My Research: The (Pseudo) Scientific Origins of the Ancient Maya

My latest twelve week article has jumped the tracks. I started writing this blog post to get some thoughts in order and realized that what I really wanted to write about were junk theories about the origins of the ancient Maya.

In 1915, Edgar Hewett, then director of the School of American Archaeology, wrote a short text that accompanied the Ancient America exhibit at the Panama-California Exposition. The exhibit featured included, among other things, plaster casts of the tall, graceful stelae of the Classic Period site of Quiriguá in Guatemala. Hewett wanted to dispel the aura of mystery that surrounded the ancient native cultures of the Americas. He wrote:

“The cities that have long lain buried in the tropical jungles have been the subject of much misleading romance. There is nothing mysterious about it. The ancient temple builders of Central America were American Indians.” (Edgar L. Hewett, Ancient America at the Panama-California Exposition, 1915)

Hewett wanted to end years of heated debates among professional archaeologists, their amateur counterparts, and the general public over questions of Maya antiquity. However, the matter would not be put to rest easily. Many people disbelieved that the ancient Maya had constructed great monuments, such as the stelae of Quiriguá or the temples of Chichen Itzá. Debates over American antiquity centered on a series of questions. First, where had the ancient Maya come from and how did they acquire their culture? Secondly, what were they like: civilized or savage?

The early twentieth century excavations at Quiriguá were supposed to answer many of these questions. As the first site in Guatemala to receive professional archaeological excavation, much was riding on the answers people hoped would emerge from the ruins. Quiriguá, with its mysterious jungles, beautiful stelae, and weird zoomorphs, fascinated the U.S. public. Imaginations ran wild.

Buried stela at Quiriguá. Date unknown, but I imagine ca. 1912. Library of Congress

Buried stela at Quiriguá. Date unknown, but I imagine ca. 1912. Library of Congress


The public, in the form of tourists, helped shape broader conversations about the meaning of ancient native cultures. The United Fruit Company (yes, *that* United Fruit Company) designated the Quiriguá site as the nation’s first archaeological park. Park managers aimed to transform the little known ruins into a productive capitalist enterprise for tourists. Tourists arrived to Guatemala via steamship to the Atlantic port of Puertos Barrios and then hopped the train to Guatemala City. The train often stopped at Quiriguá so that people could see the famed stelae for themselves and decide what the ruins meant.

A crazy array of implausible theories flourished. People insisted that the Maya came from Asia. Or Egypt. Or the Lost City of Atlantis.

Why did people keep insisting on foreign origins for the ancient Maya despite scientific evidence to the contrary? Was it so difficult to believe that native people, though their own ingenuity, had authored great cultures and crafted fantastic monuments in the Americas? Was public disbelief over the capabilities of native people simply racism? Or was it something more?

Today, we’re still invested in a bunch of junk science about the Maya. Remember 2012? Remember how NASA had to field hundreds of panicked questions about the end of the world? Recent theories of paleo-astronauts?    

What I’m interested in is not the history of archaeology per se. Instead I want to know how and why archaeology influenced how people thought about the Maya. Archaeologists, tourists, and Guatemalan intellectuals all used ancient Mayan archaeological evidence to make certain assumptions about them. I want to know is why junk science about the Maya continues to fascinate people (including me, though I’m in favor of their American origins). I think lots of people might write this stuff off as silly pseudo-science; however, I think pseudo-science has a lot to say about how people thought about things in the past.

Now to rewrite my abstract,  write an argument, make a list of revision tasks and get moving on this article!

[Photo: Temples of Tikal, as seen from the top of Temple IV, Guatemala, 2012.]