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How Maya culture withstood colonial force.

How Maya culture withstood colonial force

Populations conquered by invading forces do not always forfeit their cultural traditions. As historians have documented, subjugated people often infuse their own long-standing religious and economic practices into those of their political masters.

This subtle cultural resistance to foreign rule, accompanied by periodic bouts of outright rebellion, apparently characterized the Maya living on the Yucatan peninsula during Spanish colonial dominance in the 16th and 17th centuries, according to a report in the Dec. 8 SCIENCE.

In 1521, Spaniards led by Hernan Cortes defeated Mexico's Aztec empire, and in 1544 Spain took control of the Maya-occupied Yucatan. The hand of colonial rule fell heavily in resource-rich central Mexico and western Yucatan, where native residents became laborers for the Spanish and were barred from practicing any religion save Catholicism.

But many Maya fled to the densely forested, less desirable southern lowlands of Belize and Guatemala, where they developed strategies to retain their own culture while accommodating Spanish religious and economic doctrines, assert anthropologist Elizabeth Graham of York University in North York, Ontario, and her colleagues. They base their contention on archaeological work at two Belize sites, Tipu and Lamanai, as well as on Spanish historical documents.

During the postconquest period from 1544 to 1638, when the Maya expelled the Spanish from most of Belize, "it can be argued quite convincingly that Spanish material culture was never more than an overlay on that of the Maya," the researchers say. Pre-Columbian traditions in the manufacture of ceramics, tools and weapons remained largely unchanged at Tipu and Lamanai, they observe. Traditional religious ceramics reappeared soon after 1638.

Spanish records from the 16th century offer few details on the economies of remote "fringe" towns such as Tipu and Lamanai, but they do mention substantial tribute payments collected by Spanish authorities.

Excavations at the Belize sites indicate the Maya ran these communities in cooperation with Spanish authorities living elsewhere. Building features and artifacts reflect a mix of Maya and European styles, suggesting Tipu and Lamanai were part of a trade network that distributed European products throughout the Yucatan peninsula, the researchers contend.

Prior to Spanish conquest, Lamanai was a hub in an extensive Maya trade network (SN: 7/8/89, p.20).

Furthermore, the researchers argue, Maya on the geographic fringes of Spanish conquest forged a faith and a way of life in which two disparate religions coexisted. Small churches, served by circuit-riding Spanish priests and local Maya trained in Catholic practices, were established at Tipu and Lamanai, but lapses into preconquest religious customs occurred frequently, Graham and her co-workers note. For example, residents of Tipu and Lamanai rigidly followed Christian burial procedure and kept churches in good shape; nevertheless, traditional Maya religious effigies of animals and mythic creatures turn up in refuse deposits and buildings.

The researchers maintain that archaeological evidence at Tipu and at several other Yucatan sites from the conquest period indicates the Maya practiced pre-Columbian rituals, including human sacrifice, within Christian churches, accompanied by offerings of Spanish wine and references to Jesus Christ.

When the Maya ousted the Spanish from the Belize region in 1638, "rejection of Spanish authority clearly did not necessarily mandate rejection of Christianity," the investigators add. At Tipu, for instance, some inhabitants still followed Christian burial practices even after church walls had collapsed, a behavior overlooked in Spanish accounts of the period.
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Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 9, 1989
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