$286K Study of Maya Politics Hopes to Promote Ecotourism in Guatemala

June 21, 2013 - 9:51 AM


Mayan dancer

(AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - A team from Williams College in Massachusetts will study the “political dynamics” of the Maya people between 600-830 AD in the ancient town of Motul de San Jose, Guatemala,  located north of Lake Petén Itzá in the northern section of the country.


The study, which officially started on June 1st, was made possible by a $286,000 taxpayer-funded grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

A NSF spokeswoman told CNSNews.com that the grant was awarded under the agency’s Division of Behavioral and Cultural Sciences. Awards are based on merit and factors such as “broader participation” and the project’s “broader impacts.” One example cited by researchers in the grant application was that the study will promote “sustainable stewardship and ecotourism in this important area of northern Guatemala.”

The spokeswoman said NSF expects a “project outcome report” in about a year’s time as part of the agency’s “gold standard” peer review process.

The "capital of a small Classic Mayan state in northern Guatemala," Motul de San Jose is located 32 km southwest of Tikal and served as a major economic and political hub during the Late Classic period. The town is best known for its famous "lk" style ceramics.

Guatemala Mayan Tomb

Archaeological Project shows a jade piece in the tomb of a very early Mayan ruler at Tak'alik Ab'aj archaeological site in Retalhuleu, south of Guatemala City.  (AP Photo/Tak'alik Ab'aj Archaeological Project)

The goal of the NSF study, according to the award abstract, is to “investigate the factors governing political dynamics by tracking how Motul de San Jose, which was conquered and ruled by Tikal at numerous times between the 4th and 8th centuries, “controlled and/or interacted with its periphery”.

The larger Maya civilization is described as “a very violent, warmongering society” by Dr. Christopher Minister, who teaches Latin America Literature and History in Ecuador.

Maya city-states fought frequently with one another and enemy warriors taken captive were either "enslaved or sacrificed," Minister writes. Stone carvings left behind show "scenes of wars, massacres and human sacrifices." Researchers said they hope to decipher whether “Motul ruled its peripheries through alliances with local groups, or through conquest and territorial annexation.”

Dr. Antonia E. Foias, associate professor of anthropology and department chair at Williams College and the principal investigator of the study, has written about Motul de San Jose in the past, including one widely cited book entitled, "Motul de San Jose: Politics, History, and Economy in a Maya Polity" She did not respond to multiple attempts to contact her by CNSNews.com.

The team from Williams College will study Mayan political life over the course of “two field seasons” and conduct a variety of projects at sites throughout the town that include:

· “Complete mapping;”

· “Environmental surveys;”

<!--[if !supportLists]--> · <!--[endif]-->"Horizontally extensive excavations in three households of varying socioeconomic status;”

<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->“Stratigraphic test pitting and excavations of refuse deposits at an additional 8 households and the largest public plaza;” and

<!--[if !supportLists]--> · <!--[endif]-->“Analysis of all ancient remains.”

They plan to input all data and observations into a single, geographic information system (GIS) database in order to “understand the changing relationships between all components through time” in order to “contribute to our understanding of the political structure of Classic Maya polities from the perspective of small communities which negotiate, resist or support political domination.”