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Unlawful appropriation of territory

Leiden archaeologists reveal the function of specific locations and buildings in order to protect indigenous heritage and lifestyle.

Indigenous Peoples have a spiritual connection to areas that are being unlawfully appropriated by governments and transnational companies. Leiden archaeologists reveal the function of specific locations and buildings in order to protect indigenous heritage and lifestyle.

Governments and companies massively infringe on areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples. Often these people have no idea how to defend their rights to land or buildings. Furthermore, as a result of the destruction and plundering of written sources by colonisers, the specific spiritual or other significance of some places and buildings important to Indigenous Peoples has become blurred. The collaboration between Leiden archaeologists and indigenous communities serves to unravel the deeper significance and mysteries of these special locations, thereby raising awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ history and heritage both within the communities and in academia. Such amalgamated deeper knowledge gives the indigenous communities stronger grounds for reclaiming control over their territories on the basis of the terms of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The secrets of Oxkintok

Architect Manuel May Castillo, a Maya himself, investigates the significance of buildings for the indigenous Maya people. Together with them, he unravels the riddles surrounding these buildings and highlights their significance. This gives the Maya stronger grounds for making their claim to these areas clear to policy makers. As an example, Castillo mentions the Oxkintok temple complex in Mexico, which has been studied in detail by archaeologists, ethnologists and by himself in his doctoral dissertation. In order to better understand a rainmaking ceremony, Castillo analysed carefully the teachings during a ritual to the God Chaak in a cave near Oxkintoc. ‘In the village of Calcehtok people refer to Oxkintok, during the ceremonies, as the place of the ancestors, so the elders were teaching us that there might be a link between this mountain cave and the building complex in Oxkintoc. The elders made it clear that the building was designed to face the mountain and the cave; that there is a direct, physical link between these two locations. In my study we simply confirmed the statements of the elders in the sense that there is a spiritual connection between the two sacred places. This is why collaborative research with Indigenous Peoples is so important.’

Part of the Oxkintok temple complex (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Impact on administration

Understanding the link between the cave and the temples has important consequences for the significance of a large area surrounding Oxkintok. May Castillo: ‘The building is administered by the Mexican National Institute of Heritage, but they only focus on protecting the buildings themselves, not the wider area surrounding them. Protecting this larger area is important not only for the preservation of cultural heritage, but also for the community living there. Unfortunately the mountain and the cave are currently being exploited by a transnational mining corporation. The cave used to contain a lake filled with water, but the excavations have left it completely dry. Mining is supported by national policy. Further research on the significance of such areas can help influence these policies.’

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