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The Gordon Childe Lecture: Experimental by Design: Rethinking Political Sol...

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Darwin Lecture Theatre B40

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WC1E 6XA

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Rethinking Political Solution and Dissolution in the Maya Lowlands

Patricia A. McAnany (Kenan Eminent Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina), with a ‘Welcome’ by Professor Sue Hamilton, Director, UCL Institute of Archaeology and a response by David Wengrow (Professor of Comparative Archaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology).


Abstract

In the Americas, Pre-Columbian political forms tend to be analyzed from an apocalyptic perspective that arcs from emergence to tragic but inevitable collapse. Timing of the many and varied examples of political dissolution rarely coincided with European incursions. Nonetheless, popular understandings of the Pre-Columbian world often conflate 16th-18th century European wars of conquest with the collapse of earlier Indigenous polities. The 9th-century collapse of divine rulership in the southern Maya lowlands provides a relevant case in point and hints at a troubling entanglement between Colonial triumphalism and Indigenous failure to repel unwanted immigrants.

I consider how we might come to understand the workings of archaic states in the Maya region and elsewhere if we untangle them from morally laden apocalyptic tales. I further examine how the colonization process demanded this entanglement as well as a simplification of political complexity in occupied regions. This deeply embedded way of understanding what Europeans called “the New World” permeates much of 19th and 20th century archaeology.

In radically departing from this paradigm, we consider a social proclivity towards political experimentation. I use the term experimentation to mean a test or trial to see if something works. Because political forms codify relations of power, they are notoriously fragile and often ephemeral constructions, unlike social or religious forms. Likewise, by nature of their social construction, political arrangements tend to be finite, with a beginning and an end. Resurgent political entities often fine-tune the more fragile aspects of earlier ones. In this sense, political forms parallel the structure of scientific experimentation. Archaeology—although not an experimental science—may be thought of as the study of political experimentation. This framework is proposed for the Maya region during pre-Columbian times and may also be a good fit with the new age of populism in which many nation-states currently find themselves.


Patricia A. McAnany is Kenan Eminent Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (NC, USA), external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, and a senior fellow of the Pre-Columbian Program at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. She has been the recipient of research awards from the National Science Foundation and the Archaeological Institute of America, and of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Institute for the Arts & Humanities at UNC, Chapel Hill. A Maya archaeologist, she is principal co-investigator of Proyecto Arqueológico Colaborativo del Oriente de Yucatán, a community archaeology project focused on Preclassic through Colonial landscapes of Tahcabo, Yucatán. As Director of a UNC Program called InHerit: Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present (www.in-herit.org), she collaborates with Indigenous communities throughout the Maya region to provide opportunities to dialogue about cultural heritage and to participate in heritage conservation. Currently president of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), she actively works towards expanding the profile of Archaeology within the AAAs. She is the author of many journal articles and several books, including Maya Cultural Heritage: How Archaeologists and Indigenous Communities Engage the Past (2016), Ancestral Maya Economies in Archaeological Perspective (2010); Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire (2009) co-edited with Norman Yoffee; and Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society (2014, revised edition).


Patricia A. McAnany


Programme


6.30pm Darwin Lecture Theatre B40

The Gordon Childe Lecture

Rethinking Political Solution and Dissolution in the Maya Lowlands

Patricia A. McAnany (Kenan Eminent Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina), with a ‘Welcome’ by Professor Sue Hamilton, Director, UCL Institute of Archaeology and a response by David Wengrow (Professor of Comparative Archaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology).

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Darwin Lecture Theatre B40

Gower Street

London

WC1E 6XA

United Kingdom

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