The Legacy of Mesoamerica

Two professors in the University’s Department of Anthropology and their former colleague have written a text book that explains why all of us should be paying closer attention to events in Mexico and Central America.

The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization, by Robert Carmack, Janine Gasco and Gary Gossen, zeroes in on the cultural history of the people who lived in Mexico and Central America before Columbus arrived and tells why their descendants are important today. It is the first anthropological synthesis on the Native American people in this part of the world to be done in the last 20 years, according to the authors.

The book stitches together a quilt of chapters written by Carmack and Gossen’s colleagues in both the department and at the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies. In addition to work by the three authors, the text includes contributions by department faculty members Louise Burkhart, George A. Broadwell, Liliana Goldin, John Justeson, and Michael Smith, and faculty adjunct Brenda Rosenbaum.

For the reader who has always struggled with news accounts from Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico, this text paints a clear historical picture of people and revolutions in this part of world. A chapter by Carmack on "Mesoamericans in the Modern Era" details how nearly 400 villages were wiped out, 50,000 killed and more than one million people fled from Guatemala in the years prior to the 1993 Central America Peace Accord.

Louise Burkhart’s chapter on "Indigenous Literature in Preconquest and Colonial Mesoamerica" is filled with fascinating illustrations, like the one from the Florentine Codex (completed in 1577) of Aztec nobles playing patolli, a game similar to Parcheesi. "The Florentine Codex is the longest text in a native language from anywhere in the Americas, and the most complete description of a native American culture created before the advent of professional anthropologists," Burkhart writes. And it shows that the Indians of Mesoamerica invented writing systems and had a long tradition of creating books.


Gary Gossen (left) ad Robert Carmack

Burkhart opens a window on Mayan writing by explaining that it was always meant to be used as a jumping-off point for an oral performance. For example, a simple property survey was far more than jotting down measurements. It was an event. The town official went on a formal tour of all the boundary markers. "At each marker — a pile of stones or, in colonial times, often a cross — musical instruments would be played and speeches would be given, then the group would march in procession to the next," Burkhart writes.

The Legacy of Mesoamerica appropriately includes a chapter on "Language and Languages in Mesoamerica" by Justeson and Broadwell. A cover story in Science magazine in 1993 by Justeson and linguist Terence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh on deciphering hieroglyphs was named among the top 50 science stories of that year by Discover magazine. The hieroglyphs they worked on made up the earliest written text discovered in Mesoamerica.

"Eventually the duo deciphered about 80 percent of the hieroglyphs, thus awakening a world that had been dormant for almost 2,000 years," wrote Scott Faber in the January 1994 issue of Discover. Justeson and Kaufman traced the hieroglyphs to the ancestor of a language that is still spoken today in part of Veracruz.

In Legacy of Mesoamerica, the chapter on language mentions the little-known fact that several of the native languages in the highlands of Oaxaca may be whistled as well as spoken. The authors of the new text book have included a chapter on "Women and Gender in Mesoamerica" by Brenda Rosenbaum which details how women bore a major responsibility for keeping the revered culture of their ancestors alive after it was driven underground by Spanish priests. In the privacy of their homes, women passed on the native language, the cooking of traditional foods, and the ancestral arts of weaving, embroidery and pottery. Outside of the home, native men had to learn Spanish and act as intermediaries to the priests. Rosenbaum writes that in Maya society, man and woman had equally important roles and neither was considered whole without the other.

Today, in this same part of the world, machismo — "the ideology that places a high value on virility as a result of ‘conquering’ a large number of women — is widespread in the region," writes Rosenbaum. "Machismo shapes the region’s patriarchal system in specific ways, placing women under the control of men who may eventually abandon them." Published by Prentice Hall and available at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Campus Center, the text is also a fund-raising effort to further the work of the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies. The Institute was begun in 1976 with a missing of promoting research and other scholarly activities on Central America and Mexico. As part of its work, field work has been done by University faculty and students in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Costa Rica.

While students in Carmack’s class on Mesoamerican Ethnology, Anthropology 341, now use this text, its impact is expected to be felt internationally.

"This isn’t just something exotic about the Third World, it is about things that affect everybody’s life in this country," said Gossen. "And while it is a text book, any lay person who wants to know more about how this region affects our future will find it a worthwhile read."

Carmack added, "We expect it to be used in Europe and Latin America as well as the U.S., and to be translated into other languages. We are anxious to see how the wider public sees it, and we are particularly interested in the reaction of the Mesoamericans themselves."

When the authors write about Mesoamericans they are referring to the large minority population of 15 million people who live in Mexico, which has a total population of 90 million. They constitute 16 percent of Mexicans who do not speak Spanish as a first language. In Guatemala, home of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu (herself a Quiche Maya), fully half of the population of 9 million are also Mesoamerican Indians who do not speak Spanish as a first language.

These millions of contemporary native people speak more than 80 different languages and live in thousands of distinctive communities.

"We at this university and this institute are collectively leaders in this field in the world," concluded Carmack, "so it was appropriate for us to write a text book. We are terribly proud of the fact that we have the expertise from pre-Columbian Mesoamerican studies to modern Latin American history right in this department."

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