A historical Anthropological Perspective on the Mayan Civilization

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Historical Anthropological
Perspective on the Mayan Civilization

Robert M. Carmack

State University of New York at Albany


Independent of the intriguing comparisons between the Mayan and other civilizations, including the Russian, the primary goal of this essay has been to make the case that Mayan civilization is one of the oldest, most persistent, and complex civilizations in world history. An attempt has also been made to emphasize the importance of studying the continuities as well as the changes in civilizations through time. In the preceeding sketch of power, hierarchy, and culture in Mayan history, the concepts and methods employed derive from the emerging field of Historical Anthropology.

As with other regional civilizations, the importance of Mayan civilization in Mexico and Central America, and for Latin America in general, is enormous, and for that reason and others we should give more attention to the Mayas (and Mesoamericans) in comparative research on civilizations, whether the comparative scale be global, regional, or individual cases.

The Historical Anthropological Perspective

Historical Anthropology may be defined as the discipline by which cultural studies are carried out using historical methods; its main concepts, theories, objects of study, and humanitarian goals are those of anthropology in general. Methodologically, Historical

Social Evolution & History, Vol. 2 No. 1, March 2003 71–115

 2003 ‘Uchitel’ Publishing House

Anthropologists tend to be eclectic; they draw data from documentary, archaeological, ethnographic, biological, and geographic among other sources. The term ‘Ethnohistory’ can be seen as a more specialized label that refers to the historiographic methods applied within Historical Anthropology (Carmack 1972). One of the main reasons for adopting Historical Anthropology as а working framework is to emphasize anthropology's current global perspective; anthropologists no longer focus only on native, non-Western peoples – as the term ‘ethnohistory’ still connotes to many – but on the wider field of interaction between both native and highly modernized peoples.

Conceptualizing Historical Anthropology in this broad manner also invites us to consider its close ties to other historical sciences, and thus to exploit their well-established theoretical traditions in the conduct of historical research. Perhaps the closest cognate field to Historical Anthropology is Historical Sociology, and one of the most useful discussions of that field is by Theda Skocpol (1984). She claims that а genre of Historical Sociology has been created that is ‘transdisciplinary’, and it includes Anthropology as well as History itself. Skocpol further argues that Historical Sociology has its roots in the classic writings of scholars like Marx, Durkheim, Weber (and, we might add, Spencer), scholars who sought a satisfactory integration of theory and empirical historical studies.

The key issues studied within the historical disciplines are related to the sociocultural transformations that gave rise to the modern world; it is our position that these same issues are relevant to studies of the pre-modern world. Some of the central issues concern the origin and development of economies and states, the creation and spread of ideologies and religions, the causes and consequences of revolutions, the relations between macrosocial networks and microsocial communities. The general theoretical models by which these issues can be studied, following the Weberian, Marxian, Durkheimian, and Spencerian traditions, would include for example ‘Social Action’ theory, ‘Historical Materialism’, ‘Interpretivism’, ‘Evolutionism’. The theoretical position adopted in this study is most closely associated with Weber's Social Action perspective.

Preference is given to Max Weber (Roth and Wittich 1968; Giddens 1971) because he insisted that we construct histories by placing economic and political relations within their cultural contexts, and vice versa.

Such sociocultural relationships must be studied not only from the inside (endogeny) but also from the outsided (exogeny); that is to say, we must take into account internal influences that come from within the constituent social units as well as external relations (intersocietal) between these units. Weber further insisted that comparative studies provide the best way to obtain an understanding of particular societies and their intersocietal relations. Finally, this theoretical perspective includes the mandate that historical studies are carried out at local, regional, national, and international levels.

For the purposes of this essay, two master concepts that follow from the Weberian genre of Historical Anthropology are highlighted: ‘World Systems’, and ‘Civilizations’. World systems provide crucial social contexts within which large cultural traditions, civilizations, are created and transformed. According to David Wilkinson (1995), these two concepts refer to the same sociocultural ‘entity’, and thus together they make it possible to take into account both the social (world systems) and the cultural (civilizations) dimensions in the widest scope of historical studies. Embedded in the Weberian approach as well are two historical tendencies or strategies that are useful: ‘primordialism’, and ‘instrumentalism’ (A. Smith 1986). The primordial strategy is designed to understand the historical antecedents by which cultural forms such as ethnicity, nationalism, and civilization are constructed. The Instrumental approach requires that we study the contemporary social contexts to which cultural traditions are continually responding and in the process changing.

From a Social Action perspective both tendencies are useful and, despite the popularity of instrumentalism (or ‘constructionism’) in the social sciences today, in this essay preference will be given to primordialism.

The rationale for this is that without an understanding of historical antecedents we can never determine the extent to which instrumental constructions have actually taken place. As the great historian of Russia, Nicholas Riasanovsky (1993: 11), put it: ‘Con-tinuity is the very stuff of history... [and] continuity is indispensable for group culture’.

In summary, our approach to Mayan Civilization requires that we study it historically, in its aboriginal, imperial, and modern phases; examine it in terms of both its social institutions and cultural patterns; take account of the internal and external relationships of its constituent societies; compare it with other civilizations in order to comprehend both its particular and general features; and determine both its continuities and changes. The complex nature of this approach means, of course, that the following account must be limited and more illustrative than comprehensive.

А Historical Summery

of the Mayan Civilization

Based on the author's our own research and reading of the relevant literature, it is posited that the civilized traditions shared by the Mayan-speaking peoples have existed in the Mesoamerican region (roughly, Mexico and Central Americal) since at least the late Preclassic Period (ca. 200 B.C.), and that these traditions and languages have been reconstituted in diverse forms down to the present. Alongside sociocultural continuities, of course, there have been major transformations of the Mayan traditions, in part the result of such changing social contexts as the collapse of the Classic Mayan states (ca. A.D. 900), the subsequent formation of more militant Mayan states (ca. A.D. 1200–1500), the reorganization of colonial Mayan societies under imperial Spanish rule (ca. A.D. 1500–1800), the genocidal assault on the Mayas during the recently ended revolutionary period (1970s and '80s), and the recent emergence of large-scale Mayan ethnic movements (1990s to present). (See Map 1; adapted from Henderson 1981).

Map. 1. Aboriginal Mayan States and Sites

As with all civilizations, it is important to recognize that the Mayan cultural tradition has always been highly pluralistic, constituted by numerous sociocultural variants created largely in the context of social conflicts between states, towns and countries, classes, regions, and local communities. Perhaps the argument that an integrated Mayan civilization has persisted over this long time period is the most controversial claim in this summary, but it is presented as a proposition that is consistent with the above-stated theoretical position on primordial tendencies. This, however, is not an ‘essentialist’ argument, for it will be assumed that continuities as well as changes must always be seen to result from struggle and sociocultural reconstitution through the agency of the Mayas themselves. There is no attempt here to advocate some form of romantic or mystical process of cultural survival.

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