Immersing Oneself in Ancient Cultures
by Professor Patrick Anderson
The goal of my 2009 sabbatical was to experience first-hand the native cultures of the Mayan and Incan peoples of Central and South America in the hope of discovering the connections between ancient traditions and contemporary practices.
To this end I spent 15 days in Belize, a week on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, and another nine days visiting Peru's Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca. During these excursions, I encountered remarkable ancient sites situated deep within the earth, in caves like Belize's Actun Tunichil Muknal and Barton Creek and Mexico's underground cenotes (crystal clear reservoirs of water used by the Mayas throughout the Yucatan).
I explored magnificent ruins located high in the Peruvian Andes at the incomparable Machu Picchu and the rambling structures of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Sheltered by overhanging mangrove trees and surrounded by a rainforest containing iguanas, anteaters, howler monkeys, yellow crowns, green kingfishers, and flocks of colorful parrots, my Mayan guide and I paddled a kayak down the river used by natives for hunting and fishing for hundreds of years.
In all I toured and studied ten historic sites in Belize, five in Mexico and six in Peru, all of which provided me with a physical sense of the world inhabited by the Mayas and Incas. I experienced first-hand the landscapes and dwellings, the flora and fauna, the sights and sounds and smells in which the native populations thrived centuries agoand in which many still carve out their lives today.
No single moment of my sabbatical can equal the first glimpse I had of Machu Picchu as the mist began to lift at daybreak on Easter morning and a rainbow stretched over this magnificent mountaintop retreat, the only Incan enclave not discovered and destroyed by the invading Spanish in the 16th century. Also among my most memorable experiences was the time I spent with the Shos, a Mopan Maya family who live deep in the jungle of southwest Belize in the tiny village of Na Luum Ca, which translates to Mother Earth. Never was a locale more perfectly named, for this familyAntonio and Eugenia Sho and their ten children (some of whom are married with their own kids)lives as close as possible to their environment which, quite literally, provides almost everything they require for their daily subsistence.
Most of what they eat is found in their backyard, which just happens to be a rainforest jungle. This includes the free-range chickens which run all over their land and which they cook in myriad delicious ways. It also includes the sugar which sweetens their tea, the rice which accompanied every meal, the corn which they grind to make fresh tortillas (the best I've ever had), and the vegetationlike the jipy japa plant and the heart of a cohune treewhich is harvested from plants growing wild in the jungle that surrounds their thatched dwellings. The dwellings are constructed exclusively from materials gathered in the jungle, from the posts which support the rafters, to the strips of bark which bind them together, to the palm fronds from the cohune tree which provide the roofing material.
In addition to their food and shelter, Na Luum Ca supplies the natural medicines they need to stay healthy, as I discovered on hikes both on the periphery of their property and deep into the rainforest. As we walked along, Antonio (the Sho paterfamilias) would point out plants used to treat everything from heart disease, headaches and arthritis to insect bites, stomach aches and high blood pressure, which was cured in Benito, one of the sons, when conventional medicines didn't work.
Antonio Sho was clearly the most traditional member of the family, living on land where his ancestors dwelled for as long as anyone could recall. He was a repository of oral history and traditions which he graciously shared with us one evening. It was a happy coincidence that the other guest staying with the Shos while I was there, an Irishman named Finton O'Brien, had with him some very sophisticated recording equipment as he was in Belize to capture bird and jungle sounds for the CDs he produces. Knowing of my interest in Maya culture, he offered to record Antonio telling stories one night after dinner.
Since Antonio knows no English, he recounted the tales in his native Mopan language which his son Geraldo translated sentence-by-sentence On this ground, he began, we find the things we eat, a statement which was proven at every meal I had there, though he went on to caution us about how fragile their traditional way of life is: Today everything, like these traditions, is getting lost; no one is doing these things anymore.
Antonio might have been thinking, in part at least, about his own sons who are far more assimilated than he and his wife and daughters are. Unlike their father, mother and sisters, the young men of the family all speak English fluently, typically wear imported sneakers, jeans and T-shirts with American logos, and exude gregarious, outgoing personalities which suggest their more frequent contact with the outside world.
When we were in the small town of Punta Gorda, an hour and a half drive from Nu Luum Ca, they headed for an electronics store which sold CDs and DVDs. One evening, when they could get their generator going, they introduced me to the reggae sounds of the late African musician Lucky Dube, which they played on an impressive sound system, the only thing they had that was powered by electricity.
In spite of these influences from mainstream cultures worldwide, I found that each of the sons knew a great deal about their Mayan heritage and traditional way of life. The men are all masters of the machete, a remarkably versatile tool which Geraldo used to clear the jungle paths, cut open a cocoa pod so I could taste the soggy substance insidedefinitely not chocolatyslice a coconut in two so I could drink the very refreshing water inside, snip a sprig from the jipy japa plant which I ate and washed down with another drink of water, this time from a grapefruit vine which he effortlessly sliced open with a quick stroke of his machete.
Like Geraldo, all of the Shos were eager to share with me their Mayan way of life. While the males demonstrated their knowledge of the outdoors, the women, who seemed to leave the house only to wash the dishes or do the laundry at the creek (my outdoor bathtub), instructed me in what they knew best: cooking and craft-making.
I tried my hand at making tortillas (which never came out as perfectly round as those made by the daughters Felicita, Melinia or Andola), weaving the bottom of a basket (using dried jipy japa plant fibers), making a few awkward embroidery stitches, and grating the heart of a cohune tree for our lunch one day. Their own work was very beautiful, from the dresses they made for themselves, to the baskets and beaded jewelry they sold to me, to a most delicious treat which they served at several mealsa crispy, slightly sweetened tortilla called a chuqua.
Chuquas are festooned on both sides with an overall flower pattern, a decoration created not by a mold of some sort but by pressing the head of an actual flower a dozen times or so on each tortilla they made. Once again I observed how Mother Earth provides what these Mayas need to make their food taste good and look quite elegant.
I clearly learned the most about how contemporary Mayaslike the Shosare carrying on many traditional native practices during the four days I spent with them in Na Luum Ca. I absorbed much of the history of their ancestors by visiting spectacular ruins throughout Belize, like those at Caracol, Lamanai, Altun Ha, Cahal Pech and Xunantunich, where I marveled at the artistic and architectural achievements created centuries ago. I tried to imagine daily life here as it might have been between 1500 B.C. and 1500 A.D. as I climbed the massive pyramids, admired the intricate carvings on temples and altars and stelae, and envisioned spirited athletic contests on the ballcourts.
What brought me closest to ancient Mayan customs, however, was my day-long visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred site whose English translationCave of the Stone Sepulcher might suggest the Indiana Jones-like adventure it afforded me. Getting to this remote site entailed a jeep ride across a river where the bridge had washed out a year ago, then a mile-long hike deep into the jungle during which we crossed the same river several times and were fed termites by our Mayan guide, Carlos (I had just one; it tasted like carrots).
When we finally reached the mouth of the cave, we had to swim inside, in water over our heads, then hike and swim through water for another kilometeroften crawling through very tight spacesuntil we arrived at the main chamber, where we rock-climbed to the second floor. Here we encountered a most remarkable living museum.
All around us, illuminated by Carlos' flashlight, were dozens of ceramic vessels and the skeletal remains of 14 individuals, all in situ, where they had been left by the Mayas more than a thousand years ago. The pots, containing corn, chili peppers and cacao, served as offerings to their gods and deceased ancestors, while the copal incense discovered here would have been used during the blood-letting rituals, which accounts for the 14 skeletons.
These sacrificial victims (six infants, a young child and seven adults) would have been offered to the powerful deities who were thought to reside in caves like this, including Chac the rain god, as well as the evil spirits which cause death and disease. Further underscoring the life/death duality associated with subterranean sites is the ancient Mayan belief that the spirits of their deceased ancestors made their way to these caves where, eventually, they would be reborn. Thus, entering a cave such as Actun Tunichil Muknal for an ordinary Maya would have been a very mixed blessing, providing the opportunity to honor one's gods and ancestors but also fraught with the possibility they might be sacrificed themselves.
In an attempt to let us experience the absolute darkness an ancient Maya would have known had their torch gone out, Carlos asked us to extinguish our headlamps, hold hands, and walk through the ankle-high water for several minutes as we headed out of the cave. The blinding physical darkness surrounding us would have been compounded for the Maya by the spiritual beliefs they associated with these chambers.
As these experiences with the Sho family in Na Luum Ca and my underground adventure at Actun Tunichil Mukal suggest, my own understanding of both the ancient and contemporary native peoples of Central and South America was increased exponentially through my travels. I was fortunate to meet dozens of people like the Shos and to visit dozens of ancient sites where, in often seemingly inaccessible places, these intelligent, artistic, hard-working people carved out lives that still serve as sources of astonishment to those who study them.
The time I spent immersing myself in these remarkable cultures exceeded all expectations, reminding me once again that we never know where our curiosity might take usor what treasures we might uncoversimply by being open to those unimagined opportunities which life often sends our way.
Humanities Professor Patrick Anderson has taught at Colby-Sawyer College since 1977 and in 2007, he was named the Gibney Distinguished Professr. His areas of expertise include contemporary American Culture, the literature and culture of the American West, Native American studies, and 19th- and 20th-century American Literature, specifically the American Renaissance and Modernism. His article was first published in December 2009, in the Colby-Sawyer College Magazine.