Colonial and Postcolonial Change in Mesoamerica: Archaeology as Historical Anthropology

Advanced Seminar

September 27–October 3, 2008

Five centuries of asymmetrical relations between Native Americans and western Europeans marked the culture area archaeologists call Mesoamerica—roughly equivalent to present-day Mexico and Central America. The political, economic, social, ecological, and religious systems of pre-Hispanic times were rent asunder by agents of the Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century. Independence from Spain in the nineteenth century and, later, incorporation into the US-based global economy occasioned further demographic, technological, and environmental changes. Yet, the complex sociocultural processes of the colonial-postcolonial trajectory remain partly obscure. “We set out to scrutinize the missing critical element—the archaeological evidence,” wrote the co-chairs of this seminar, Rani T. Alexander and Susan Kepecs.

“We aimed to examine Native society at the junctures of Eurocentrism, colonialism, capitalism, and modernity and to chart the course of these historically contingent processes to explain how pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica became modern Mexico and Central America. To move forward, we debated new evidence and epistemologies that link studies of the ethnographic present to the past.”

One distinguishing aspect of the seminar’s approach was the analysis of archaeological evidence combined with attention to what historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée—the very long term, or “the slow march of time that extends far beyond the chronicler’s memory.” Braudel was unsure that the historian’s traditional craft could adequately reveal this aspect, which has also been described as the slow and often imperceptible effects of space, climate, and technology on the actions of humans in the past. The seminar participants offered today’s anthropological archaeology as an appropriate tool for this task.

“The archaeological record is continuous rather than episodic,” wrote Alexander and Kepecs. “It overcomes the finite temporal span of historical records. It bridges the arbitrary divisions between the modern, historic, and pre-Hispanic eras, and it contains crucial but often overlooked information on the colonial-postcolonial trajectory.”

The resulting SAR Press volume will be the first to present comparative case studies tracing full historical sequences from the Spanish invasion through the colonial and postcolonial periods, providing a broad view across time of differences and similarities in Native American strategies for dealing with European administration in the region.

“Because the archaeological record encodes information about the past for people who are not well represented in historical documents, as well as those who are, it offers insights into challenging political-economic strategies and the exercise of agency, power, and resistance for people who seldom made their mark in the historical record. Ultimately, archaeology is pivotal to rebalancing our views of the colonial and postcolonial experience,” wrote the co-chairs.

This advanced seminar was generously supported by the Paloheimo Foundation.

Rani T. Alexander, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, New Mexico State University Maya Agrarian Ecology in Yucatan, 1500–2000
Susan Kepecs, Chair Honorary Fellow, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison From Salt to Cocaine: Chikinchel in the World System, AD 700–2008
David Carrasco Professor, Divinity School and Department of Anthropology, Harvard University Discussant
John K. Chance Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University Discussant
Cynthia L. Otis Charlton Independent Scholar, From the “Aztec”Altepetl of Otompan to the Municipio de Otumba: A Cultural Play in Three Acts
Thomas Charlton Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa From the “Aztec”Altepetl of Otompan to the Municipio de Otumba: A Cultural Play in Three Acts
Christopher Fisher Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Colorado State University The Europeanization of Mesoamerican Landscapes
Patricia Fournier Professor, División de Posgrado, Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico Material Culture, Status, and Identity in 19th Century Central Mexico: Urban and Rural Dimensions
Janine Gasco Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, California State University, Dominguez Hills Anthropogenic Landscapes of Soconusco from Aztec Times to NAFTA
Joel W. Palka Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Chicago Cross-Cultural Interaction and Lacandon Maya Ethnogenesis in the Lowland Frontier, 1750–2000
Judith F. Zeitlin Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Boston Indigenous Communities, Colonization, and Interethnic Interaction in Tehuantepec: 1450 to 2008

Sponsored by Paloheimo Foundation

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