Dispelling Myths about Ancient, Modern Maya Peoples

Think of the word “Maya” and free associate. Does Mel Gibson’s 2006 film “Apocalypto” spring to mind? Unless you’re a Mayanist, you’re likely to think of ancient Peoples who had a taste for blood and writing skills that were ahead of their time.

A new book edited by a UMUC faculty member tells a very different story. First, Maya people exist today. And more than 6 million people speak Mayan languages, primarily in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras said Bethany Beyyette, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at UMUC.

“All too often, they are discussed in terms of an ancient group of people, which mysteriously vanished in the archaeological record,” said Beyyette, lead editor of the 2016 peer-reviewed book, “The Only True People: Linking Maya Identities Past and Present.”

A course on Maya hieroglyphs that Beyyette took as an undergraduate student at Southern Illinois University sparked the interest that culminated in the monograph.

“I was astounded at the quantity of information encoded in the hieroglyphic system, including minor language variation,” she said. “This, paired with my understanding of regionally specific architecture and ceramic styles sent me on a quest to see if archaeological Peoples known as Mayas were, perhaps, not a single common unit but rather ethnically diverse kingdoms who have been misunderstood.”

Beyyette began investigating in 2000. In 2016, University Press of Colorado published the book, which she edited with Lisa LeCount, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

Since joining UMUC in 2015, Beyyette has taught cultural anthropology, language and culture, world archaeology, and sociology as a member of UMUC’s collegiate traveling faculty. Her field, she said, isn’t the sort where a book like hers corrects prior misconceptions. Examining culture and identity doesn’t really lend itself to discussions about truth or validity and falsehood.

“As both culture and identity are fluid—meaning they are constantly changing—what was true a decade ago for one group may no longer accurately represent their state of being,” she said.

The book suggests that the group typically referred to as “Maya” isn’t homogenous. Instead, it was—and is—an extremely diverse group with different experiences, histories, languages, and traditions.

“We also sought to address the misconception that cultural identities could not be accessed in the archaeological record by presenting data that document different language use, architectural construction, and the production of material goods such as pottery,” Beyyette said.

Among the greatest recent changes in her field—where Mayanists specialize in researching Mesoamerican Maya-speaking Peoples in archaeological, historic, or modern contexts—are those addressing the 1980s Pan-Maya Movement, which was responsible for the misperception of Maya Peoples as a single unit, and an increased tendency to focus on the lives of everyday people, or commoners, in the archaeological records, rather than on the elites.

 “I think these mischaracterizations [about Maya Peoples being singular] abound because both adventurers and scholars in the past have commonly used European models of statehood to understand cultures of the Americas, who have very different histories and processes of state formation,” she said.

Another complicated concept that the book addresses is “ethnicity.” The concept, Beyyette said, relates to the differences between how people view themselves and how others view them.

“If you were to ask someone in Germany whether people from Louisiana and New York were all Americans—an ethnic marker based on nationality, which assumes sameness in culture—they would agree,” she said. “However, if you were to ask people from New York City and people from New Orleans if they were the same, they would most certainly say no.”

Not only are there differences between the way people view themselves and others see them, but there is also a tendency to view myths, history, and politics as separate rather than layered and mutually influencing.

“I suggest taking a more holistic approach, examining these areas together in their totality and the ways in which they inform, impact, and set the course for one another,” Beyyette said.

Although “The Only True People” focuses on Maya Peoples, it also points to wider lessons about societies and histories more broadly. “There is no single way to form a society,” Beyyette said. “Using a singular model or framework to examine the history and formation of past and present groups is inaccurate. If we truly want to understand human variation and the cultural wonders that exist across the planet, we must be willing to both investigate and accept the myriad ways in which individual histories have shaped societies both past and present.

“By trying to force societies into existing models, we lose the diversity that makes the creation of different cultures astonishing.”

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