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Anabel Ford
MesoAmerican Research Center
University of California, Santa Barbara

Mayan Writing
The nature of Mayan Hieroglyphs remained a mystery for 350 years, in great part because the wrong questions were being asked.

The Maya Biosphere
One of the richest and most durable human societies lived in balance with its environment for 1600 years.

October 2, 2006

Part II: Asking the Wrong Questions

Eyes Wide Shut:
Exploring Solutions Past

Anabel Ford
MesoAmerican Research Center
University of California, Santa Barbara

22 min. (slideshow requires QCShow Player)
Audio only (mp3 format)
View as a webpage (quicktime, real player) (notes)

Canceled checks will be to future historians and cultural anthropologists what the Dead Sea Scrolls and hieroglyphics are to us.
— Brent Staples

The highly regarded ecologist Robert H. MacArthur (1930-1972) wrote in the preface to his book, Geographical Ecology, "To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not simply to accumulate facts."

Indeed, analogy is the only way we understand anything, to say that A is like B, which is like C. But such analogies demand familiarity, and this requirement of familiarity has occasionally gotten us off onto a wrong foot, often stifling understanding for centuries.

In this lecture, Anabel Ford presents her work on the Maya culture of Mesoamerica as an allegorical warning on how not to approach a problem.

Ford presented this talk to an astrobiological conference. If there is any attribute concerning the first discovery of a new form of life elsewhere in the galaxy that we are likely to be certain of, it's that we're going to be quite surprised by what we find, and we are quite likely to repeat our mistakes. Our attempts at imposing European models of human behavior on the Maya lead to 350 years of misunderstanding.

Europeans arrived in the Maya area of Mesoamerica with Cortez in 1525. The last Maya kingdom, PetÚn, wasn't fully conquered until 1697. That intervening period, and for almost the entire time since, has been filled with misunderstanding of the Maya culture. In 1652, Friar Landa knew that the Maya wrote and demanded to know their alphabet, but the question itself formed the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding.

Maya writing isn't alphabetic, nor is it completely hieroglyphic. Rather it is a form of rebus writing. It wasn't until the late 1950's, when Tatiana Proskouriakoff first made significant contributions to the understanding of Mayan written language. She discovered that the writing on the monumental stela and other buildings was actually historical, dealing with the birth, accession, and death dates for the Mayan rulers. Knowing the context of the inscriptions, Maya epigraphers were then capable for the first time to decipher the hieroglyphs.

The second great misunderstanding associated with the invading Europeans was trying to impose the European idea of the pasture and the plow onto Maya agriculture. The Maya had neither horses nor oxen, thus they didn't farm with a plow, nor would it have been as effective as the processes they evolved if they had. Instead they created a culture of being forest gardeners, and by doing so, created a biodiversely rich, self-sustaining forest that the Europeans found impenetrable, messy, and irritating.

— Wirt Atmar

About the Speaker

Anabel Ford distinguished herself in Mesoamerican archaeology with research on the evolution of settlement and environment patterns, demystifying traditional views of the ancient Maya by examining the human aspects of this glamorous civilization. This forms the foundation for her current trajectory.

Using anthropology as a springboard for interdisciplinary research, she proposes ancient traditions yield contemporary solutions for the Maya forest of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. "Action Archaeology" is a term she has coined to describe how her focus on cultural ecology- the multifaceted relationships of humans and their environment - is being applied at El Pilar for the benefit of contemporary populations. The co-evolution of human societies and the environment bring particular relevance to the study of Maya prehistory. At El Pilar, Ford is advancing programs that will simulate "Maya Forest Gardens" as an alternative to resource-diminishing, slash-and-burn farming methods.

Research this past year began the examination of the detailed construction chronology of the major regional Maya center of El Pilar, the mapped extent of which spans across the contended international boundary between Belize and Guatemala. With funding from Fulbright-Hays, large scale excavations were launched in the southern public sector of El Pilar, revealing an extraordinarily long prehistory beginning before 600 BC and running through 1000 AD.

The El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, established this year with U.S. Agency for International Development funds in Belize promotes a model of cultural heritage stewardship, nature conservation, and community development relying on collaboration of local villagers, nations of the region, and international scholars from the global community to bring the vision to fruition. Progress is moving forward in Guatemala, where the reserve has been designated within the Biosfera Maya.

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