Institute of Archaeology



Tropicalís(i)mo: exploring comparative archaeologies between Amazonia and the Maya lowlands | Wed Dec 18 14:00:00 | Clarke Hall (Level 3)

The broad lowland Neotropical macro region has potentially much to offer to current thinking about the emergence of social power; demographic growth, resilience and adaptation in the face of different and/or changing environmental conditions; and links between different socio-historical trajectories, landscape transformation/degradation, and climate change. However, archaeological studies focused on different lowland regions of the Neotropics are fragmented along either national or cultural lines. They reflect different research traditions (e.g. Mayanists, Amazonianists) and are - generally speaking - strongly imprinted by a consideration of the reciprocal effects of human communities and environmental change. Despite the growing importance of a comparative perspective in archaeology, it remains to be seen whether tropical regions between Amazonia and the Maya lowlands can be meaningfully compared. In this session we seek to establish a forum to develop a comparative perspective focused on the archaeology of the Neotropical lowlands. We invite contributions on general questions such as:

  • Do the ‘tropics’ constitute a valid framework for archaeological comparison?
  • What are the commonalities that exist in approaches, methods and techniques?
  • Are the main research questions from both regions comparable?
  • What is the impact of different national and international archaeological traditions?
  • How are archaeological reconstructions reflective of ethnographic or ethnohistorical assumptions?
  • What is the relevance of current research for local communities across these regions?

We welcome and encourage contributions with a comparative and interdisciplinary angle within the lowland Neotropics.

Session timetable
14:00 | Eva Jobbova, UCD; Manuel Arroyo Kalin , UCL

Introduction to sessions

14:10 | Julie A. Hoggarth, Baylor University, Texas

Climate and Cultural Developments in the Maya Lowlands and Greater Amazonia

Cross-cultural archaeological comparisons between geographic regions enable big-picture views of societal transformations to be identified. Within the Maya lowlands and tropical South America, fewer direct comparisons have concentrated on tropical societies and their adaptations to local environments. Here we review trajectories of cultural development and decline across several distinct regions in the Maya Lowlands and Greater Amazonia during late pre-Columbian times. We compare climatic changes with archaeological indicators for culture change and land use systems to identify commonalities and differences in tropical human-environmental interaction and resilience (or vulnerability) to climate change in tropical environments.

14:30 | Mark Robinson, University of Exeter

Methods and relevance for comparative archaeologies of tropical Central and South America

Does the neo-tropical setting justify comparison between Central and South America? Tropical communities in Central and South America share commonalities, but also fundamental disparities. Can the large-scale monumental Maya civilisation be compared to Amazonian communities, when social and environmental processes are dependent on their specific regional institutions and histories? We share our experiences conducting research in both regions, discussing themes and methodologies to identify relevant areas for productive research. In particular, we discuss how archaeological research and methodological choices can have implications and impact for the modern tropical world.

14:50 | Andrew R. Wyatt, Middle Tennessee State University; Helena Pinto-Lima, Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi; Laura Furquim, Universidade de São Paulo

Household Archaeology in Amazonia: The Applicability of Archaeobotanical Research from the Maya Lowlands

The differences in scale between the Maya Lowlands and Amazonia is often reflected in the questions posed by archaeobotanists working in these different regions. In Amazonia, archaeobotanical research often addresses – with notable exceptions – questions of agricultural origins and large-scale environmental change over long periods. The Maya Lowlands, on the other hand, concentrates on more anthropologically focused questions, often at a smaller scale. The differences in approaches result, in part, from different historical trajectories as well as intensity and complexity of settlement.

This presentation will look at archaeobotanical research conducted in both the central Petén in the Maya Lowlands and the Lower Xingu in Amazonia. In the Maya area, research at the sites of Chan in Belize and Motul de San Jose in Guatemala tackle household agricultural practices and it’s relationship to changes in political economic systems. In the Lower Xingu we will look at current research, the applicability of this research from the Maya area, and whether the techniques and results can be employed in this region.

15:10 | BREAK
15:40 | Jaroslav Źrałka, Jagiellonian University, Cracow; Monika Banach, Jagiellonian University

‘Among the ruins and mudholes’: Relevance of archaeological research for the indigenous people in the Maya area

In this paper we would like to focus on the significance of the pre-Columbian archaeological remains and artifacts from two different perspectives – on one side, those of archaeologists and on the other side, the indigenous people of Central America. We will specifically talk about what is called the “Maya area”, as the researchers describe it nowadays, the territory in large part inhabited by more than 5 million Maya people – descendants of pre-Columbian Maya civilization. We would also like to reflect on the approach and language that the researchers apply and project on the ‘objects’ of their study, as well as the reception of these approaches and terminologies within the local context.

16:00 | Panayotis Kratimenos, UCL

Varying theoretical paradigms across national/regional lines in the Maya world

For much of the history of research in the area, the study of ancient Maya society has tended to fracture along lines of nationality/region among interested scholars. Such separate academic lineages have, to a greater or lesser degree, evolved independently from one another and along different trajectories. In part, these divergent approaches to the study of the ancient Maya are a product of the multitude of disciplines involved: primarily, archaeology, social anthropology, biological anthropology, and linguistics and epigraphy. This talk will examine the historical differences behind these academic traditions, attempt to explain their emergence and development, and explore commonalities between approaches, with a view towards an enhanced holisticism and true interdisciplinarity in the study of the ancient Maya past.

16:20 | J Julian Garay, UCL Institute of Archaeology

“¿Los Taínos sabían usar muchas plantas?”: The current state of Archaeobotanical research in the pre-Columbian Caribbean.

Currently the Caribbean is seeing a resurgence of archaeobotanical research, something that had not been seen since the 1980-1990’s with the works of Pearsall, Newsom and, Pagán-Jiménez. However, the current understanding of the pathways to “neolithization” in the Caribbean islands are highly dependent on starch residue analysis with fugitive contributions of other plant remains (i.e. phytoliths, macro-remains, pollen). This limits our understanding of past human-plant dynamics and specifically the nature of the pathways towards food production. Understanding these pathways requires the reconstruction of past human-plant dynamics in this case through the analysis of archaeobotanical assemblages of macro remains. Thus, an assessment of the current state of Caribbean archaeobotanical research will be presented. With an emphasis on how macro-botanical remains research could contribute towards understanding past subsistence/agriculture systems, and the need to develop a systematic way to study archaeobotanical remains in the Caribbean region. As the analysis of macro-botanical remains can amplify and clarify our understandings of these processes towards large scale agriculture in the Caribbean.

16:40 | Jose R. Oliver, UCL

Plural ‘societies’ in Ancient Orinoco: MG Smith Revisited

Available ethnohistorical evidence suggests that traders from diverse ethnicities and distant regions interacted the upper reaches of the Middle Orinoco River. In this paper I examine archaeological evidence that suggests this multi-ethnic trade ‘center’ evolved over two millennia before European colonization and the specific characteristics of this interaction.

17:00 | Eva Jobbova, UCD; Manuel Arroyo Kalin, UCL


17:30 | END