Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jungle River Road: Crossing the Río de Pasión in Sayaxché, Guatemala

As we approach a total of 5000 miles of driving, most of which are coming from our ventures through México, Guatemala, and Belize, we have mastered the art of navigating around bumps in the road…literally. Since crossing the border on the first of June, we have seen everything from potholes and hundreds of topes, to roads washed away by landslides, to straight cliffside drop-offs devoid of any sort of guardrail or safety precaution. Driving through Guatemala on the way to Belize, we were faced a new obstacle.
Waiting for the ferry at the Río de Pasión waterfront.
We snaked around the streets of Sayaxché, a town in central Guatemala, and suddenly there was no road. Instead, a line of traffic awaited a small barge carrying a full load of cars, trucks, and people to cross the Río de Pasión and unload so they could board and continue on their way. The GoPro video above shows our ride through the town, with a brief, yet imperative pit stop, and our experience riding on the ferry across the river.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Slowing down social inequality: the role of speed bumps in Chiapas

A stray dog sleeps on a speed bump, or tope.
In the United States, a speed bump is a nuisance, which has the sole purpose of forcing cars to decelerate at locations that seem reasonably justifiable to do so. However in Mexico, speed bumps, known as topes, may have a more social component because they give oppressed people a voice. This phenomenon is widespread in the highlands of Chiapas.

For many years, the Maya of Chiapas have been marginalized and forced to plant their crops on patchy hillsides, equating to heavy erosion and high yields. This subjugation reached its boiling point in 1994 when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), headed by former professor Subcomandante Marcos, declared war on the Mexican government. After making strong statements by capturing several cities across the state and freeing every prisoner incarcerated in the prison of San Cristóbal de las Casas, it was quite evident the Maya were ready to take a stand.  This movement was the first time that the indigenous people of Chiapas were able to attempt to create ripples of change and stand up to their perceived oppressors.

Twenty years later, this culture has continued its strong-willed attitude in order to grasp onto perhaps its only chance to have direct control. Families and business owners in the small Maya towns that line the sides of roads throughout the region construct topes to stop cars from zooming past.

But there is much more to this story, for the motivation does not simply stem from the level of safety that is achieved as a result of a speed bump. There are resentful intentions fueling this construction, at least in part, due to the feelings evoked by the Zapatista Movement. Although this may seem like an insignificant victory from a “big-picture” perspective, it is pivotal for these people because it is a situation they are able to absolutely control. Moreover, they take advantage of the commercial opportunity presented as cars slow down. Topes are often built right outside of tiny shops selling sodas and snacks to travelers.  The passionately indignant nature of some modern Maya stems from the centuries of oppression imposed on them.
A scenic view on the way to San Cristóbal de las Casas.
On the drive from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas there are an enormous amount of topes. After driving this road once already this season, we decided to perform a miniature study on our second trip. Joining us this time was Dr. Christopher Duffy, a hydrologist from the Penn State College of Engineering. Behind his painstakingly comprehensive recording, we were able to determine there are 295 topes along this stretch of highway. Additionally, we have developed a thorough typology in order to to categorize and label each individual type of tope. For example, flat-toppers are ones that have a width similar to that of a crosswalk, mountaintops are narrower with a more dramatic incline, and vibradores (the name used on signs alongside the road) are several small speed bumps in a row to slow the car over a greater distance. These are the three of the types we experienced with the greatest frequency throughout the drive.

The next steps are to take measurements such as width and height and also to examine the geographic locations of the various types of topes. This would mean we would be able to solidify the categories we established in the typology by utilizing measurement-based parameters. Further, creating a geospatial distribution map of these speed bumps would aid in determining which villages have the highest incidence of tope construction.  From there, the inhabitants who built the topes would be interviewed to determine their motive for doing so.

As is evident in this preliminary research, the actions taken to combat social inequality can take many different and sometimes unexpected forms. When a person from a non-oppressed social group is observing this type of rebellion, it is difficult to understand the yearning to have a voice that exploited people experience. This study could shed light on the oppression that the modern Maya of highland Chiapas are still enduring today. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Vacuuming the pool: The Bomba Method

The ability to improvise and dramatically change plans on the fly is paramount when performing any type of excavation. This is especially true when a method not considered to be part of the dogma of archaeology is necessary for excavation. When X-ray diffraction (XRD) test results revealed the mineral composition of the sand in the Picota Pool was overwhelmingly dolomite limestone, it was apparent this sand was indeed natural and from Palenque. A combination of carbon dioxide outgassing and constant spring water movement left an approximate 10 cm layer of powdered dolomite. With this in mind, we are now able to vacuum the sand out of the pool in order to expose the floor and actually understand its makeup.

At the beginning of the 2014 season, it was our intention to block the drains connecting the pool to the aqueduct and remove the water in order to perform wet excavations rather than doing it underwater. Once we figured out the Maya of Palenque dug into the bedrock to expose the water table, we realized our semi-trash pump method would not work. Some strategizing and adaptation then led us to scooping out mud and debris, which then exposed this sand-like substance. Left untouched for a year, the jungle had taken over and covered much of the white powder that lined the pool.

In 2015, we once again had to get creative. The “Bomba Method” (Bomba is Spanish for “pump”) has become our main source for discovery this season. After being quite discouraged over what seemed like a waste of eighty pounds of equipment in 2014, it was rather gratifying to be able to put it use this year.
The first challenge was to hold the violently vibrating pump in place. Our Maya workers, Andrés and Ricardo, who come from the village of Naranjo, threw together a platform for the pump to sit on and tied it to a tree just uphill. As is shown in the video, the person operating the pump stirs up the sand and then pauses, guiding it into the hose. When debris builds up on the hose nozzle, the operator must then brush it off in order to avoid clogging. This unique method has helped us determine that the floor was simply bedrock weathered down to small rock fragments. It goes to show that the indoctrinated technique is not always the clear-cut solution. As we have found out, if you want to answer research questions in the field, it is necessary to rely heavily on innovation and resourcefulness.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dipping our toes into the pool of ethnography

After a season of intense excavation and consolidation of the main pool in Palenque’s Picota Group in 2014, investigations have since widened to include ethnographic research in the modern Maya village of Chamula in Mexico’s southern most state of Chiapas. Ethnography is a technique normally used in the cultural side of anthropology to describe and better understand a modern culture. Located on the northern edge of San Cristóbal de las Casas, this community is home to three constructed pools that appear to be very similar to those found just 110 km north in ancient Maya site of Palenque.
The Spring of San Juan in Chamula.
The first is the Spring of San Juan, which is the largest and most complex of the three pools. The upper section of this system is used only on May 3rd during the Día de la Santa Cruz. The Spring of San Pedro is a smaller and simpler water feature. The people of Chamula regularly come here to gather holy water for ceremonial use. Finally, the third pool, Ya’al Jtotik, is a compound-like area with many drying racks and sitting areas for people to gather and perform ceremonies together. All three of the springs have associated architectural features, such as shrines, staircases, and ledges on which patrons are able to stand while washing clothing.
Chamulan women wash clothes in the lower pool at the Spring of San Juan.
The pools in Palenque and Chamula are remarkably similar and unique to Mesoamerica. The project’s goal is to both learn more about the significance of the pools to the everyday life of Chamulans, as well as invite a few of the elders from the Waterhole Committee of Chamula to Palenque so they can see the ancient Maya pools firsthand.  
Kirk and Chip take a look at the Spring of San Pedro.
In early June we met with the president of the Potable Water Committee in Chamula. When told about the water management system in Palenque with the three pools along the stream, he seemed very unsurprised. In a very matter-of-fact tone, he stated that flowing water through limestone naturally forms waterholes along its edges. That being said, after seeing photos of the Palenque pools, their beauty impressed both he and his family. We concluded that the people of Chamula seem to view the pools as natural features of the landscape, therefore obvious elements of their everyday lives.
Soap collects in the Ya'al Jtotik pool.
After spending a few days photographing the pools and exploring the area around Chamula, we received permission from the local government to create a map of each of the pools. This data will later be incorporated into ArcGIS to create a more solidified version of the map. Having a tangible representation of our work in this area will be essential for future investigations. There is still much data to be obtained through ethnographic interviews with the people of Chamula, but it is vital to the project that we were able to create maps of the three major pools and familiarize ourselves with many local officials.

Crucial to the success of this project are the contributions of Walter “Chip” Morris, an American anthropologist who first came to Chiapas in 1972. Over the years he was able to master not only Spanish, but also the Maya languages of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Ch’ol. San Cristóbal de las Casas became his permanent home upon receiving the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award in 1983. Walking around Chamula with Chip could almost be compared to being a part of a rock star’s entourage. After many years of interacting with the people of the village, virtually every Chamulan man, woman, and child knows him.

Since the success of ethnographic research hinges on communication, it would be very difficult to obtain any data when both parties are speaking Spanish, their second language. Chip’s ability to speak Tzotzil, the language used in Chamula, and to also know certain local taboos and traditions had incalculable value and enabled us to explain our goals to anyone who was wondering.

One of the most unique experiences was walking through the San Juan Chamula Church, which can be found at the center of the town. To preface, I want to stress this is a recognized Catholic church. My very limited experience with Catholic churches in the United States made me assume that all churches have pews on which people sit and listen to the sermon presented by the priest.
The San Juan Chamula Church.
It was certainly a shock to walk into this edifice where there was nobody sitting in pews listening to someone preach from the pulpit. Instead, individual family units knelt in their respective zones they had claimed upon clearing away a section of pine needles that cover the entire floor of the church, which is devoid of any seating areas. Families make appointments to come to the church to have a ceremony for any kind of personal reason, be it a sickness in the family, starting a new job, or building a new house, just to name a few instances. To perform these ceremonies, people bring items including but not limited to candles, soda, water, chickens to be sacrificed, and pox (pronounced “posh”), a strong alcoholic beverage native to the area. In order for the prayer to be complete, everything that is brought must be consumed; the candles have to burn until they are simply a pile of wax, the chicken has to be sacrificed, and all the beverages must be finished.
A pox distillery.
Chip always makes sure he has a bag full of snacks to hand out to the children of the families who are undoubtedly fussy and bored. Some aspects of childhood remain the same across cultures as this is much like how young children sitting through mass in a church in the United States would also act. Almost like a Chamulan Santa Claus, he wanders around to find particularly distraught kids and pulls a bag of popcorn out of his satchel of goodies that makes their faces light up with excitement. It serves as a perfect icebreaker to facilitate casual conversation during the family’s ceremony. It should be noted that although these prayers are very personal, there is a sort of community-feel inside the walls of the Church of San Juan. They are elated when you offer to aid in the completion of the family’s offerings, whether it be the Coca-Cola, pox, or water. It is not considered to be freeloading for the sake of intoxication, but rather helping consume the gifts they have prepared for their prayer. This is the way in which outsiders can actually contribute to the family’s ceremony. Upon exiting the church, having drunk a fair amount of pox and still in a state of minor shock from seeing a chicken sacrificed, we were startled as a roaring firework soared from the plaza in front of the church. It is common for fireworks to be set off at the completion of the family’s ceremony, a fact of which I quickly became aware.
Panela, an unrefined cane sugar, is the ingredient of pox.
All of these experiences, although very different from what many Americans would consider to be “normal,” demonstrated to me that at the core of our existence, we truly are all quite similar. Sure, there is a wide range of traditions that make us unique from our neighbors, but they are all done with the same goals in mind. Family is a universally important entity. Alcohol translates into any culture, no matter how remote or traditional. The fiery desire to learn and grow burns deep in every person in every culture across the globe. There are certain aspects that collectively give us our identity of “human.” Anyone who believes that people halfway across the globe are vastly different needs to see for themselves in order to understand. It all goes back to the idea of the necessity to step out of your comfort zone to expand the level of consciousness and mature as a human. Anthropology is a marvelous facilitator to move towards achieving such a lofty feat. While studying humans you realize you are essentially looking in a mirror and gazing at yourself in a different culture. Recognizing similarity is the key to understanding humanity, and learning differences is the fundamental way to move toward human acceptance.