A common method in Mayanist studies is that of analogical reasoning in order to explain past human beliefs, practices, social- and political organizations. The use of analogies in archaeology has been debated, particularly in American archaeology that has a long tradition of analogical reasoning. Mayanists use both general comparative and direct-historical analogies. General comparative analogies are less common than direct historical ones in Mayanist studies, but they do appear, such as in models on socio-political organization. Here we have seen analogies with galactic polities of South-East Asia and Greek city states.
Prudence Rice suggests that the best analogies are the direct-historical ones since they show continuity and relies on Darwin’s descent with modification instead of orthogenetic evolution. It is argued that one should work back from known historical periods. Mayanists therefore frequently employ ethnographic or ethnohistoric analogies to explain patterns seen in the archaeological record. This is the clearest example of how the “Maya culture” is seen from an arborescent, ontogenetic and organismic perspective. It is like an organism evolving from one origin and it is the same essential “Maya culture” in the past as in the present. Analogical reasoning is no clearer than in two volumes on cave archaeology, edited by James Brady and Keith Prufer. Although they state that caution should be taken with analogies, their statement is only an attempt to justify their extensive reliance on ethnography in interpreting the archaeological record. The picture shows traces of contemporary use of the rejollada at Chanmahas near Ichmul: three wooden crosses and a pila (metate) near a small water pool (behind the photographer).
By expanding the area of analogies (both spatially and temporally), researchers can always find an analogy suitable for their objective(s). If a suitable analogy is not found in the lowlands, then one can always turn to the highlands in Guatemala and Chiapas, or if this does not work, one can search elsewhere in Mesoamerica or even in the American Southwest (which sometimes is included in Greater Mesoamerica). This is the arborescent logic where everything can be traced back to the master-signifying Maya or Mesoamerican culture. However, such approaches are right in one way, there are no cultures isolated from a wider world. Not only did Spanish colonialism affect the indigenous peoples of the Maya area, so did the presence of Olmecs, Teotihuacanos, and Aztecs. Thus, instead of talking about possible Maya/Central Mexican hybridization as has earlier been the case with the site of Chichén Itzá, we could talk about homogenization of certain activities and materialities, for example through a religious-political “Quetzalcoatl-cult” network. However, it is one thing to map historical continuity and similarities of certain phenomena and another thing to rely on a general Maya or Mesoamerican culture to explain these similarities.
Hodder has argued that some analogies are more valid than others, but there is little foundation for such an argument. A greater knowledge of ethnographic studies and Colonial period sources does not always give more knowledge of Prehispanic social formations. For example, Richardson Gill uses Colonial and modern analogies to explain how drought affects communities and he projects these explanations on the “Maya collapse.” He fails to acknowledge the impact of the Spanish congregation politics, Catholic doctrines, new biota, enforced changes of marriage customs, etc. These Colonial changes affected settlement and water conservation strategies during droughts. In an area only 7-30 km east of Lake Chichancanab, where Terminal Classic droughts have been detected, there is a great discrepancy between Colonial and Prehispanic settlement indicating that the Colonial analogies used for droughts have substantial flaws. Thus, both direct historical and general comparative analogies give an aura of static social formations. How long does a cultural tradition actually exist (and do they really exist other than in culture-historical models)? Analogies are easy ways to fill the past with some content, but all such interpretations begin in a transcendent level far from materialities.
I admit that we probably can never do archaeology without some form of direct-historical or general comparative analogy since we use basic analogies when we identify material forms (to separate an axe from a hammer by relating them to similar forms elsewhere). But this can also be explained by past individuals’ cognitive capabilities to create similarities rather than there being a transcendent culture behind the similarities. Further, we always encounter the archaeological context with a baggage of earlier knowledge and experience that make us automatically distinguish forms. But why should we only use analogies known from historical sources or from ethnography? This usage probably has to do with the “prehistoric” appearance of ethnography itself. Much of ethnography has described vanishing ways of living often believed to be under the threat of modernity. These ways of living are often considered to be more relevant to archaeology than studies focusing on “societies” similar to the ones that the majority of archaeologists come from. This also affects one’s choice of theory. For example, why is Bourdieu often considered being a more relevant source than Giddens in archaeology? Has it to do with the fact that Bourdieu made ethnographic work among the “traditional and conservative” Kabyle in Algeria and that Giddens focuses on a “modern and progressive” capitalist society? Whatever the answer is we might just as well use general analogies from our own social formations, such as when Fahlander discusses the distribution of air-conditioners within a modern settlement to problematize the archaeological suppositions concerning the spatial distribution of materialities.
Therefore, I believe that ethnographic and ethnohistoric analogies may be useful in one way: in pointing out flaws of assumed facts rather than to support them. Even if the analogies are used as cautionary tales they are usually included in an archaeological study to support a plausible explanation. Researchers mainly use ethnography when it is believed to support their interpretation, not otherwise. As mentioned, it is common to use ethnographic analogies in cave studies. Current cave use and meaning is used to interpret past cave use and meaning when it suits one’s preconceived understanding. Thus, analogies for the role of caves in cosmology are abundant but when one is to explain the presence of female burials in caves few researchers use analogies with contemporary people. Apart from the fact that people no longer are buried in caves, there appears to be gendered distinctions in the use of karstic features that makes direct analogies with past cave use problematic. In some contemporary Kekchi communities, women of a certain age tend not to enter caves because fertile women are believed to be threats to the fertility of the mountain-spirits. In some ethnographic studies in the Yucatec area, men enter the earth to collect sacred cave water and women get water from the sinkholes without entering the earth. Apparently women usually do not enter caves today but there are Prehispanic female burials in some caves. Such inconsistencies in the use of analogies are common. If the contact with the Spaniards changed burial customs and gendered use of caves has changed since the Terminal Classic then other activities may have changed as well.