Maya Peoples Making History: Founding a Civilization, Adapting to Empire, Engaging Capitalism and Migrating with Globalization

A Summary

On September 8 the Georgetown Center for Latin American Studies, together with the Americas Initiative and the Mexican Cultural Institute (MCI), co-hosted a one-day symposium at the MCI entitled Maya Peoples Making History: Founding a Civilization, Adapting to Empire, Engaging Capitalism and Migrating with Globalization. The symposium explored the themes of adaptability, resilience, agency, and autonomy in the history of Maya peoples from the ancient past to the present day and featured presentations from some of the leading researchers from the fields of archaeology, history, and anthropology. 

The symposium included a presentation from Geoff Wallace, a PhD candidate at McGill University and one of CLAS’s visiting researchers, whose scholarship focuses on the environmental history of the northern lowland Maya during the colonial period. He discussed his current work at CLAS to use archival sources and Geographical Information Systems to construct a publicly-accessible geodatabase, or online atlas, of colonial Yucatán’s settlement distribution, commodity production, and socio-political landscape. 

The other scholars featured at the event included Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, incoming president of the American Association of Geographers, and Timothy Beach, both from UT Austin. Both are  specialists in geoarchaeology and remote sensing in the Maya region. They presented on the technologies and methodologies used by archaeologists in contemporary research, especially their own pioneering use of Laser Mapping (LiDAR) to reveal ancient and extensive landscape modifications in the Maya region at a resolution far outstripping the capabilities of older remote sensing tools.

They were followed by Wallace and by Adrienne Kates, a PhD candidate in history at Georgetown who studies Maya participation in the chicle industry in late 19th and early 20th century Quintana Roo. Her presentation focused on the eastern lowland Mayas’ maintenance of their autonomy through active engagement with capitalism, environmental knowledge and adaptability, and targeted resistance during the first half of the 20th century. 

Bianet Castellanos, professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, concluded the event. Professor Castellanos has spent over two decades working with Maya communities in Mexico and abroad. She examined the notion of Maya women as the “guardians of tradition” in the context of an increasingly globalized world in which they navigate challenges presented by migration, tradition, tourism, and neoliberalism. 

Providing commentary was Georgetown’s own John Tutino, professor of history and director of the Americas Initiative; John McNeill, also from Georgetown and incoming president of the American Historical Association; and Matthew Restall, professor of History at Penn State, research fellow at the Library of Congress, and incoming president of the American Society for Ethnohistory.

The event was generously hosted by the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington DC, and was well-attended by Washington’s academic community and the broader public. For the full conference schedule, click here.