Posted by: Johan Normark | April 26, 2013

A comment on the “origins of the Maya culture”

You may have heard the news about Takeshi Inomata’s excavations at Ceibal/Seibal that reveal that the site is older than La Venta and hence was not directly influenced by the Olmec. Neither is it evidence of a purely local development. The conclusion is that the development of the Maya culture was more complex than previously thought. Well, that is no surprise at all if you ask me. The surprise is that Maya archaeologists still use these culture models. The origins of the Maya culture or the Olmec culture is only a problem that has emerged from the Mesoamericanist/Americanist models of culture.


Mesoamerica as a concept, with cultural markers from the 16th century, was formed by Kirchoff. Although Mayanists nowadays see Kirchoff’s cultural markers as too coarse, they still use Mesoamerica as a concept since there are similarities in architecture, calendars, agriculture and religious beliefs throughout a larger geographical area. The temporal and spatial boundaries of Mesoamerica have often been seen as fluid but Mesoamerica is usually defined and delimited by the above mentioned Prehispanic characteristics. Within this greater cultural area are smaller cultural areas, such as Aztec, Olmec, Maya, etc. These are mainly defined by stylistic criteria, chronology, geographical placement, linguistics and ethnicity.

Culture is often seen as an organism, particularly so in culture-historical, functionalistic, and processual models. It is argued that just as the bodily organs work for the organism, social institutions mainly work to benefit the society/culture. Hence, a culture also has an origin (a birth from a “mother culture”). It can be healthy or sick and die (collapse in the Maya case). It may also have descendants, etc.  In terms of the organismic metaphor, the orientation towards agency is not a major change from functional/processual archaeology or culture-history. DeLanda argues that even agency approaches rely on a seamless whole, a formless society in which the human subject is interwoven. This seamless whole ultimately relies on the organismic metaphor where society and culture are made up by relations of interiority, that is, by relations within a “cultural body.” If a part, for example a “Maya pyramid,” is removed from this whole (the “Maya culture”), it ceases to be a “Maya pyramid” because one of its properties is to be this specific part of the Maya culture. A “Maya pyramid” is therefore defined by the essentialist concept of “Maya culture,” not from the object and expressive components it consists of.

This cultural model is reductionist since the aim is to analyze the minimal components of a complex cultural system or network. One then add together the explanations for the components in order to explain the whole system or network. Such approaches disregard emergence and claim that the whole system is just an aggregate of components. It means that the Maya culture is the loose aggregation of Maya artifacts and architecture (“material culture”), assumed to have been the internal parts of a social or cultural body. Culture is more or less the same thing as the artifact, only greater in magnitude, but not in kind. The oddity here is that the artifact cannot be the same as culture since culture is in a higher hierarchical position. It is something existing beyond the single artifact. It is transcendent.

 The archaeological culture is believed to have an origin, a time and place from where everything evolves and branches into segments following a genealogical evolutionary pattern, but the branches are still part of the same cultural entity assumed to exist beyond the objects. A culture can also be divided into segments, ranging from social organization to artifacts. These segments are described as relations of interiority since they exist within an organic cultural body.

The archaeological culture is the result of typological essentialism which begins with finished products (artifacts or iconographic representations) and find, through logical analysis, enduring properties that supposedly characterize these products. Then these properties are transformed into an essence by the researchers’ reification of their own general categories which occurs every time a new piece of iconography or artifact is inserted into the predefined “cultural” body. The types are ideal and variations are just differences of degree to this ideal. Types are therefore static parts of a predetermined whole rather than forming the whole. A Maya artifact is classified as such due to its resemblance to other Maya artifacts, but it does not in itself contribute to the whole it becomes part of. Problems do therefore occur if we try to explain something that is beyond the assumed “Maya” cultural pattern, which does not fit the general picture. Therefore, the culture concept hides the variation we always encounter.

The common view of cultural evolution is based on an orthogenetic evolution which consists of sequences of ideal forms in which one form emerges from another form, through certain predefined stages. The process is irreversible and it is not repetitive. It is believed to create diversity by adaptation and also to be progressive, aiming towards higher forms. This cultural evolution is often also ontogenetic, meaning that it is similar to ontogeny (the individual embryonic development). It is the same organismic culture that evolves into different forms but never changes in kind, only in degrees.

Compare the “fate” of the “Olmec culture” with that of the “Maya culture” in a typical Mesoamericanist narrative. Let us go back to 800 BC. At this time there was a Middle Formative (1000-300 BC) Maya culture present at the site of Ceibal. There was another Middle Formative Olmec culture at La Venta in the Mexican state of Tabasco. At around 400 BC it appears as if the Olmec culture was on the decline and it eventually disappeared although its influence can be seen in various Olmecoid patterns in other cultures. The Maya culture continued to exist and not even the “Maya collapse” AD 750-1100 and the Spanish conquest in the 16th century destroyed this culture. Thus, in the present there still is a Maya culture thriving throughout the Maya area but the Olmecs are long since gone. We therefore have a contemporary Maya revitalization movement but not an Olmec equivalent. But the “Maya culture” is largely a Colonial and modern categorization, formed in the meeting with the Spaniards. How far back in time can this categorization be projected? One can wonder how much a lowland Maya male farmer at Ceibal, 2800 years ago, would have had in common with Nobel peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Kiché woman and a former presidential candidate in Guatemala? Very little is my guess and although no Mayanist would claim that there is this resemblance, the Mesoamericanist culture concept actually follows this logic. The Maya farmer at Ceibal would obviously have had more in common with a contemporary Olmec farmer at La Venta, but they would still be seen as part of different cultures in the Mesoamericanist culture models.

This is the main problem I have with Mesoamerican archaeology. It takes its own cultural models for being actual realities “out there”. These models are only ways to create an “order” of what actually is a mess. Hence, these models create problems, such as which culture influenced the other first. These problems are only the result of the premises set up by the culture model in the first place. 


  1. I found this blog entry more helpful than any other half-dozen articles I’ve read on Mesoamerican civilizations.

  2. It is a cut-and-paste text from a longer article that has been written for an anthology that never seem to materialize…

  3. I don´t know if you have red Inomata’s article published in Science magazine about Ceibal, or if you are just relying on press releases, but I think the actual point in the article is precisely to challenge the traditional aproaches that address “culture” as something pre-existing and immutable. The word “culture” is mentioned just once in the article, and only as a reference to traditional aproaches that address the Olmecs as the “mother culture”

    • I had not read the article at the time of the writing but I relied on a summary in National Geographic and the abstract in Science itself. In my blog post I should have emphasized the word “civilization” instead (which is used in the abstract). Civilization and culture tend to be used in the same way (the latter is often broader than the other). Further, the terms Maya and Olmec are used in that “culture area” way. These terms are black-boxing the culture concept.


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