear that any individual has the authority to speak for the community in general, or even whether a community exists in any coherent sense. In this, the Mopan appear to be in stark contrast to their highland neighbours, among whom the 'closed corporate community' - close-knit, coherent and acting as a corporate body - has the status of an anthropological icon (see Tax 1952; Wolf 1955). Instead, the Mopan social-structural pattern is of the type that Wagner (1991) has characterized as 'scale-preserving' or 'fractal'. By taking smaller social units of analysis (in other words, household instead of village), the analyst does not succeed in reducing the complexity of the whole. He or she simply contemplates a smaller 'whole', in which the structure of the larger remains instantiated.


Most Mopan people exhibit the distinctive syncretic Catholicism documented for many other Mayan and Mesoamerican groups (Madsen 1967). In order to avert sickness and natural disaster, and to ensure good crops, it is felt to be important to reproduce as exactly as possible in everyday life, and especially in ritual, the various customs and practices of the past. In the absence of a written tradition, this depends upon oral transmission, from the old to the young, of accounts of the way things were done in days gone by. As the Mopan themselves say, they display a marked traditional respect for age because of this dependence on past knowledge. Respect for age is part of what the Mopan call tzik ('respect'). Tzik - the enactment of respectful and religious attitudes in both everyday and ceremonial contexts - distinguishes the Mopan, in their view, both from animals and from other ethnic groups. …

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