Posted by: Johan Normark | March 14, 2011

Ethnographic analogies in Mayanist cave studies again

On several occasions on this blog (and elsewhere) I have discussed the problematic use of ethnographic analogies in Mayanist research. Analogy is basically a way of comparing two things that are believed to be comparable in order to clarify the unknown with the known. I have also singled out the subfield of cave studies as the one most strongly affected by this tendency. There are notable exceptions to this overall tendency and these are the most exciting studies around today. I have recently read Christophe Helmke’s dissertation thesis (2009) and it is refreshingly devoid of ethnographic analogies. He demonstrates that “ethnographic analogy falls short in many respects, since it does not provide evidence for certain types of activities, which the ancient Maya clearly make repeated mention to in the epigraphic corpus” (p 37).

Instead Helmke utilizes and combines two sets of data. First he uses 300 glyphic texts found at over 40 sites (9 of them are caves). These make up two broad thematic categories: caves in context of wars and martial actions and references to caves related to travels, pilgrimages and royal rituals. The substance of glyphic texts at surface and subsurface sites differs quite a bit and this I will return to in another blog post. His other dataset consists of archaeological materials from four cave sites in the Roaring Creek River Valley of Belize. The ceramic remains from these caves make up more than 8700 discrete specimens from over 600 original ceramic vessels or implements. Helmke shows how these data sets can (and should) be analyzed without ethnographic analogies.

Helmke’s discussion of analogies is quite reminiscent of my own examples of the homogenizing arborescent modeling that prevails in these studies. It is always important to create a homogenized background to which one can project one’s data: “in the process of establishing ethnographic analogies for the Maya, one of the first steps is to homogenise the modern forms into a coherent whole, before transposing such synthesized forms onto the past” (p 74). Hence, “continuities have become monolithic assumptions, which serve to justify the projection of cultural features into the past” (p 65).

Another refreshing take on the archaeological record from the caves is to not see it only as evidence of rituals. Helmke says “it is significant that the ritual functions of caves, as emphasised in the archaeological literature, are not proportionately represented in the textual record of the ancient Maya. It is also notable that the human sacrifices and blood-letting rituals, which are so frequently cited by archaeologists, are completely absent from the contemporary written record” (p 193).

Behind the ethnographic analogies lies an assumption that there was a syncretism between the Maya and the European, that we just can peel off the later European layer and find an indigenous unaffected core. William Hanks shows that the very idea of syncretism as a European overlay atop an indigenous core emerged from the colonial way of reasoning. The colonizers divided the world into Spaniards vs Indians (or naturales as they also were called), and Christian vs heathen. The colonizers attempted to ossify these distinctions through reducción. What actually happened was that “superficially Maya forms of discourse came to stand for a semantic core of European ideas” (Hanks 2010:xvii). Hence, as Helmke argues, “attempts to strip the European features and project what remains onto the past in large measures misses the point entirely. The ethnographic present is not simply an even fusion, or syncretism, of the European and Amerindian, but is a series of uneven reinterpretations and reformulations within frameworks that allowed for mutual co-existence and sometimes unstable survival” (p 66). The results of Helmke’s dissertation research will be described in future blog post(s). It is really exciting stuff.

Helmke, Christophe G B (2009). Ancient Maya Cave Usage as Attested in the Glyphic Corpus of the Maya Lowlands and the Caves of the Roaring Creek Valley, Belize. University College London: London.


  1. Hi. Analogy is and will be a part of archaeology and all social science. It just a matter how you induce them, and what conclusion you draw from them. The question then is how you justify them, or not…

  2. Analogies are always made since even in the simplest scenario we define an object as belonging to a certain category based on our knowledge of similar objects elsewhere. The problem emerges when we attach “meaning” to that similarity. What I like by Helmke’s study is that he focuses on “how” rather than “why”. The “why” question part of research is the one most easily filled with educated guesses.


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