by Eliza Barclay
When archaeologist Joel Palka ventured into the rain forests of northern Guatemala to study the disappearance of the ancient Maya, locals laughed. The "ancient" Maya had, in fact, been in the area as recently as the 1920s, they told him.
In the early 1990s, when Palka was first in the region, there had been virtually no archaeological research done on the unconquered Maya. They were a mysterious people who had retreated deep into the rain forests of southern Mexico and Guatemala after the Spanish first arrived in the Yucatán in 1511.
In 2006, Palka and Fabiola Sánchez Balderas, president of the Maya culture and conservation organization Xanvil, returned to map the ancient Maya sites and investigate sacred rock art and cave shrines at Lake Mensabak in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
What they found was evidence of an ancient settlement of Lacandon Maya, a group that had long been overlooked and ignored by archaeologists, according to Palka.
Descendants of the unconquered groups still live there today. The current residents of Mensabak are modern Maya who, unlike some of their ancestors, have had contact with outside communities.
"The lion's share in Maya archaeology has been devoted to research on the tombs, temples, and awe-inspiring finds of Classic Maya civilization," said Rani Alexander, an archaeologist at New Mexico State University.
"Joel's is the only project that follows the cultural transformation of the free Lacandon from the 16th century to the present."
(Related: "Maya Rise and Fall" in National Geographic Magazine [August 2007].)
Ancient and Modern
Palka, now at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Sánchez Balderas surmised that the ancient sites and shrines they uncovered in 2006 at Lake Mensabak belonged to Classic Mayans from A.D. 600-800 and Historic Mayans from A.D. 1525-1950.
The "ancient" Maya that locals said were in Guatemala until the 1920s were actually post-conquest Maya who resisted assimilation, according to Palka. After the 1920s some adopted new lifestyles while others, such as the Lacandon, slipped across the border into Chiapas and held tight to tradition.
Lake Mensabak is located in the remote and lush Lacandon rain forest. It is far off the beaten path of the well-known Classic Maya sites in Chiapas, such as Palenque and Yaxchilan.
"The most surprising element is that much of the culture and behavior from pre-contact Maya culture continues to [the] present, including stone tool use and head-shaping," said Palka, whose work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Other Maya groups traded their bows and arrows for guns once they became available, while the Lacandon around Lake Mensabak continued to use traditional weapons into the 20th century, according to Palka.
"When I dig some of these sites, I find a stone knife right next to a steel machete," he said. "These people were not ignoring ancient technologies that have always worked for them."
Palka's research techniques are somewhat unusual. Though he has relied on Spanish documents to verify the presence of ancient sites at the lake district, he has also used topographic maps and Google Earth to locate them.
Additionally, Palka works closely with the local community.
"The big draw is to work with the Lacandon at the lake and have them helping with the archaeology, recording their interpretations of history and objects as they're being uncovered," Palka said.
"The young ones are very open to us working there because they want to know about their history," Sánchez Balderas added.
"By now the elders who had that knowledge of Lacandon Maya cosmovision, or understanding of the universe, have died. So this is an important part of the research, that we help them reinforce their identity."
Palka and Sánchez Balderas's work may also help the community to preserve its own culture before the tides of globalization wash it away, said New Mexico State University's Alexander.
"Because globalization is now reshaping the cultural map in the deepest depths of the rain forests in Mexico and Guatemala, the Lacandon Maya are less and less able to avoid contact," says Alexander. "As a result, this is a cultural manifestation that is increasingly threatened."
The community is constructing a cultural center, which Palka said he hopes will be a home for archaeological and ecological information, and a draw for tourists to help the community generate income.