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The Kowoj

The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Petén, Guatemala

Prudence M. Rice
Don S. Rice
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 600
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  • Book Info
    The Kowoj
    Book Description:

    Neighbors of the better-known Itza in the central Petén lakes region of Guatemala, the Kowoj Maya have been studied for little more than a decade. The Kowoj: Identity, Migration, and Geopolitics in Late Postclassic Petén, Guatemala summarizes the results of recent research into this ethno-political group conducted by Prudence Rice, Don Rice, and their colleagues.   Chapters in The Kowoj address the question "Who are the Kowoj?" from varied viewpoints: archaeological, archival, linguistic, ethnographic, and bioarchaeological. Using data drawn primarily from the peninsular site of Zacpetén, the authors illuminate Kowoj history, ritual components of their self-expressed identity, and their archaeological identification. These data support the Kowoj claim of migration from Mayapán in Yucatán, where they were probably affiliated with the Xiw, in opposition to the Itza. These enmities extended into Petén, culminating in civil warfare by the time of final Spanish conquest in 1697.   The first volume to consider Postclassic Petén from broadly integrative anthropological, archaeological, and historical perspectives, The Kowoj is an important addition to the literature on late Maya culture and history in the southern lowlands. It will be of particular interest to archaeologists, historians, ethnohistorians, art historians, and epigraphers.

    eISBN: 978-0-87081-987-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Archaeology, Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures, Maps, Tables, and Appendixes
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. Part I. Introduction to the Postclassic- and Contact-Period Kowoj

      (pp. 3-16)
      Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice

      The Postclassic period (ca. A.D. 950/1000–1525) in the Maya lowlands of eastern Mesoamerica was long disparaged as one of “decline, decadence, and depopulation” (Chase and Rice 1985a: 1), disdained by archaeologists except for the sites of Chich’en Itza and Mayapán in Mexico’s northern Yucatán peninsula (Map 1.1). To the south, in the dense tropical forests of the modern political unit known as the Department of El Petén, in northern Guatemala, the Postclassic was reconstructed almost solely with reference to a group identified as the “Itza.” Both of these viewpoints were discarded by the end of the twentieth century with...

  7. Part II. Who Were the Kowoj?

    • [Part II. Introduction]
      (pp. 17-20)
      Prudence M. Rice

      The primary question framing the chapters in this volume is, who were the Kowoj Maya? We approach this question from various starting points with respect to methods and data, emphasizing archaeological data from the site of Zacpetén.

      The simplest and most straightforward response to our question is to say who the Kowoj were not: the Kowoj were not the Itza. Until Grant D. Jones’s pioneering exegesis of the late-seventeenth-century conquest of the Petén Itza at Nojpeten, the Kowoj were little differentiated from them. With publication of The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom (Jones 1998), however, this situation has been...

      (pp. 21-54)
      Prudence M. Rice

      The history of the Kowoj in Petén cannot be understood outside of broader relations with other groups in Petén, with groups in Yucatán, and also with the Spaniards. Documentary evidence concerning the latter has been explored by Grant D. Jones (1998, Chapter 3, this volume). Here I situate the Kowoj within a wider historical and geopolitico-ritual landscape by overviewing the practices and events that establish the context of these interrelations.

      The northern Yucatán peninsula was dominated geopolitically in the Postclassic and Colonial periods by two alliances of elite lineages known as the Itza in the east and the Xiw in...

      (pp. 55-69)
      Grant D. Jones

      The Yukatekan-speaking Kowoj Maya of central Petén, Guatemala, were virtually unknown until about a decade ago. Primary-source documentary research in Spanish archives, however, coupled with intensive archaeological research in areas known to have been occupied by the Kowoj, has rescued this significant Colonial-period polity from oblivion. This research has demonstrated that, in addition to the better-known kingdom of the Itza and more scattered populations of Mopan Maya speakers, the Kowoj—named for their principal patrilineage, or ch’ib’al—represented a major force in Petén history. This was especially true during the final years of the seventeenth century and the early years...

    • Chapter 4 The LINGUISTIC CONTEXT of the KOWOJ
      (pp. 70-80)
      Charles Andrew Hofling

      The task of analyzing the linguistic context of the Kowoj in Petén can be accomplished only indirectly because we have very little textual data from Petén from the Terminal Classic through the eighteenth century. However, a variety of sources of evidence allow us to make inferences about the languages spoken in central Petén. The Kowoj were a Yukatekan-speaking group that likely migrated from Mayapán in northwestern Yucatán sometime between that site’s fall in the mid-fifteenth century, if not earlier,¹ and the mid-sixteenth century (Jones 1998: 17–19). In Petén they encountered the Itza, who are reported to have migrated from...

  8. Part III. The Archaeology of the Kowoj:: Settlement and Architecture at Zacpetén

    • [Part III. Introduction]
      (pp. 81-84)
      Prudence M. Rice

      We estimated, on the basis of Proyecto Lacustre’s initial mapping and excavations, that the Late Postclassic occupation of Zacpetén, with an area of 0.23 square kilometers, was 546 persons (Rice and Rice 1990: table 6.5). Our estimates for the Lake Salpetén basin as a whole, based on our transect surveys, were 1,256 persons using an average of 5.4 persons per household and 2,324 using a 10-person household as a basis for the calculations (ibid.: table 6.6). These totals should be revised upward following Proyecto Maya Colonial’s remapping of additional structures on the peninsula: the 137 residential groups at Zacpetén might...

    • Chapter 5 ZACPETÉN and the KOWOJ: Field Methods and Chronologies
      (pp. 85-122)
      Timothy W. Pugh and Prudence M. Rice

      The archaeological site of Zacpetén (historical Sakpeten), a late Kowoj ceremonial and residential center, occupies a cedilla-shaped peninsula extending southward from the northeastern edge of Lake Salpetén, Petén, Guatemala (Maps 5.1 and 5.2). Its occupational history extends from the Middle Preclassic period (ca. 800/700–300 B.C.) until just after the Spanish conquest (ca. A.D. 1697), but it was most densely populated during the Late Postclassic and Contact periods, beginning around A.D. 1400 (Rice and Rice 1990). This occupation history, with Postclassic settlement mapping over Middle Preclassic occupation, is a distinctive characteristic of the Petén lakes region.

      Zacpetén was first discovered,...

      (pp. 123-140)
      Prudence M. Rice, Don S. Rice, Timothy W. Pugh and Rómulo Sánchez Polo

      Archival data indicate that the Itza and Kowoj and their allies engaged in intermittent warfare during the seventeenth century. Conflicts in the form of skirmishes, raids, and major combat between the Itza and Kowoj are recorded in ethnohistoric accounts, as are hostilities between the Maya and Spaniards (Avendaño y Loyola 1987; Cortés 1986; Díaz del Castillo 1973; Jones 1989, 1998; López de Cogolludo 1957; Scholes and Roys 1968; Villagutierre Soto-Mayor 1983; Ximénez 1929–1931). Aggression is also attested in the archaeological record by the remains of defensive systems, human victims, and weaponry.

      Such conflicts undoubtedly existed for centuries before being...

      (pp. 141-172)
      Timothy W. Pugh and Prudence M. Rice

      The Kowoj in Petén grounded their social reality in claims of ancestry from Mayapán, a major Late Postclassic city in Yucatán dating approximately A.D. 1200–1450 (Milbrath and Peraza Lope 2003). Mayapán, along with the earlier Chich’en Itza, were powerful landmarks in the historical consciousness of the Colonial-period lowland Maya (Tozzer 1941: 25; Edmonson 1986: 51–113). This chapter examines Zacpetén’s ritual spaces relative to the social climate of the Late Postclassic and Contact periods in Petén. Material evidence in the two major ceremonial assemblages at Zacpetén, Groups A and C, demonstrates stereotypical traits of ritual including repetition, order, tradition,...

      (pp. 173-191)
      Timothy W. Pugh

      A total of 137 residential groups have been mapped on the Zacpetén peninsula; most, if not all, of them had Late Postclassic– to Contact-period components (Rice 1988: 236–238; Rice and Rice 1980), which we associate with Xiw-affiliated groups and the Kowoj. In 1996 Proyecto Maya Colonial excavated five residences, associated architecture, and plaza areas (Map 8.1). These excavations revealed substantial quantities of primary (in situ) and de facto refuse (Schiffer 1987: 89) on the latest floors. As in the civic-ceremonial structures, primary and de facto refuse provided a great deal of information about Postclassic life, domestic activity patterns, social...

      (pp. 192-216)
      Timothy W. Pugh, Prudence M. Rice and Leslie G. Cecil

      Zacpetén’s Group 719 consists of three masonry structures—a tandem open hall (Structure 719), a temple (Structure 721), and a shrine (Structure 720)—on a platform roughly 1200 square meters in area (Map 9.1). The complex is situated between the two temple assemblages, Group A and Group C, on a low ridge that provides the easiest path between the two ceremonial complexes. It is also in one of the most desirable living areas of the site—on terrain that is not flood-prone or a dramatic slope—and between two aguadas (waterholes), one of which connects to Lake Salpetén. Thus, the...

  9. Part IV. The Archaeology of the Kowoj:: Pottery and Identity

    • [Part IV. Introduction]
      (pp. 217-220)
      Prudence M. Rice

      The three chapters in Part IV attempt to answer the question “Who were the Kowoj?” through examination of various kinds of pottery they made and used in their daily lives and on ritual occasions. It has long been realized that pottery, because of the multitude of variables involved in its production—variables of its composition, form, surface finishing—provides valuable insights into its makers and users. Pottery is formed and informed. In creating a vessel, potters constantly make decisions and choices about what clay to use; whether to “temper” it and, if so, with what; what shape to make; how...

      (pp. 221-237)
      Leslie G. Cecil

      According to ethnohistorical documents and confirmed by archaeological excavations, ethno-political groups in seventeenth-century Petén, primarily the Itza and Kowoj, contested socio-political boundaries and were at war (Jones 1998, Chapter 3, this volume). Under such unstable conditions, a sense of group identity is often important: Maya potters as well as other members of Maya society might have continuously, but perhaps unconsciously, constructed and reconstructed their identity by creating and recreating their social structures through daily activities such as pottery manufacture (Giddens 1984: 17).

      Potters make choices about resources (such as clay and pigment colors) and decoration when manufacturing vessels, and these...

      (pp. 238-275)
      Prudence M. Rice and Leslie G. Cecil

      Material culture is rarely neutral in its meaning. People who share a common identity and culture will have and display similar symbols of that identity, and these symbols are apparent in their material culture repertoire (Darish 1989; Pollard 1994). Promulgating a common identity through material culture may also establish social boundaries that are maintained by the manipulation and display of symbols having political, economic, or religious importance (McGuire 1982). It is no wonder, then, that the conflict-ridden socio-political groups in the Petén lakes region during the Late Postclassic and Contact periods asserted distinct identities in the decorative programs on their...

      (pp. 276-312)
      Prudence M. Rice

      During the Postclassic period, as in earlier Preclassic and Classic times, Maya public and private rituals incorporated specialized containers to hold, transport, or process various substances essential to the proceedings. Of these, the most common were pottery vessels for the burning of resins, particularly pom incense (the sap of the copal tree, Protium copal), which archaeologists refer to as incense burners, censers, and incensarios (or sometimes braziers/braseros). The Spaniards decried these vessels, which continued to be made and used clandestinely well after conquest, as “idols,” and missionaries and clergy considered them irrefutable evidence that the Maya were “heathens,” “pagans,” and...

  10. Part V. Additional Perspectives on the Kowoj

    • [Part V. Introduction]
      (pp. 313-316)
      Prudence M. Rice

      The four relatively short chapters in Part V contribute to the answer to our question, Who were the Kowoj, by adding various perspectives, chronological and behavioral. These perspectives do not so much add new ways to identify the Kowoj archaeologically as they do inform us on their strategies for negotiating relations with their pasts and with the increasingly bitter circumstances of their present realities.

      Chapters 13 and 16 provide temporal anchors to the Kowoj story in Petén. Chapter 13 is an elucidation of the text and imagery of Zacpetén Altar 1, which we found broken and reset into the plaza-facing...

    • Chapter 13 The SYMBOLISM of ZACPETÉN ALTAR 1
      (pp. 317-326)
      David Stuart

      In 1996 a remarkable disc-shaped stone sculpture was found at the site of Zacpetén, located in the central lake district of Petén in northern Guatemala. The stone no doubt once served as an altar, probably placed before an upright stela, but the two large pieces were found reused in later construction. In this chapter I focus on the interpretation of the hieroglyphic texts and iconography of the monument and in doing so reveal that the altar is important to our understanding of Classic Maya cosmology and political ideology.

      The visual design of Zacpetén Altar 1 (as it is designated) is...

    • Chapter 14 POSTCLASSIC TRADE: Sources of Obsidian at Zacpetén
      (pp. 327-339)
      Prudence M. Rice and Leslie G. Cecil

      The political economy of the Postclassic period in Mesoamerica is generally believed to have differed considerably from that of earlier periods. In particular, trade networks and mechanisms are believed to have been dominated by maritime rather than overland routes, with various trading ports, or entrepôts (sometimes identified as ports of trade; Chapman 1957; see Gasco and Berdan 2003; Smith and Berdan 2003a), existing along the coast of the Yucatán peninsula. Among these are Isla Cerritos (Andrews et al. 1989), Cozumel (Sabloff and Rathje 1975a), and the cayes off the Belize shoreline, such as Ambergris Caye (Guderjan 1995) and Marco González...

      (pp. 340-367)
      William N. Duncan

      In 1996, excavations carried out under the auspices of Proyecto Maya Colonial identified and partially excavated a mass grave (Operation 1000) at Zacpetén. This was the second Postclassic mass grave identified in the lakes region, the other on Topoxté Island in Lake Yaxhá (Bullard 1970). Preliminary analyses documented that the grave was created between A.D. 1389 and 1437 (Pugh 2001), likely by the peoples known as Kowoj (Duncan 2005a) or earlier Xiw-affiliated groups from the important Late Postclassic city of Mayapán in northern Yucatán (Rice, Chapter 2, this volume). This prompted four questions: How did the Xiw/Kowoj create the grave?...

    • Chapter 16 The KOWOJ and the LACANDON: Migrations and Identities
      (pp. 368-384)
      Timothy W. Pugh

      Processes of contact, conquest, and colonialism bring about hybridized social configurations built upon the old foundations but molded by new relations of power. Religious systems can be dramatically impacted, especially when colonial powers are obsessed with destroying alternatives to their worldview. This chapter traces transformations of the central ritual space—the god house—in adjacent regions of Petén, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico, from Spanish contact (A.D. 1525) until the present. God house rituals were perduring, reflecting the changing reality and helping those using the ritual spaces to understand a world under physical and spiritual siege.

      The A.D. 1697 conquest of...

  11. Part VI. Conclusions

    • Chapter 17 SUMMARY and CONCLUDING REMARKS: The Kowoj through a Glass, Darkly
      (pp. 387-395)
      Prudence M. Rice

      The preceding chapters have been compiled in an effort to begin to answer the question, Who were the Kowoj? Each chapter in this collection has addressed different kinds of evidence in what has come to be known as a conjunctive approach: indigenous written sources, Spanish sources, linguistics, radiocarbon dating, civic-ceremonial architecture, domestic architecture, decorated pottery, incense burners, mortuary practice, and so on. Each chapter has thus provided a window through which to create an image of the Kowoj Maya, but, like all windows, they are bounded by frames. In the case of these chapters, the frames are not only physical...

    (pp. 396-438)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 439-458)