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  • War in the Land of True Peace: The Fight for Maya Sacred Places by Brent K. S. Woodfill
  • Joseph L. Scarpaci
Brent K. S. Woodfill
War in the Land of True Peace: The Fight for Maya Sacred Places.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. xxvi + 322 pp. Illus., maps, tables. $39.95 cloth (ISBN: 978-0-8061-6281-2).

The setting for this copious work is the Northern Transversal Strip of Guatemala, also known as Vera Paz or True Peace. Ironically, peace seldom punctuates its turbulent history. The region is a stretch of fairly flat land to the north of the Guatemalan highlands whose absolute and relative locational attributes are many. In the former, its fertile soils and alluvial valleys have brought forth cacao, achiote, salt, petroleum, sesame, tobacco, palm oil, and cardamom. Its relative location offers a corridor of trade to Petén, Chiapas, and the Guatemalan highlands where the majority of Guatemalans reside. Resource conflicts have ranged from the encroachment of the Tikal Mayan settlements, the Spanish Conquest, intra-Mayan conflict, to more recent German, American, Ladino, guerilla, and Mexican narco-organization control over cultural and economic resources.

The book is comprised of twelve chapters in three parts. The first six chapters (Part I) offer a detailed review of the exploitation of the Northern Transversal Strip of Guatemala. The second part—Case Studies—allots four chapters to what the author calls “sacred geography,” meaning that Mesoamerican landscapes and religions are inseparable. “Unlike in the Christian Worldview…[Mayan] gods and mythological figures regularly move among [the Earth, heaven, and the Underworld] fluidly. The sun descends into the Underworld at twilight, just as we do when we become ancestors to be worshipped by our families after we die. Caves, hills and even archaeological sites are sacred places on the Maya landscape” (p. 7).

Part III examines how Q’eqhci’ (or Kekchi) Indians contest those sacred geographies. As befits any book that is part of the Archaeology, Latin America, and History series at the University of Oklahoma Press, the author takes a long view of a millennia-length fight to ensure the sanctity of treasured landscapes. We learn in detail that this landscape is not only a focus of worship and adoration, but it also serves as a venue to connect with deities and one’s ancestors. Cave recesses and mountain-top shrines are laden with flesh, incense, and blood offerings. Prominent places such as Candelaria Caves, the Cave of Hun Nal Yet, San Juan Hill, B’ombi’il Pek, Oxlagu’ Ha’, and Juliq’, allowed leaders to engage in public rituals that supported particular covenants which the rulers’ citizens could witness. Ceremonies cemented political control and allegiances. Although many of the hieroglyphic texts were stolen, destroyed or burned by other city-states during the Classic Maya period, many survived or else were documented. These were such tenacious and powerful sites of ritual that even during the violence and genocide in Guatemala during the late twentieth century, the army often posted soldiers close to cave entrances to capture Q’eqhci’ supplicants who sought refuge in the forest to avoid living in government-sanctioned [End Page 303] settlements.

What might geographers glean from this book? This work is not a general reader or undergraduate text; instead, it is much better suited to graduate work and professional scholarship concerned with the epigraphy, ethnography and ethno-history of the Transversal, and Mayan culture more broadly. Cultural, historical, and resource geographers interested in Mesoamerica in general, and Guatemala in particular, will find this to be a treasure trove of carefully woven field and archival data; the author has been familiar with the region and the Classic Maya period since early childhood. Non-specialists will find the work to be heavy going with detailed accounts of regional exploitation, as well as the often-conflicting interpretations of what happened where and why. Antagonistic municipal councils, hostile multinational oil companies, and leery private landholders impeded the author and his team’s fieldwork. These trials and tribulations are metrics against which Latin American-ists of all stripes might assess their own challenges. An especially useful section is titled “regions, jargons, and orthography” (p. xii-xv) to help...