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Giving Back History

BU prof leads effort to reconnect modern Maya with their cultural legacy

Click above to watch a video about the Maya Area Cultural Heritage Initiative (MACHI), educational programs across Central America that aim to reconnect modern Maya with the archaeological remains of their ancestors.

 

In summer 2005, a group of protesting Chorti’ Maya lay down in front of tour buses entering one of the places in Honduras most visited by tourists — the ancient Maya ruins of Copan.

It was the third such protest in less than a decade, and the grievance that sparked it echoed those of Maya people across Central America: the archaeological remains of the ancient Maya are largely controlled by national governments, not the Maya people. Modern Maya communities, poor and disenfranchised, benefit only marginally from a boom in archaeology-based tourism that annually puts millions of dollars into government coffers. Resentment of that inequity and exploitation compel some modern Maya to justify the looting of ancient sites.

As an archaeologist who has long worked in the region, Patricia McAnany, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of archaeology, believes education is a key to empowering the modern Maya and stemming the looting. If the modern Maya knew more about their ancestors and the civilization they built, McAnany reasons, they could better argue for more governance of these sites and would feel a greater sense of stewardship over them.

“The problem,” she says, “is there are very few educational programs that attempt to share with Maya communities the tremendous amount of knowledge about their ancestral past that has been generated by archaeologists over the past 100 years.”

Last year, McAnany launched the Maya Area Cultural Heritage Initiative (MACHI). Through MACHI, McAnany and a team of archaeologists, including Shoshaunna Parks (GRS’08), Satoru Murata (GRS’07), and Reiko Ishihara, a doctoral student at the University of California, Riverside, have been partnering with Maya people and local NGOs in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to teach the modern Maya about their ancestors.

The initiatives vary widely, from community workshops in Belize to puppet shows in Mexico to radio soap operas in Guatemala that are infused with stories about the ancient Maya and the folly of looting their remains. McAnany admits that education must be coupled with tangible economic benefits, and sooner rather than later if MACHI is to have a significant and sustainable impact on looting and on the well-being of the modern Maya people.

“It’s not easy to say, well, these are your ancestral sites, so you’d better take care of them,” says McAnany. “There has to be tourism development or some other way in which an economic benefit can accrue to people in return for caretaking a site.”

Indeed, Maya ruins have proven to be big moneymakers for the governments of Central America. In Belize, for example, according to the Belizean Tourism Board, Maya ruins were the biggest draw for foreign tourists, whose spending accounted for 17 percent of that country’s GDP in 2006.

Nevertheless, steps such as hiring modern Maya as tour guides or giving Maya communities a voice in site management won’t happen without education, says Cristina Coc, director of the Julian Cho Society, a Belizean indigenous rights group partnering with MACHI.

“I believe that through this project we’re going to show that Maya people are willing and are capable of managing their own resources,” says Coc.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.