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Time in Intercultural Context: The Indigenous Calendars of Mexico and Guatemala

Final Report Summary - TIMEINTERCULTURAL (Time in Intercultural Context: The Indigenous Calendars of Mexico and Guatemala.)

This research project ‘Time in Intercultural Context: the indigenous calendars of Mexico and Guatemala’ focuses on the small corpus of ancient Mexican screenfold books (codices) that has survived the destructive effects of the Spanish conquest (1521) and subsequent colonisation. These manuscripts – now mainly located in European museums – contain pictographic or hieroglyphic texts. A specific group deals with the religious aspects of time: symbolism, divination, rituals. The aim of this project is to contribute to the interpretation of their contents, by comparing these texts with relevant traditional ideas and practices, maintained until today in several indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala (the cultural region known as Mesoamerica). In doing so, the project also addresses the question how ancient time perceptions and related symbolic codes have survived dramatic colonial transformations and now function in an intercultural and globalising context, interacting with Christian and modern ‘Western’ concepts about time.

An international and intercultural research team has been formed (including several speakers of Mesoamerican languages), which has collected and analyzed ethnographic and cultural-historical data concerning the perception, organization and meaning of time among different indigenous peoples in Mexico and Guatemala. Particularly among the Ayuuk (Mixe) and Mazatec peoples in Mexico, and among the K'iche' and other Maya peoples in Guatemala, religious specialists still use different aspects of the pre-colonial time count. The ancient calendar is a combination of a divinatory cycle of 260 days with an agricultural year of nominally 365 days, divided in 18 “months” of 20 days each, with 5 additional days. But this is not just a chronometric device. Time is manifest as a crucial structural element of ritual practices, which involve sacred landscape, religious symbolism, healing rituals, ceremonial discourses and narratives about divine beings. Therefore the research team focused on these dimensions as well, and extended its investigation to other peoples, such as the Nahuas, Mixtecs and Yucatec Mayas, from which a number of important pre-colonial and early colonial manuscripts have been preserved.

Comparing the cultural historical literature with what they learned from indigenous specialists during fieldwork, the P.I. and his team have produced a series of novel interpretations of the ancient manuscripts and related visual art in their archaeological and historical contexts. The results so far have been registered in 6 peer reviewed articles (published), 1 paper in conference proceedings (in press), 52 articles or sections in edited books (32 published, 20 not yet published), 7 PhD dissertations (3 defended, 1 approved, 2 to be approved, 1 in advanced preparation) and 6 university publications / scientific monographs (5 published, 1 submitted). The contents of these publications constitute a substantial contribution to the understanding of the function, meaning and development of the Mesoamerican calendar and in general of time perception, symbolism and ritual in the intercultural context of indigenous society.

Some examples. Several enigmatic parts of pre-colonial texts and related religious art could be deciphered, e.g. a famous chapter of complex and mysterious ritual scenes in the Codex Borgia (the most famous religious pictographic book from ancient Mexico), as well as several divinatory scenes in this and related manuscripts. A crucial breakthrough for the chronological correlation of Mesoamerican and Christian dates was the better understanding of the relations between the cycles of 260 days and the solar / agricultural year. Analysis of this intricate matter leads us to conclude that the ancient cultures used fixed units of 365 days as “historical years” (for use as annals), but simultaneously used specific astronomical observations (solstices, equinoxes, zenith passages) each year as point to anchor their count of the feasts of the successive 18 “months” of the agricultural year. Consequently, there were no leap days in the historical years, but de facto there were leap days inserted in the count of the agricultural years to keep the feasts synchrone with the seasons.

Several archaeological inscriptions and images can now be understood as referring to narratives, memories and customs, while the orientation of certain monuments could be explained as related to places in the landscape where important community rituals took place during specific moments in the solar / agricultural year.

Through such studies the team has shed light on the multiple connections of past and present and on the social and educative relevance of these connections. The team has paid special attention to the social role of indigenous religious specialists (daykeepers, healers and persons of knowledge, called tlamatque in Nahuatl) as guardians of Mesoamerican heritage. Of special interest is the position of these specialists in the contemporary interaction between tradition and modernity, between rural and urban contexts, which have an impact on the continuity and transmission of cultural memory. The symbolic and ritual aspects of the Mesoamerican organization of time are not isolated elements of an abstract philosophical sphere, but they are embedded in a quotidian concrete reality of community and family circumstances. This topic was treated in several studies as well as in the docudrama (film) that is one of the delivered outcomes.

Comparisons of Mesoamerica with other cultures offered insights into the function and importance of the calendar with its associated symbolism, rituals, and ancestors worship as part of a polytheist worldview. Theoretical reflections have furthermore concentrated on the impact of colonial transformations and on the status of indigenous heritage and memory today. A leading theme has been the issue of coevalness, or rather denial thereof, in mainstream perspectives (as discussed by Fabian in his book 'Time and the Other'), which has led the team to consider decolonial / decolonizing methodologies and to situate their work in line with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.