BYU Anthropologist Addresses Maya Origins Puzzle

In 2001 the chance discovery of a 2,000-year-old Maya mural in a chamber buried beneath a pyramid in the Guatemalan jungle stirred the archaeological community. It was a sensational find, one of the most important for Mayanists in half a century. Rendered in brilliant colors with exquisite skill, the remarkably well-preserved mural reveals a highly sophisticated artistic tradition and hieroglyphic script predating the Maya’s golden age by 800 years.

Since then, a team of archaeologists working at the remote site, at San Bartolo in Guatemala’s Petén lowlands, have uncovered another mural in the chamber. They expect to piece together additional murals that once graced the other two walls, destroyed long ago by Maya workmen making way for newer construction.

Last October, at the Beckman Center of the National Academies of Science and Engineering in Irvine, California, all six members of the San Bartolo field research team presented their latest findings. Among them was BYU professor of anthropology John E. Clark, director of the BYU New World Archaeological Foundation, who addressed the longstanding puzzle of Maya origins.

He noted that for all the attention given to excavating Maya sites in Mesomerica, scholars remain unclear about the origins of Maya civilization, “and for most of them, it is not a research question.” One result of this neglect is that “the Maya have consistently been given credit for things they did not do,” Clark said. “Many Maya practices were a revered heritage received from their Olmec forebears.” (The Olmecs are thought to have occupied southern Veracruz, western Tabasco, and nearly all of Chiapas in what is present-day southern Mexico.)

Clark explained that there are two main hypotheses regarding Maya origins. The “mother culture” hypothesis posits that Maya civilization derived from the earlier Olmec civilization, while the “sister culture” hypothesis asserts that different cultures arose independently yet contributed equally to the development of Mesoamerican civilization (discounting the primacy of Olmec settlement and influence). Clark sees merit in the former view, but with a crucial distinction: he proposes the label “mother civilization” or “first civilization” hypothesis since the focus is not on cultural dimensions such as biology and linguistics but on “the advent of civilization among established peoples and linguistic communities”—that is, on institutions and belief systems.

Clark then reviewed considerable archaeological evidence indicating that the Olmecs were the first major civilization of Mesoamerica and that they exerted a lasting civilizing influence on the Maya and other peoples. For example, to illustrate the Olmec legacy among later Mesoamerican peoples, Clark took a detailed look at the great Maya king Pakal of Palenque, who lived 1,000 years after the Olmecs and whose tomb, found in 1952, was replete with artifacts. Clark found “an 80 percent correspondence between the practices and artifact inventory apparent in Pakal’s mortuary monument and Olmec practices from the previous millennium. This is a phenomenal correlation.” Noting that the Maya at San Bartolo wore masks exhibiting clear Olmec influences, Clark concluded that “the San Bartolo mural communicates plainly after 2,000 years of entombment that the Maya derived civilization from their Olmec ancestors.”

The other distinguished speakers at the symposium were William A. Saturno, the University of New Hampshire archaeologist who discovered the mural; Michael D. Coe, an anthropologist at Yale University who is a major figure in the decipherment of Maya writing; David S. Stuart, an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Austin who, like Coe, is known for his expertise in Maya writing; Karl A. Taube, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside, who serves as the iconographer of the San Bartolo Mural Project; and Heather Hurst, an archaeological illustrator at Yale University who is producing reproductions of the San Bartolo murals.

Among those attending the symposium was Allen J. Christenson, a humanities professor at BYU who specializes in the art and literature of the Maya people of Mexico and Central America. As translator of Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 2 vols. (London: O Books, 2003—4), he appreciates the cultural significance of the San Bartolo murals.

“If someone sat down to imagine what the find of the century would look like, he could not have done any better than this,” Christenson said, noting that the murals are remarkable for their antiquity, beauty, and intact state as well as for the rich iconographic and epigraphic information they contain. The frescoes include phonetic Maya language (only a few of the glyphs have been translated so far) of purely theological content, and the scenes of creation mythology ending with the accession of a king relate directly to Popol Vuh creation stories. “What we have of the Popol Vuh is a 16th-century copy, but the stories and creation imagery go way back, before the time of Christ,” Christenson said.