by James Doyle
Ingram Professor of Anthropology Arthur Demarest, often described by
the national news media as a “real-life Indiana Jones,” was quick to
clarify that image in a recent lecture in Wilson Hall. True, Demarest
is known for his discoveries of rare Maya artifacts hidden deep in the
rainforests of Guatemala. But, unlike the fictional tomb raiders, his
goal is not to pillage these sites, but to use them to study the
ancient culture while encouraging long-term economic stability for the
local communities while doing so.
“Archeology is not about the things. It’s about reconstructing
sociology, politics and economics of another civilization,” he said.
By focusing on philosophical and theoretical issues discovered through
archeology, Demarest has grown to become one of the foremost
investigators in Mesoamerican archeology. His work focuses on the
cultural region in Central America that includes such civilizations as
the ancient Maya and Aztec. Amidst the challenges of corrupt
governments, prevalent drug trafficking and poverty, Demarest has
worked for more than two decades discovering and restoring the Maya
At its peak, Maya civilization included between 10 and 20 million
people in vast cities. In the area today, about 400,000 modern settlers
reside in the same space but are much more destructive, he said. In the
late ’80s and early ’90s, Demarest researched a region in Guatemala
known as the Petexbatun, which shows the earliest evidence for the Maya
“collapse” through violent and episodic warfare. His findings led him
to his current research, the Cancuen archeological project.
Cancuen is a modest-size Maya city located in central Guatemala at the
head of navigation of the Pasión River. Its well-deserved name means
“nest of serpents,” and was largely overlooked by archeologists in the
past due to the dangers of working there.
Demarest was drawn to Cancuen for three captivating features that set
it apart from other Maya sites: specialized jade workshops that provide
key information about ancient trade; some of the most intricate stone
carvings ever found in the Maya area; and a massive palace miraculously
protected by an overgrowth of foilage. The palace is the size of five
or six football fields, he said. The palace is the focus of archeology
with architectural restoration. Rudy Larios, one of the world’s
foremost experts on restoration, has joined the Cancuen project to
train locals in restoration techniques, in hopes of turning the ruins
into a tourism site.
Using tourism for economic and political change is one of Demarest’s
main goals, because he wants the digs to encourage a sustainable
development for the local people. He enlisted help and funding from
organizations such as U.S. Agency for International Development and the
World Bank in order to partner his archeological research with tourism
Benefiting the 21 villages of Q’eqchi’ Maya people around the site of
Cancuen, the development project now has funding of $5 million and
includes an ecotourism lodge. Projects include teaching men and women
how to make carved and woven souvenirs, drilling new wells for potable
water, establishing clinics, education about proper farming and
gardening practices, marketing of organic products in the U.S. and
Europe, and training guides to run tourism both in the archeological
park and in the caves contained in nearby mountains.
The Q’eqchi’ retain sole control over the ecotourism lodges connected
to the site, as well as boat services that allow for river transport to
and from Cancuen.
“I’d ideally like to see all schools at Vanderbilt engaged in this
development project,” said Demarest as he encouraged the medical school
and the law school to get involved through clinic volunteers and
agrarian law specialists, respectively.
Now known as the Cancuen-Chisec model for sustainable development
through archeology, Demarest’s revolutionary technique brings together
scientists, humanitarian workers and tourism specialists in order to
spur on human development and social change.
“This is the future of archeology,” said Demarest. He plans to turn
over the development projects completely to the Q’eqchi’ and the
humanitarian organizations after the final research season this summer.
“I’m almost done with Cancuen. I’m moving north where there are big
cities where no one has ever been.”
Demarest recently published a book, Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization, with Cambridge University Press.