Greg Borgstede and Jason Yaeger
Notions of Cultural Continuity and Disjunction in Maya Social Movements and Maya Archaeology
AltaMira Press, 2008
91-107 pages

Reviewed by Josefrayn Sánchez Perry

In their essay, “Notions of Cultural Continuity and Disjunction in Maya Social Movements and Maya Archeology,” Greg Borgstede and Jason Yaeger, explore the issues of cultural continuity in Maya area. The essay appears in a volume that seeks to combine  archeological methods with postcolonial critiques (Liebmann and Rizvi, 2008). In particular, these theories challenge grand narratives that fail to accommodate microcosms and idiosyncrasies within larger cultural regions. In Mesoamerica, for example, scholars often identify what connects this broad geographical area. But the cultural differences between communities in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica can sometimes outweigh the connections outlined by Mesoamerican scholars.

While the larger scope of Archeology and Postcolonial Critique  focuses on case studies across the globe, Borgstede and Yaeger engage  this premise in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. The essay, “Notions of Cultural Continuity and Disjunction in Maya Social Movements and Maya Archeology” is refreshing, not only for laying out the history of Maya archeology, but also for contextualizing how scholarship of Maya archeology impacts present-day discourse about Maya identity and culture. Borgstede and Yaeger make two important interventions. First, they highlight how postcolonial academic discourse moves towards creating historical discontinuity and difference across cultures. For example, the idea of “Maya civilization” can be easily criticized since both terms project homogeneity across a vast region. And yet, it is through the discourse of historical continuity and shared identity that Maya intellectuals find empowerment for present-day movements.

While Borgstede and Yaeger contend that present-day Maya movements find commonalities in the identity of being Maya, they also recognize the important differences that exist within their cultures. In their second intervention, they ask: “Unconnected by direct descent or language, what shared qualities lead one to draw on the contemporary Tzotzil Maya community of Zinacantán in the Chiapas highlands for a model of the social organization of an eight-century rural village in the lowlands of Belize” (Borgstede and Yaeger 2008, 103)? The authors show how broad analogies generalize, downplay local histories, and objectify historical and present-day communities. Borgstede and Yaeger propose scholars should prioritize the local descendants of the archeological sites they study. Borgstede and Yaeger argue that this approach moves archeologists and ethnohistorians in the directions for the best historical connections about cultural change and continuity in the Maya world.

I recommend the use of the full journal for anyone interested in the broad study of Mesoamerica. The reader will find that Borgstede’s and Yaeger’s approach to archeology and ethnohistory can be applied to multiple case studies and disciplines that attempt to problematize continuity and change.