Patricia McAnany


Reframing Approaches to Past Civilizations in Colonized Worlds

For many of us who are working on a topic or in an area in which the European colonial moment is barely in the rear-view mirror, if at all, this seminar provides an opportunity to unpack much “received wisdom” that has structured historical and societal research for centuries. Within my areas of focus—Maya Archaeology—there are not only methodological issues (what constitutes evidence of which process in the past) but also larger framing questions. How do we frame possibilities of the past? What concepts underpin research questions?

The European colonial encounters of the 16th-19th centuries up-ended societies, ritual practices, and modes of self-governance globally and imposed a view of the world that we, as academics, still struggle to move beyond. Mayan-speaking peoples of southern Mexico and northern Central America were equally and devastatingly impacted by colonial usurpation of land and self-governance and the imposition of Christianity. Nonetheless, Mayan peoples were characterized as “resilient” long before the term became a buzzword. At the same time, popular (National Geographic-style) characterizations of Maya peoples as “timeless” could not be further from the truth—persisting means changing, especially in the face of violent colonial encounters that today would be characterized as terrorism.

At the same time and over the longue durée, the narrative has been one of “non-persistence” or failure to rebound politically from a 9th-century political transition from divine rulership. In the minds of some Indigenous Maya and non-Maya peoples today, that political collapse and 16th-century Spanish colonization is compressed into a single and temporally sequential chain of causation. In Maya Cultural Heritage: How Archaeologists and Indigenous Communities Engage the Past (McAnany 2016), I work to unpack the narrative of failure and how it fed into colonial discourses of disenfranchisement and domination. Unfortunately, Maya archaeologists played an important role in perpetuating this apocryphal story of failure.

In general, Pre-Columbian political forms tend to be analyzed from an apocalyptic perspective that arcs from emergence to florescence followed by tragic but inevitable collapse. In a manner that is similar to a medical coroner conducting an autopsy, archaeologists examine the evidence for the fatal flaw: what killed the civilizational organism? Was it eco-cide, the hazards of living in a drought-prone tropical environment, a top-heavy social pyramid, bellicose rulers, or perhaps a calendrically linked fatalism. After all, few royal courts commemorated in stone the auspicious A.D. 830 seating of the 10th bak’tun (a bak’tun being a 400-year temporal cycle).

I propose that colonialism and the aftermath of empire significantly frame our narratives about civilization in the Americas. Second, I suggest that conceptualizing political constellations as experimental designs is a way to move away from this potent brew of influential factors that tether archaeological inference to a framework that stymies deeper analysis and understanding.

In a larger frame and in agreement with the pioneering work of Edward Said on Orientalism, I propose that the trope of civilizational collapse has been deployed as part of a colonialist ideology of superiority and dominance. I explore the ways in which this mindset made its way into the academic discourse of Maya Archaeology and was selectively applied to political arrangements of the ancestors of those perceived as other (i.e., contemporary Mayan-speaking peoples). I further explore how accusations of environmental abuse and poor landscape stewardship—corollaries of collapse discourse—intensified as the realities of 21st century anthropogenic climate change become more immanent. These trends argue for the need to consciously decolonize narratives about the past as well as the methods that are used for the collection of evidence pertinent to past societies.

Allegations of poor land stewardship and resistance to change in the face of environmental damage have been levied on Late Classic Maya society by both popular writers such as Jared Diamond and by academics as well. Evidence that contradicts these assertions of bad land stewardship and deforestation is plentiful and will be reviewed. For instance, fruit from trees such as avocado, cacao, papaya, mamey, nancé, and many others formed an essential part of Maya subsistence and cuisine. These highly valued tree species were linked with status and, due to their relative longevity (in comparison with maize and other annual crops), could “stand in” for ancestors. Also, Maya archaeologists are now learning about the importance of sampling intensity and the differential pollen production and preservation of tropical tree species as more wetland cores provides evidence that contradicts earlier assertions of rampant deforestation.

The many dynastic capitals that existed during the Classic period (250-900 C.E.) shaped and re-shaped the tropical landscapes in significant ways but probably not in a manner that can or should be characterized as irrationally eco-cidal. As a point of comparison, I consider Stonehenge and the narratives that have accompanied it. Does anyone look at Stonehenge and surmise that people must have left because of a veritable Armageddon of environmental abuse? That kind of biblical judgment is not part of the picture. Along the same lines, does anyone visit Aachen, Germany and query the contemporary populace about their identity links to Charlemagne, whose life was contemporary with that of Late Classic Maya rulers? In both cases, causation and linkage is expressed along the line of asserting that the politics of regional integration changed or that the historicity of population movement negates any direct biological descent. Indeed, Stonehenge, Charlemagne, and Late Classic Maya rulers all belong to a very distant past. But the Maya region is distinct because cycles of political centralization and decentralization were aborted, cut short, by European colonization and a decisive—if historically prolonged—loss of political autonomy.

The process of European colonization of an area that archaeologists call Mesoamerica exemplified tenacity, persistence, and tragically the efficacy of chronic structural and physical violence. At least 500 years separate the end of the Classic period from the 16th-century Spanish invasion, yet in the minds of many rural Maya peoples, they were closely sequential events. In our surveys of rural peoples in western Honduras and the southern Petén of Guatemala, we found a readily expressed idea that ancient Maya society had failed and, luckily, Spaniards had arrived to save the day and fashion a modern world from the shambles left by the ancient ones.

From the perspective of colonialism, the conflation (in contemporary popular understanding) of the 16th-18th century European wars of conquest with the collapse of much earlier Indigenous polities provides a powerful case-in-point of the very long afterlife of colonialism. Even today, students at UNC, Chapel Hill, are perplexed by the conquest narrative and often ask how a group of scruffy Spanish adventurers managed to gain control of such supposedly powerful and accomplished civilizations. Terrorism is effective although it opens societal wounds that may never heal.

The colonization process demands a simplification of political complexity in occupied regions so as to reinforce the rationale of colonizers as subjugating a not-so-civilized group of people. This deeply embedded way of understanding what Europeans called “the New World” permeated much of 19th and 20th century anthropology and archaeology. It surfaced in the studied refusal to use terms such as “city” and “state” in reference to the Classic period Maya lowlands (lest those terms become “impoverished” as written by V. Gordon Childe). At this point, much of this rhetoric is historical baggage—although some very recent. Nonetheless, the imprint of a colonial ethos on much more than simply the practice of Americanist archaeology—particularly in the Maya region—bears continued scrutiny.

The burden of history weighs heavily on archaeology but it’s not impossible to consider how we might come to understand old places in the Maya region and elsewhere if we disentangle them from colonial discourse and morally laden apocalyptic tales. In order to move away from the trope of failure, I propose a new angle on the ebb and flow of what often are called civilizations. This perspective comes directly from Indigenous colleagues in the Americas who look to the (pre-Columbian) past as a rich repository of human experimentation with different forms of organizing, of hierarchy, and of meeting environmental challenges. In a sense, the study of the past—whether it be from written sources, material remains, or a combination of the two—is the study of human experimentation with different forms of large-group aggregation. Archaeologically, such experimentation can be detected on the heels of the terminal Pleistocene and materializes as sites that are larger than the norm, more architecturally elaborate, or bear indicators of social difference (so-called anomalous sites). Within the Classic-period Maya region, extended discussion of different strategies of statecraft can be recognized as variable designs for human living within large-group aggregations.

This approach emphasizes the role of reflexivity in framing human-environment interactions in non-Western contexts and also in examining political cycling without recourse to narratives of failure and collapse. Past approaches (e.g., Questioning Collapse, 2010) asked questions that needed to be asked but did not offer pathways of decolonial reconstellation—the explicit goal of this seminar.

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question: 

As a Maya archaeologist, I am compelled by issues of political fragility and the asymmetry of colonial encounters in the Americas. As a researcher, I also embrace community participatory methods of investigating the past and of heritage conservation—methods that are participatory particularly in reference to descendant Mayan communities (for examples, see

Provisional sketch of essay:

Inspired by the pioneering work of Edward Said on Orientalism, I propose to explore how the trope of civilizational collapse has been deployed as part of a colonialist ideology of superiority and dominance. Even more unsettling, I explore the ways in which this mindset made its way into the academic discourse of archaeology and has been selectively applied to political arrangements of the ancestors of those perceived as other. I further explore how accusations of environmental abuse and poor landscape stewardship— corollaries of collapse discourse—have intensified (in reference to ancestral others) as the realities of 21st century anthropogenic climate change become more imminent. These trends argue for the need to consciously decolonize our narratives about the past as well as the methods that are used for the collection of evidence pertinent to past societies.