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Article

Nineteenth-Century Foreign Travelers to Central America  

Arturo Taracena Arriola

Foreign travelers, mainly from Europe and the United States, did not come to Central America until the founding of the Federal Republic of Central America in 1823 after independence from Spain. They had been previously unknown in the Central American isthmus despite the impression that Alexandre von Humboldt’s achievement made on Latin Americans at the beginning of the 19th century. From 1823 to 1870, the foreign travelers in three characteristic cycles: the first, from 1823 to 1838, during the federal administration, attracted consular agents, merchants, and foreign adventurers, especially former soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars; the second, from 1839 to 1850, brought publicists, canal and timber entrepreneurs, and promoters of diverse kinds of colonization; and the third, which ran from 1851 to 1870, saw the arrival of naturalists, archeologists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats. All of them contributed to the integration of the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America and the division into five nations into the world market and concert of western nations. In fact, the victory of the liberal reforms beginning in 1871 would mean a new cycle of travelers, not discussed here, characterized by the positivist goal of progress, secularity of the state, freedom of religion, the banner of Central American reunification, and the gamble on mono-exportation centered on coffee and banana cultivation.

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The Paracas Society of Prehispanic Peru  

Henry Tantaleán

Paracas society spread over a large geographical area on the southern Peruvian coast between 800 bce and 200 bce. Unlike an “archaeological culture” that has uniform economy, politics, and ideology and is integrated under a single political structure, the Paracas phenomenon was a series of communities adopting different forms of economic and political organizations that were, nevertheless, economically linked and sharing the same religious ideology. The social mechanisms by which all these communities and political entities were linked included exchange, ritual, and religion, which allowed them to share a series of artifacts, social practices, rituals, and religious iconography. In each of the valleys, every entities, or group of communities, had their own architectural and artisanal features and were economically and politically autonomous. The famous archaeological sites associated with Cerro Colorado on the Paracas peninsula seem to have been more than a central place for Paracas society, a social space of integration in which the worship of ancestors stood out as an ideological and religious sustenance that connected communities and elites from different areas of the southern coast of Peru.

Article

Pre-Columbian Earth Builders of the Amazon  

Jonas Gregorio de Souza

Continuing advances in the archaeology of the Amazon have changed long-standing misconceptions about the rainforest as a homogeneous, nearly pristine environment occupied by small, scattered groups. Massive archaeological sites, deep deposits of anthropogenic soils, and earthworks found over thousands of kilometers now testify to the scale and intensity of past human impact in some parts of the Amazon. However, debate persists about the extent of such transformations, as distinct environments within the Amazon Basin (floodplains, savannas, seasonal forests) reveal different scales and intensities of pre-Columbian landscape modification. In that context, the discovery of hundreds of geometric earthen enclosures in the southern rim of the Amazon is proving that some areas that were previously considered virtually untouched forest may have been densely settled in the past. Although regional variations exist, most southern Amazonian enclosures appear to be defensive earthworks built at the turn of the second millennium ce, a period recognized by archaeologists as one of escalating population densities, migrations, and warfare across the Amazon Basin.

Article

Excavation and Exhibition of the Pre-Hispanic Cultures during the Porfiriato  

Christina Bueno

In the late 19th century, Mexico’s ancient ruins captivated much of the world. European and American explorers trekked through what was often touted as an “American Egypt” in search of pre-Columbian artifacts to display in private collections and museums. Mexicans similarly hunted after the remains of the Indian past, as their country witnessed a heightened interest in the excavation and exhibition of ancient artifacts during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the period commonly known as the Porfiriato (1876–1910). The Díaz regime embraced the indigenous past in order to present Mexico as a nation with ancient and prestigious roots. It took control of pre-Hispanic relics and ruins through archaeology, a discipline that was thought to give Mexico the coveted aura of a scientific, cosmopolitan, and modern nation. The Díaz regime gave unprecedented support to the National Museum in Mexico City, the nation’s most important institution for the study and display of Indian antiquity. Museum scholars such as Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Alfredo Chavero, and Antonio Peñafiel, worked on building and organizing the archaeology collection as the government intensified the process of accumulating artifacts in the capital. One of the central figures in this process was Leopoldo Batres, the head of the General Inspectorate of Archaeological Monuments of the Republic. Batres brought antiquities to the museum, helped organize the archaeology collection, and built the Gallery of Monoliths, the nation’s premier showcase of pre-Columbian relics. He also carried out excavations at ruins throughout the country and reconstructed several archaeological sites, including Xochicalco and Mitla. His most famous (and most controversial) work took place at Teotihuacán, where he rebuilt the Pyramid of the Sun, turning Teotihuacán into the nation’s first official archaeological site, a project made to coincide with the centennial celebration of Mexican independence in 1910.

Article

Humboldt in Mexico, 1803–1804  

Myron Echenberg

During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.

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Current Perspectives in the Precolonial Archaeology of Puerto Rico  

Reniel Rodríguez Ramos

During the past two decades, many of the traditional conceptions about the configuration of the cultural landscape of precolonial Puerto Rico have been critically addressed from both political and disciplinary perspectives. Colonialist undercurrents embedded in the traditional models used to structure the indigenous history of the island have come into question and some of the fundamental ideas about the social and cultural makeup of the human collectivities that inhabited Puerto Rico have been drastically altered. The timing of the initial occupation of the island has been pushed back to more than five thousand years ago and the potential origin of some of these societies has also been reconsidered, including the possibility that some of groups moved across the Caribbean Sea from the Isthmo-Colombian region from where they brought phytocultural traditions that included the cultivation of a wide array of important economic plants. The cultural landscape of the island later expanded with the arrival of migrants from the surrounding continents who participated in long-distance interaction networks, as demonstrated by the trade of exotic goods mainly used for making personal adornments. The cultural plurality that existed on the island led to the development of distinct traditions that were not only forged by the diverse interactions that took place within Puerto Rico, but also by engagements that continued to take place with the inhabitants of other islands of the Antilles and surrounding continental regions. This all led to the articulation of a mosaic of cultural traditions that were diffusely united through the intersocietal negotiation of a set of codes that allowed the different collectivities to engage with one another while retaining their differences.

Article

European Antiquarianism and the Americas  

Alain Schnapp

The discovery of the Americas occurred at a time when the Renaissance was upending European sciences, especially history and its representation. Suddenly there appeared peoples who seemed to be the exact opposite of Europeans on account of their customs and techniques, and others, like the Incas or the Aztecs, who seem to compete with the Romans of antiquity, as much with their political system as with their sumptuous monuments. Before that, the West had never been confronted with such a clash of civilizations occurring within only a few decades. While new generations of scholars in Europe were reinterpreting the classical heritage, others set about exploring pre-Roman cultures, interpreting runes, and describing megaliths. This intellectual revolution went hand in hand with the foundation of an ethnographic knowledge enriched with a practice of images that overturned knowledge. Scholars undertook to depict the mores of the Indians with the same enthusiasm as they had depicted those of the first inhabitants of Europe. They became interested in the glyphs of the Aztecs and Mayas with a tenacity identical to that deployed to decipher Roman or Greek inscriptions. The Mexican or Peruvian antiquarians of the 16th and 17th centuries, some of whom were the descendants of the indigenous elites, had no reason to be envious of their European colleagues. Beyond the terrible violence of colonization, the singularity of the discovery of the Americas lies in the foundation of a transatlantic culture that, on both sides of the ocean, drew the contours of a universal history of humanity.

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Digital Resources: FAMSI.org and the Beginnings of Digital Scholarship for the Ancient Americas  

Victoria Lyall

Launched in 1997, FAMSI.org established itself as the leading digital platform for the promotion and dissemination of Mesoamerican scholarship to the widest possible audience. The online arm of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., a nonprofit pledged to foster increased understanding of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, FAMSI.org crosscut disciplinary divisions and facilitated communication between scholars in the United States and those in Latin America. The eight-member Board of Directors and its advisory committee ensured that the foundation would harness the spirit of generosity and creativity that characterized the early days of the Internet for the benefit of a likewise emergent discipline. As the Website developed, FAMSI sought partnerships with and contributions from institutions around the world in order to make educational resources publicly available. The Website hosts a remarkable amount of primary research material, including image databases, contemporary and historical indigenous-language dictionaries, ethnographic videos, maps, and an up-to-date, searchable subject-specific bibliography, all of which are available in both English and Spanish and accessible at no cost to visitors. Between 1997 and 2006, the Website grew exponentially, but like many of its early counterparts, the site’s utility and navigability ultimately suffered as a result of the rapid development of new software and the obsolescence of existing digital platforms; searches became sluggish and unwieldy. While visitorship remained high for an academic site—over a million unique visitors a year—a 2012 survey indicated that scholars frequented only known parts of the site while novice users spent as little as a few minutes on the site. The global economic crisis of 2008 destabilized FAMSI’s funding, and in 2010 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) assumed stewardship of the foundation as well as the Website. The museum began to maintain and review FAMSI.org, ultimately deciding to update and transform the Website into a new platform, AncientAmericas.org, which broadens the scope beyond that of Mesoamerica. FAMSI, with its dedication to research and online collaboration, became the principal resource for the research of ancient American cultures for both a scholarly and general audience beginning in the mid-1990s. Its enduring legacy is the spirit of interdisciplinary and international cooperation and generosity that it fostered.

Article

Nueva Cádiz de Cubagua and the Pearl Fisheries of the Caribbean  

Fidel Rodríguez Velásquez and Oliver Antczak

The island of Cubagua, known since the end of the 15th century as the “Island of Pearls,” is a small semi-arid island located in the southeastern Caribbean. Pre-colonially, the island formed part of an extensive network of communication and trade that crisscrossed the southeastern Caribbean and the adjacent coasts. In 1528, a settlement on the island of Cubagua was granted a charter to establish the city of Nueva Cádiz. This city played a central role in the exploitation of and trade in pearls during the the 16th century. During the early modern period, the pearls from this area circulated widely throughout the Atlantic world and inspiredabundant depictions that helped construct notions of the “New World” and brought competitions that forged new relationships between the Hispanic monarchy and American Indigenous populations. After 1540, the city was gradually abandoned. Since, the island has remained uninhabited and relatively unknown academically. However, the history of Nueva Cádiz has played an important role in debates over heritage protection, in museum narratives, and, ultimately, in the identity of the region.

Article

The Mesoamerican Collection of the National Museum of Denmark  

Jesper Nielsen

The National Museum of Denmark, located in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, holds a small but significant collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects from Mesoamerica. The collection includes artefacts from a broad span of the Mesoamerican cultures, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacán, Mixtec, Maya, and Aztec. The majority have derived not from controlled excavations but have entered the museum as donations, purchases, or exchanges with other museums. Although Mesoamerican objects have presumably been part of the museum’s Ethnographic Collection since the first half of the 18th century, a more active acquisition policy was initiated in the 1860s and the next century saw the gradual expansion of the collection. Some of the most remarkable pieces have received international scholarly attention, in particular two Late Postclassic mosaic-encrusted wooden objects and a 16th-century indigenous map from Oaxaca. But, as a whole, the collection has been largely unknown to researchers working with Mesoamerican archaeology and history. Characteristically, the collection also contains a number of forgeries, which in themselves contribute to the larger narrative of the growing interest in ancient Mesoamerica and the expansion of ethnographic collections in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Article

Indigenous Societies in Brazil before the European Arrival  

Denise Maria Cavalcante Gomes

Before the Portuguese arrived in Brazil at the beginning of the 16th century, the vast area that today constitutes the national territory was occupied by different indigenous groups, the native peoples of the land. The origins of human settlement in Brazil have been the subject of heated debates. Brazilian archaeology has long been dedicated to the issue, in conjunction with researchers from several countries, because the question holds implications for charting early human life across the Americas. Their findings have made it possible to better understand the long history of indigenous societies in what is today Brazil based on their material remains, because it is rarely possible to establish a correlation between one group or another based solely on ethno-historical sources. The archaeological research has also made meaningful progress on cultural history, addressing questions related to the way of life of hunter gathers and ceramist groups. The latter were numerous and diversified in the past, but the importance and wide distribution of the Tupi, the first indigenous group with whom Europeans came into contact, should be highlighted. Another issue of interest is the sociopolitical complexity and the material sophistication of late precolonial Amazon societies.

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Mexico in World's Fairs and Expos  

Susan Douglas

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article. From 1867 to 1929, governments promoted nationalism and industrialization through World Fairs in Europe and International Expositions in America. Mexico, which had recently achieved independence from Spain, became involved in fairs to bolster its economy and image, competing with other nations to sell local goods and offer investment opportunities to foreigners. Since the 1950s, Mexicans have encouraged commerce and industry while enthusiastically marketing their country as a touristic “wonderland.” Accounts of Mexico’s participation in World Fairs draw attention to the imperialism embedded in such events suggesting that they were deeply problematic. Defined as cultural palaces and trade shows, World Fairs have chronicled changing ideas about nationalism, modernity, and, more recently, branding. In the wake of the Revolution, Mexicans have recognized their strategic importance although a persistent theme in the literature is that these are inherently tiresome and expensive undertakings and a significant drain on economic and political life.

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Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums  

Kevin M. Gosner

In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs. For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.