The headline in the UK's Daily Mail hits the usual exaggerated note:

'He was the big chief': Grave of ancient king who laid foundations for Mayan civilisation in 700 B.C. unearthed by archaeologists

The actual quote from the archaeologist is slightly, but significantly, different:

‘He was the big chief,’ government archaeologist Miguel Orrego said. ‘The ruler who bridged the gaps between Olmec (pre-Mayan) and Mayan cultures and initiated the slow transition to Mayan rule.’

In between the specialist's phrase "the slow transition to Mayan rule", and the Daily Mail's exuberant "laid foundations for Mayan civilisation" there exists a gap frankly much larger and harder to bridge than that between the Olmec and the Maya.

Let's start with what was actually discovered. Language used in much of the coverage can be traced back to an article by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena (in Spanish for bilingual readers). The English-language Reuters coverage seems to be a more direct source for the Daily Mail.

The focus of the excitement is a burial discovered in June at the site of Tak'alik Ab'aj, in Highland Guatemala. It contained a large quantity of jade jewelry and some elaborate pots, and was located by continuing excavation from a previously discovered group of 6 large clay figurines, now understood to be part of the new burial.

Radiocarbon dates assign the burial to around 700 BC, and the early date, combined with the large jade assemblage, captured the imagination of the press.

Absent from the grave were any traces of human remains. The Catholic Online was not alone in characterizing the missing body as a mystery, but actually, it's not surprising, as bone can easily degrade over such a long time in soils that are even slightly acidic.

Returning to that question of civilization: the Catholic Online article echoes the Daily Mail in some ways, but is more precise about the contribution made by the buried person:

He is believed to have used his influence to shape Mayan culture by instructing his people to construct pyramids instead of square buildings and to carve images of the royal family, both practices that would become hallmarks of the Mayan civilization.

What exactly does this mean? To even begin to understand a claim like this-- which, I strongly emphasize, is clearly an attempt to re-present more complicated statements by the archaeologists-- we have to leave Guatemala behind for the moment, and turn to the early 20th century history of archaeology.

The name most associated with the formalization of "civilization" as an archaeological concept is V. Gordon Childe. Childe repeatedly discussed civilization, always in the context of a progressive development from social formations that were less complex. This led, in his more popular work, to the abstraction of a trait list, markers to recognize civilization. His more scholarly work, however, takes a different approach:

Civilization cannot be defined in quite such simple terms. Etymologically the word is connected with "city", and sure enough life in cities begins with this stage. But "city" itself is ambiguous so archaeologists like to use "writing" as a criterion of civilization; it should be easily recognized and proves to be a reliable index to more profound characters.

For Childe, these "more profound characters" included a differentiated economy, based on control of food production through agriculture, craft specialization, and trade; and a stratified social order, in which leaders used religion, art, and other forms of persuasion to assert control over the rest of the population concentrated in cities.

In their highly useful annotated one-volume selection of Childe's voluminous work, Tom Patterson and Charles Orser note that "his commitment to the basic outlines of the savagery-to-civilization sequence is now out of date".

But that doesn't mean it is gone: it lives on in the popular imagination. Answers, a site that crowd-sources responses to questions submitted, happily lists the "seven traits of civilization" (in very bad, user-offered, lists that would not earn anyone a passing grade). Online videos differ in the number, ranging from 4 to at least 8, but happily offer equally bad guidance. Yahoo! Answers directly cites archaeologist Bruce Trigger's discussion of V. Gordon Childe as the authority for the following list:

  1. large urban centers
  2. craft workers, merchants, officials, and priests supported by the surpluses produced by farmers
  3. primary producers paying surpluses to a deity or divine ruler
  4. monumental architecture
  5. a ruling class exempt from manual labor
  6. systems for recording information
  7. the development of exact practical sciences
  8. monumental art
  9. the regular importation of raw materials both as luxuries and as industrial materials
  10. resident specialist craft workers politically as well as economically under the control of secular or religious officials

It is in terms of this kind of popular knowledge that the press coverage of the new Guatemalan burial has to be understood. If the newly excavated burial is of someone who directed people to "construct pyramids instead of square buildings" (trait 4) and "carve images of the royal family" (trait 8), then by this popular definition, it might be fair to say he "laid the foundations" for civilization.

The problem is, of course, that professional archaeologists don't talk this way anymore-- but we have done far too little to counter the pervasive repetition of what we know is an outdated framework.

Ironically, ancient Maya states provided one of the early problematic cases for the progressive, uniform framework of social evolution in which "civilization" served as the final stage. Bruce Trigger noted that it was only late in his career that Childe came to grips with the ways that the Maya did not fit his model, because unlike the European and Asian civilizations on which he based his definition, it never replaced stone tool technology with metal.

In the same volume, archaeologist Kent Flannery systematically discusses the challenges that the most socially complex societies of the Americas pose to Childe's framework. This is where things get especially interesting. While monumental architecture is part of these societies of the Americas-- including the Maya-- Flannery argues that it may be understood quite differently: as concentrating or even "flaunting" control of labor, rather than (as Childe argued) control of agricultural surplus.

In other words: "civilization", if it means anything, cannot be reduced to a set of things, its contents.

A trait list is inherently misleading: what we need to consider is the processes that led to the formation of those things we can observe today, and use as evidence in arguments.

Taking the two items cited in the news coverage, we could ask the question: what does the first construction of pyramids (tall platforms) tell us about changes in social organization?

My own contribution to addressing that question considers the development of the first monumental platforms in Honduras, at about the same time as the newly reported burial from Tak'alik Ab'aj. Borrowing a concept from K. D. Vitelli, a scholar of the development of the earliest pottery in Greece, I suggested we need to "look up" from the past toward the present, not presuming to understand the origins of things from what they came to be.

In the Honduran setting, I showed that the specific monuments that eventually rose to 20 meters tall started as more modest raised platforms, and argued that these were probably important sites of public ceremonies, which were means through which a small group of people gained prestige, consolidated power, and laid the groundwork to begin to assert some degree of control over others.

That's what I mean by a process. It is what Kent Flannery is pointing to in his argument that Andean monumental buildings, as understood by modern archaeologists, are telling us something different than monumental buildings in Mesopotamia or Egypt implied for Childe, or for specialists today.

What about the other cited trait-- the carving of "images of the royal family"? This is more complicated.

Tak'alik Ab'aj has long been noted for its monumental sculpture-- indeed, the name given to the site by modern archaeologists means "standing stones". This includes early examples related to those of the Gulf Coast Olmec.

By 126 BC, archaeologists identify the use of early Maya writing on Stela 5 from the site. Art historian Julia Guernsey notes that other stelae at the site may have even earlier examples of the calendar later used by the Classic Maya (Stela 2 and Stela 50), although without confirmed use of Maya words.

Stela 5 is part of the central group of buildings and carved stone monuments on a platform called Terrace 3, forming the construction and activity focus of the Late Preclassic (300 BC-200 AD) occupation of the site. Structure 6, which contained the newly reported burial, is also located on Terrace 3, demonstrating that the Late Preclassic core continued the elaboration of a much earlier place of mortuary ritual.

So the missing steps in the argument would presumably go something like this: the burial in Structure 6 continued to be a focus of the development of art and architecture by successors who eventually put in place the earliest monuments at the site recording Maya language, monuments that we believe are portraits of the ruling family.

Putting the two pieces together as an argument about process, much as in the case I discussed from Los Naranjos, Honduras, the historical continuity of rituals practiced at a marked point on the landscape, associated with the histories of the people buried there or portrayed in art, formed part of the claim to greater power of the earliest Maya-writing ruling group at Tak'alik Ab'aj.

But how do we get from there to this buried individual being the agent whose actions led to these much, much later developments?

A key piece of the argument seems to have almost entirely escaped the reporters who rushed to proclaim the discovery of the burial of "King K'utz Chman". That part of the argument requires us to ask "how do we know he was called K'utz Chman?"

The Daily Mail notes that the burial yielded a spectacular jade pendant

carved in the shape of a vulture's head, a symbol that represented power and high economic status and that was given to respected elder men.

The sign that this is an interpretation is dual: first, the object, while showing a schematic bird head, doesn't immediately allow identification at the species or genus level; second, how would we know (independently) that such objects were given to "respected elder men" at this place, ca. 700 BC?

The next sentence (following a set of photos in the online version of the article) makes it clearer that this is a paraphrase summarizing the scholarly argument made by archaeologist Orrego:

'This symbol gives this burial greater importance,’ Mr Orrego said. ‘This glyph says he (is) one of the earliest rulers of Tak'alik Ab'aj.’

"Glyph" here is being used in a wider form than it normally is in discussions of written texts, as there is no inscription in this tomb. Instead, Orrego is equating the visual symbol represented in jade with the linear texts of the later Maya inscriptions. In that script, one of the ways to write the high royal title, "ahaw", is with an image of the king vulture.

This argument is made explicit in the only article really worth reading so far-- the almost-scholarly contribution (with cited sources!) by Barbara Schieber in The Guatemala Times. She specifies that the name K'utz Chman is a translation into the modern Mam language of the words "ancestor vulture"-- a nickname rendered into a name through translation.

Schieber writes

This pendant [portrays] a human figure with bird head, very likely a vulture, which may represent an early version of the “ajaw” (lord) title, as found at Altar Shook and Stela 1 from the site El Portón, and at Monument 13 from La Venta, which later evolves towards the miniature ceremonial heads of jadeite mosaics.

Schieber, and I assume the archaeologists on whom she relies, emphasize the quantity of jade employed in the costume worn by the buried individual, with its implications of participation in very long distance trade routes.

While contesting the claim that this is the earliest Maya ruler's tomb known, archaeologist Susan Gillespie, an expert in the study of early jades, also noted the importance of the new burial in understanding the development of the use of jade in the legitimation of rulership in the tradition that included the Classic Maya:

because it is near a jadeite production center, the find could shed light on early techniques and trade in the stone, which was considered by the Maya to have sacred properties.

The large quantity of jade used for costume in the new burial places it among a group of other sites occupied during the same time, where single individuals were placed in their graves wearing jade belts, necklaces, ear spools, and sometimes with jade ornaments remaining from largely perishable head coverings. These related sites include Los Naranjos, Honduras; Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas; Chalcatzingo, Morelos; and La Venta, on the Mexican Gulf Coast. They span multiple regional societies and likely at least four major language groups.

The use of jade by multiple, independent, and unrelated societies at the same time can be seen as one of the ways that a sphere of values, exchange, and social relationships emerged, stretching from Mexico to Honduras. In an older archaeology, this would have been called Mesoamerican "civilization". Today, we have to consider this sphere of relationships as something more dynamic.

Does that mean we need to drop the entire word "civilization"?

In general, I find myself in agreement with economic historian Andre Gunder Frank, who in an essay "On New World History" rejected the utility of terms like civilization, for their role in masking more than they explain. He argued that the concept misleads us, and (in the contemporary world) can be used to justify destructive political agendas. More broadly, he wrote

In reality there are and have been no civilizations, societies, cultures, ethnicities and even states in and of themselves. There are NO essentialist intrinsically self-contained entities. To claim, identify, and to study any such makes NO sense whatever and only beclouds reality. There are only connections and relations within and among such alleged civilizations.

In my example here, the flow of jade, the exchanges of knowledge, and the emergence of similar values on jade in a series of localities (Los Naranjos, Copan, Tak'alik Ab'aj, Chiapa de Corzo, Chalcatzingo and La Venta) are such "connections and relations" whose histories we need to explore. (Although I use the word "society" for each of these I take to heart the inclusion of this term in the list above-- and regularly worry that I am contributing to reifying as a static entity what should be conceived of as a complexity of networks between actors of different scales.)

Iin this essay, Andre Gunder Frank was commenting on a textbook. Textbooks at all levels remain the medium through which the concept of civilization continues to circulate. Via education standards (like those in my own state of California) that require K-12 students to learn about both specific "civilizations" and learn to compare them, the idea of a sequence of development culminating inevitably in civilizations, that can be diagnosed with something like Childe's checklist, lives on, long after specialists have moved to studies of multilinear historical dynamics and processes.

But historian Cynthia Stokes Brown goes far toward convincing me that introducing "civilization" in the K-12 curriculum can still serve a purpose, as a term of debate, as a question to be raised rather than a typology to be imposed. Toward the end of her exceptionally thoughtful essay on how to think about teaching about "civilizations" she writes that

while there is a core of common characteristics of civilization, any list of them will reflect the judgment and point of view of its author(s). Making such a checklist seems a worthwhile activity, for it helps students think through the process of how towns turned into cities and civilizations and it reveals to students that studying history is an interpretative activity. They may have their own interpretations and share in the excitement of making sense of the past.

Whether on my less optimistic days (when the Daily Mail blares its trivialization of thoughtful archaeology) or my more hopeful ones (when a class of students suddenly asks the critical question about terms of engagement), it is clear to me is that questions about "civilization" aren't going away any time soon. Like a plethora of other concepts once under control within the academia (culture, kinship, and race come to mind in my own small discipline), they have escaped into the popular consciousness. Ignoring the bad press won't make it stop.

But maybe, just maybe, talking about where these ideas came from-- and what we think about them today-- will, as Brown suggests, help others understand that "studying history is an interpretative activity". And that is not a bad thing to concede: it is an honest position from which to reserve the right to argue.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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