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Unconquered Lacandon Maya

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Unconquered Lacandon Maya

Unconquered Lacandon Maya

University Press of Florida
Joel W. Palka. 2005. Unconquered Lacandon Maya. University Press of Florida, ISBN 0-8130-2861-7. 292 pages, appendix, references cited and an index.
The traditional view of the Lacandon, at least as it was promulgated on college campuses during the 1960s, was that of idyllic perfection, living modestly and serenely in the jungly lowlands of Mayan Guatemala and Mexico, untouched by the plagues of modern civilization. As Joel Palka relates in Unconquered Lacandon Maya, the truth is harsher, more interesting, and thank god, more encouraging.

Palka’s book discusses the current and historical conditions of the various groups of people collectively called the Lacandon; or the Hach Winik, as they refer to themselves. The book focuses primarily on the changes to the society in the last 150 years or so, although it is clear that the Lacandon also resisted both the Spanish colonialists and the Maya overlords. The book incorporates ethnohistoric reports and images from nineteenth century travelers such as Desiré Charnay and A.P. Maudsley and twentieth century ethnographers such as Marvin Vann, Jacques Soustelle, and Gertrude Duby Blom and Frans Blom.
But the book is difficult. I suspect that’s because Palka had difficulty in defining the Lacandon. In fact, the Lacandon defy definition, their adaptive strategies are myriad, a mosaic of acceptance and rejection of outsiders, of foreign trade goods and religion.

As an archaeologist, Palka is interested in material culture. Five chapters on various aspects of the ethnographic, historic, and demographic data are followed by a description of the archaeological investigations of a handful of historic villages. The results of the pedestrian survey, metal detecting, and excavation of test pits are provided, along with a detailed description of the artifacts recovered from these excavations. The final chapters place the artifacts and architecture within the social and environmental context, using such anthropological notions as gender roles and kinship lines to compare the traditional concept of the Lacandon with the divergent one revealed by Palka’s investigations.
The final upshot of the book is that the Lacandon are not unchanged by exposure to modernity; in fact, the changes are widespread and resonate deeply within their culture and cultural material. However, the Lacandon continue to control the changes that they accept, adapting modern strategies and technology when that is deemed useful, and rejecting where it is not. Further, each Lacandon village continues to remain autonomous, making its own decision about what is acceptable and useful.

Although the book is a little rough going for the casual reader, the intricacies of the adaptive strategies of the Lacandon are fascinating. A remarkable number of illustrations and photographs are in this text. Proceeds from the book are promised to benefit Na-Bolom, the research institute in Chiapas built by the Bloms to study and defend the Lacandon.
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