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The Life-Giving Stone

ethnoarchaeology of Maya metates

By Micheal Searcy

Publication Year: 2011

In The Life-Giving Stone, Michael Searcy provides a thought-provoking ethnoarchaeological account of metate and mano manufacture, marketing, and use among Guatemalan Maya for whom these stone implements are still essential equipment in everyday life and diet.

Although many archaeologists have regarded these artifacts simply as common everyday tools and therefore unremarkable, Searcy’s methodology reveals how, for the ancient Maya, the manufacture and use of grinding stones significantly impacted their physical and economic welfare. In tracing the life cycle of these tools from production to discard for the modern Maya, Searcy discovers rich customs and traditions that indicate how metates and manos have continued to sustain life—not just literally, in terms of food, but also in terms of culture. His research is based on two years of fieldwork among three Mayan groups, in which he documented behaviors associated with these tools during their procurement, production, acquisition, use, discard, and re-use.

Searcy’s investigation documents traditional practices that are rapidly being lost or dramatically modified. In few instances will it be possible in the future to observe metates and manos as central elements in household provisioning or follow their path from hand-manufacture to market distribution and to intergenerational transmission. In this careful inquiry into the cultural significance of a simple tool, Searcy’s ethnographic observations are guided both by an interest in how grinding stone traditions have persisted and how they are changing today, and by the goal of enhancing the archaeological interpretation of these stones, which were so fundamental to pre-Hispanic agriculturalists with corn-based cuisines.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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pp. v

List of Figures

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pp. vi-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

The tireless support and guidance of many people made it possible to complete this project, which began as my master’s thesis at Brigham Young University. John Clark, my thesis committee chair, imparted a foundation in archaeological method and theory and helped me understand how to develop an ethnoarchaeological study. As director of the...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-17

Descendents of the ancient civilizations of southern Mexico and Central America are one of the greatest sources of information on Maya life. Today the modern Maya live and work in the rural villages and towns spread out over this vast region. Many Maya communities continue to thrive culturally, while others, due to colonialism and civil war, have lost...

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2. The Cultural Landscape of the Highland Maya of Guatemala

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pp. 18-31

The Maya have occupied regions of modern-day Guatemala, southern Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras for many centuries. They live in diverse geographic and climatic regions, including the mountainous highlands that stretch across central and southern Guatemala. Many of the geological formations of modern-day Guatemala are the result of tectonic...

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3. Modern Metate Production

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pp. 32-65

While in Guatemala, I visited two quarries on opposite sides of the country: Nahual

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4. Modern Patterns of Acquisition, Use, Discard, and Reuse

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pp. 66-100

After being finished at the quarries and the home workshops of metateros, grinding stones are sold at the local market, or occasionally, wholesalers will purchase metates for resale in other parts of Guatemala. Many aspects of the sale and distribution of grinding stones among the Nahualá and Jilotepeque metateros mirror those reported in Cook’s...

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5. Archaeological Implications

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pp. 101-136

The previous chapters have presented extensive ethnographic data on the various aspects of the life cycle of manos and metates. Although this information could aid in numerous ways in the interpretation of the material culture of prehistoric peoples, I will highlight just a few applications of its utility. In particular, this chapter explores material...

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6. Conclusions

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pp. 137-149

As I began my first field season in Guatemala, I quickly realized that manos and metates were much more than just kitchen tools. I also came to see how archaeologists have long neglected the potential wealth of information suggested by these artifacts. The Maya of the Guatemala highlands who endured my incessant inquiries provided a better understanding...

Appendix 1: Survey

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pp. 151-155

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Appendix 2: Mayan Pronunciation Guide

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pp. 156

This short guide aids in the pronunciation of words from the three languages referred to in this monograph—Q’eqchi’, K’iche’, and Poqomam. Guatemala has twenty-three Mayan dialects that can be written with a similar orthography consisting of Roman characters. Consonants and vowels in this alphabet generally follow those in the Spanish alphabet, except for the letters ch and tz. Glottal stops are indicated by an apostrophe. Q’eqchi’ also...


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pp. 157-164


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pp. 165-168

E-ISBN-13: 9780816501267
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816529094

Publication Year: 2011