Archaeologists, and the Violence of
Maya Cultural Continuities
11 Ahau was when the mighty men arrived from the east. They were
the ones who first brought disease here to our land, the land of us
who are Maya, in the year 1513.
Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Roys 1967: 138)
Control of the Maya past is equal to the control of our power in the
present, for history is the basis for demanding respect for our political
and cultural rights as a People.
Maya intellectual Avexnim Cojtí Ren (2002)
Post-war Guatemala is marked by unprecedented levels of non-political violence. Organised crime, hijackings, and lynching of suspected outlaws by local mobs in rural Maya-populated areas threaten the yet to be fully implemented peace agreement of December 1996 (Moser and McIlwaine 2001).
Another marker of contemporary Guatemala is the growing presence on the national political arena of the Pan-Maya movement – an anti-racist initiative for the support of the Maya people and of its threatened values. In its most central documents it claims that the pre-Columbian Maya past was one of peace, and that violence – like disease and every kind of human evil – was brought by ‘the mighty men’ of the 16th century conquest (COMG 1995 [see the Chilam Balam quote above]). It is hardly surprising that a cultural movement, resembling a nationalist project in every aspect but the claim to their own state, makes such an effort to connect the plans for future harmony to the notion of a harmonious history. What is remarkable, however, is the absence of similar statements among those rural Mayas whom I encountered during the different phases of my anthropological fieldwork in the 1990s.
My assumption in this chapter is that culture in war is subject to processes of politicisation and essentialisation to which violence is crucial. Violence here is not a consequence of cultural difference but, rather, the means by which cultural difference is politicised (Harrison 1993; Warren 1993). In order to prove that assumption right I explore the location of knowledge about the Maya past and about what that location implies in terms of different notions of the very content of contemporary Maya culture.
Both anthropology and archaeology have a stake in the identity politics of post-war Guatemala. The role of foreign anthropologists in the production of knowledge is nowadays a highly contested issue among, in particular, the activists of the Pan-Maya movement (see Warren 1992; 1998; Watanabe 1995; Montejo 1999). Many of them perceive of anthropologists as the true colonialists of the era of globalisation. When American anthropologist Kay Warren discussed this with Maya intellectuals she was told that ‘the appropriate role for North American Anthropologists should be one of helping to identify continuities in Maya culture, the timeless characteristics that make Mayas Maya’ (Warren 1998:74). Post-modern critiques of cultural essences were thus seen as colonialist attempts at stripping the Mayas of their very last possessions – their culture and their pride.
The role of archaeology, and of ‘foreign’ archaeologists in the production of knowledge, is equally