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Ch'orti Maya Area

Past and Present

Edited by Brent E. Metz, Cameron L. McNeil, and Kerry M. Hull

Publication Year: 2009

The Ch'orti' area--located in present-day Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador--was once the southernmost region of the ancient Maya world. Though thousands of years of tumultuous change have altered the face of the region drastically, many Ch'orti' have preserved their identity and maintained strong cultural ties to their past, and the region generally continues to practice traditions with Ch'orti' roots.

The Ch'orti's' connection with the Maya past and modern-day struggles with poverty and cultural encroachment have made the once little-studied Ch'orti' an important subject of anthropological research. The Ch'orti' Maya Area presents a holistic, multidisciplinary and long-term look at these people, their culture, and the region itself. Highlighting research from leading scholars around the globe, this collection is an impressive exploration of the history of human habitation in the area from approximately 3,000 years ago to the present.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

This is an opportune time to explore the various currents of research on the Ch′orti′ area of eastern Guatemala, western Honduras, and northwestern El Salvador. The ruins of the Classic period city of Copan, Honduras, have fascinated archaeologists, epigraphers, and the lay public for centuries, and they continue to provide new...

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pp. xv

The three editors would like to thank the editors of the University Press of Florida, especially acquiring editors John Byram and Eli Bortz, for their patience and guidance in this four-year project. We appreciate the advice of external reviewers Judith Maxwell and an anonymous scholar, which has strengthened the cohesion, presentation, and...

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1. The “Ch′orti′ Area”

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pp. 1-9

The contributors to this volume have a lot of explaining to do. For one, it is controversial even to refer to a “Ch′orti′ area.” The very word Ch′orti′ is problematic because, according to some ethnographers and linguists (for example, Wisdom, Fought), the /ch/ phoneme is not glottalized, as the diacritic would suggest. Whence did this...

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Part 1: The Ch′orti′ Language and Its Relationship to Ancient Mayan

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pp. 11-13

In this section, authors present their arguments for two competing hypotheses regarding the founders of the ancient Maya script. For the nonlinguist, the reading may be challenging but is well worth the effort given the important implications. David Mora-Marín, Nicholas Hopkins, and Kathryn Josserand (who tragically passed away...

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2. The Linguistic Affiliation of Classic Lowland Mayan Writing and the Historical Sociolinguistic Geography of the Mayan Lowlands

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pp. 15-28

In the present chapter we propose a framework for research on the standard and vernacular languages represented in ancient Mayan texts, giving special attention to the history and sociolinguistic context of Classic Lowland Mayan civilization (a.d. 200–900). The goal is to critically reexamine several linguistic models and proposals...

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3. Most Maya Glyphs Are Written in Ch′olti′an

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pp. 29-42

Classifying the language of Maya hieroglyphic texts is much more than just a linguistic exercise. It has far-reaching implications for the interpretation of the content of these inscriptions as well as for our understanding of time-depth in the Mayan language family, not to mention ethnic and cultural issues surrounding the Classic, and...

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Part 2: The Pre-Columbian History of the Ch′orti′ Area

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pp. 43-46

Contributors to this section explore data on the ecology, migration, settlement, and ethnicity of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Ch′orti′ area. They deal with several regions inhabited by the Ch′orti′ for at least some interval within the last two thousand years: these include Copan (Cameron McNeil, Allan Maca, Robert Sharer); El Salvador...

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4. The Environmental Record of Human Populations and Migrations in the Copan Valley, Honduras

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pp. 47-60

The most prominent archaeological site in the region defined in this book as the Ch′orti′ area is that of Copan in Honduras (see Figures 1.1 and 4.1). This large site rose to prominence and became a state center during the Classic period (circa a.d. 250–900; Fash 1983b, 1988; Traxler 2004). Copan has fascinated both archaeologists and...

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5. Who Were Those Classic Period Immigrants into the Zapotitán Valley, El Salvador?

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pp. 61-77

For this book I was asked to explore the topic of Ch′orti′ Maya southern expansion during the Classic period. Length constraints eliminate many topics I would like to include. The focus here begins with the Mirafl ores cultural sphere of the Late Preclassic and the devastation of the Ilopango eruption. The ecological recovery from that...

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6. Archaeological Investigations in the Camotán Valley, Guatemala

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pp. 78-89

Modern country borders do not reflect the limits of ancient Maya kingdoms and, in fact, complicate the study of them. The Copan kingdom, whose political center lies in modern Honduras, for some time preceding the death of its thirteenth king, Waxaklajun Ub′ah K′awil, held dominion over areas in what is now Guatemala. The...

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7. Ethnographic Analogy and the Archaeological Construction of Maya Identity at Copan, Honduras

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pp. 90-107

John Lloyd Stephens was a U.S. diplomat, explorer, and Manifest Destinarian active in the first decades after Central American and Mexican independence from Spain (Evans 2004). His travel books (for example, 1837, 1838, 1841, 1843) explained the world to a rapt and fledgling America and brought the ancient Maya ruins into homes across...

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8. Lightning Is Born: Using Ch'orti′ Ritual to Interpret Ancient Maya Art

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pp. 108-123

Scholars have long pondered the relationship between ancient and modern cultures in the Maya area. Earlier researchers who had experience in both archaeology and ethnography, such as J. Eric S. Thompson, frequently allowed their interpretations of ancient Maya civilization to be colored by their perceptions of the modern Maya. In some...

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9. The Ch′orti′ Past: An Archaeological Perspective

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pp. 124-133

The temporal distribution of extant archaeological and historical data allows us to reconstruct the emergence and development of an ancestral Ch′olan or proto-Ch′orti′ population in the southeastern Maya area, during an era spanning the Late Preclassic through the Late Classic eras, or between circa 300 b.c. and a.d. 800. The...

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Part 3: The Southeastern Maya Periphery during the Colonial Period

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pp. 135-136

The history of the Ch′orti′ region has until recently largely been an untold story. As our two historians here mention, sources are scarce and the area has not attracted as much scholarly attention as have other areas of Mesoamerica. Some books and dissertations specific to eastern Guatemala include those of Ingersoll (1972), Flores...

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10. The Ch′orti′ Maya of Eastern Guatemala under Imperial Spain

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pp. 137-147

One of the major frustrations that accompany any historical, documentary study of the Ch′orti′ Maya during Guatemala’s colonial years (1524– 1823) is the general absence of documents that provide the Ch′orti′ perspective. Authors have previously lamented this lack of documentation for the Ch′orti′ region as a whole, and although Spanish...

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11. Some Data and Reflections on the Demographic Dynamism and Continuity of the Colonial Ch′orti′ Population: The Many Copans and San Juan Ermita

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pp. 148-156

In 1978, I led a team that conducted a survey of colonial documents pertaining to twenty-eight Guatemalan and Honduran communities of the southeastern Maya periphery. While a written report was made of the results, it was never published. Data from this study elucidate the lifeways of Maya people and the land-use practices...

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Part 4: The Ch′orti′ Today

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pp. 157-160

A noticeable divide separates the articles in this ethnographic section, reflecting not so much the authors’ theoretical or political differences as the differing Ch′orti′ cultural backgrounds. The descendants of the colonial Indians in the Ch′orti′ region are today culturally and phenotypically diverse and do not necessarily identify with...

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12. Searching for Ch′orti′ Maya Indigenousness in Contemporary Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

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pp. 161-172

Searching for indigenousness in the contemporary Ch′orti′ area may seem naïve from various perspectives. From a purist perspective in which cultures are seen as bounded complex wholes, truly unadulterated indigenous cultures ceased to be practiced in the New World as soon as Europeans invaded. Attention to indigenousness...

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13. A Chorti Tale, Coyote and Rabbit: Told by Lorenza Martínez

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pp. 173-186

It is fitting that a Chorti voice be heard here; all the more so because it is a woman’s. In addition, the unique role of Isidro González in documenting the language and beliefs of his people should be recognized. In my work on Chorti I have always relied on him. He is not just a native speaker, but an experienced translator and interpreter, respected...

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14. Dualism and Worldview among the Ch′orti′ Maya

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pp. 187-197

Recent gender studies have provided some of the more insightful advances in Mesoamerican studies (Taggart 1983; Klein 2001; Joyce 2000; Arden 2002). Identifying and defining the dualistic gender traits of ancient and modern deities and agricultural items has substantially added to our under standing of Mesoamerican conceptual...

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15. Ajk′opot Gente: The Unrecognized Keepers of Maya Plant Lore

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pp. 198-213

Traditional Ch′orti′ and Ladino hamlets can be easily distinguished by two characteristics: Ch′orti′ houses have thatched roofs and are dispersed over a wide area, whereas rural Ladino houses have tiled roofs and stand close together. Building a house is an important activity for Ch′orti′ men, nearly as important as work in the...

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16. Ethnic Diversity in Reproductive Health Behavior: A Case Study of the Ch'orti' Area

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pp. 214-229

On first glance, it would appear that eastern Guatemala has little ethnic diversity and consists entirely of Ladinos, as the vast majority of its campesinos do not wear distinctive clothing or speak Maya languages. On close inspection of less obvious cultural practices such as reproductive health behavior, however, one finds that ethnicity...

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17. From Indigenous Movement to Indigenous Management: Conflict and Accommodation in Ch'orti' Maya Ethnopolitics

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pp. 230-245

The topic of indigenous social and political movements in Latin America has been of considerable interest over the past fifteen to twenty years, particularly since the end of the cold war. The origins and dynamics of these movements raise many interesting questions regarding collective action and identity formation as well as practical issues...

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18. Copan Past and Present: Maya Archaeological Tourism and the Ch'orti' in Honduras

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pp. 246-257

Western Honduras is known to most international travelers and scholars as the setting for the ancient city of Copan, recrafted in the twentieth century as an archaeological tourist attraction. In recent years investment from the Honduran government, local entrepreneurs, international aid organizations, and multilateral lending institutions...

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19. Representational and Enacted Violence against Guatemalan Ch′orti′s in the Famine of 2001

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pp. 258-270

Some Ladino inhabitants of the township (municipio) centers in the Ch′orti′ region of Guatemala, principally Jocotán, Camotán, Olopa, and La Unión, recycle a macabre riddle in reference to the stigma of tragedy associated with the Ch′orti′ Maya. It is a riddle retold every time a disaster takes place in the region: “What do the cholera...

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Part 5: Putting Ch′orti′ Research in Longitudinal Context

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pp. 271-273

Charles Wisdom was one of the earliest ethnographers to undertake a long-term study of a Maya group. His encyclopedic ethnography, The Chorti Indians of Guatemala, was the only comprehensive ethnography of the Ch′orti′ in the twentieth century and for decades largely defined, along with the works of Rafael Girard...

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20. The Mystery of Charles Wisdom: Producing Ch'orti' Ethnography during the Great Depression, 1930–1940

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pp. 275-288

In October 1940, the University of Chicago Press published The Chorti Indians of Guatemala by Charles Wisdom. It was, as Ralph Roys put it, a pioneering work on a “little known but important member of the Maya family,” Ch′orti′ speakers being not only “of interest to the student of modern Guatemala, but [also] of considerable...


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pp. 289-333

List of Contributors

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pp. 335-337


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pp. 339-346

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045313
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813033310
Print-ISBN-10: 0813033314

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 32 b&w figures, 28 tables
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Chorti Indians -- History.
  • Chorti Indians -- Ethnic identity.
  • Chorti Indians -- Social conditions.
  • Guatemala -- Ethnic relations.
  • Honduras -- Ethnic relations.
  • El Salvador -- Ethnic relations.
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