Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Time in Intercultural Context

The Indigenous Calendars of Mexico and Guatemala

Maarten Jansen
ERC Grant Agreement No. 295434 ERC Grant Agreement No. 295434
  • Abteilung für Altamerikanistik, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität, Bonn (Germany)
  • Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali (Sociología Política), Università degli Studi, Messina (Italy)
  • Centro Regional Oaxaca, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (Mexico)

How can time symbolism in Mesoamerica be understood as part of a cognitive system? How was / is it embodied, socially embedded, and ritually performed? How can mapping the linguistic, narrative, ritual and intercultural dimensions of surviving indigenous calendars contribute to (a) the interpretation of ancient art and manuscripts, and (b) the theoretical and comparative reflection on the role of perceptions and concepts of time in the construction of individual and collective identities? How is this role affected by (and, in turn, how does it influence) a situation of intense and prolonged cultural interaction? How can cooperation with indigenous scholars and communities contribute to a decolonizing epistemology and research practice?

Analysis of the continuities and transformations of the indigenous perceptions and symbolic concepts of time in Mesoamerica, in relation to the social processes of colonization and modernization. Interpretation of Mesoamerican pictographic and hieroglyphic manuscripts, and related visual art of the pre-colonial and early colonial periods, through in-depth study of archaeological context, historical documents and oral tradition. This in comparative perspective and in cooperation with indigenous experts.

Project description

Ancient Mexican cosmogram  in Codex Tezcatlipoca (Fejervary-Mayer), p. 1. Different cycles of time (day signs) integrated with the four world directions (represented by trees) and associated deities.

The central question is what the effects of European colonialism and global interaction (introducing capitalist-industrial clock-time) have been on culturally different concepts of time, as well as on the associated practices, memories, mentalities, and narrative identities.

The long-term cultural interaction between Europe and the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Guatemala is a very illustrative case. On the one hand authentic knowledge about these symbolic orders is now often an endangered heritage, on the other fascinating forms of coexistence and interaction and synergy have been achieved, while interesting revitalizations are experimented within art and thought.

This project examines how the on-going use of ancient temporal structures and symbols reflects the way in which different religious concepts and experiences have developed and now coexist in indigenous communities.

Social relevance: working towards a sense of co-evalness

Rituals in Codex Yoalli Ehecatl (Borgia),p.

With European colonization, the “Western” notion of time has been introduced in many other cultures. In the early (post-mediaeval) days this notion was also symbolically and liturgically charged, but from the 19th century onwards industrialization and modernity have promoted a view of time as secular “clock-time”, related principally to the production process (“time is money”), in combination with a view of the historical development toward present-day structures of economic power as a form of (“natural”) evolution. This has led to a construction (and marginalisation) of other cultures as "mere objects" that are depicted as "primitive" and "stuck in the past". This discriminatory attitude, defined by Johannes Fabian as "denial of co-evalness", is often used as a justification of ruthless (trans)national exploitation of the resources of indigenous communities.

In exploring this topic the interdisciplinary and intercultural team (including indigenous experts) wishes to foreground indigenous paradigms and interests.

Scientific relevance: connecting past and present

Map of Mesoamerica

Ancient religious manuscripts from Aztecs, Mixtecs, Mayas and other pre-colonial cultures of Mexico and neighbouring Central America, many of which are currently kept in European libraries and museums, form a prominent part of a still inadequately understood cultural heritage. The structuring principle of these pictographic/ hieroglyphic texts is the ancient calendar - a dominant framework for historiography, astronomy, divination, ritual, medical treatment, social organisation and moral codes. In-depth study of contemporary ceremonial practice and discourse is a crucial key to decipher these works of art and to understand the underlying ideas.

Establishing the connection between past and present has educative value and can play a role in validating and dignifying the culture of contemporary indigenous communities.

Research of the coordinators

Coordinators Jansen and Pérez Jiménez carry out their own research on the meanings, values and socio-political aspects of indigenous heritage in the Mixteca Alta region (State of Oaxaca, Mexico), concentrating on several specific topics:

  1. The interpretation of pictorial manuscripts with religious contents ("the Borgia Group") and with historical-ideological contents (particularly the corpus of Mixtec codices).
  2. The interpretation of pre-colonial visual art related to these pictorial manuscripts, particularly the treasures and pictorial texts of Tomb 7 of Monte Albán.
  3. The study of colonial transformations, as visible for example in the writing system and literary heritage (including the interpretation of so-called Testerian manuscripts).
  4. The study of contemporary Mixtec traditions, cultural vocabulary, ceremonial language, concepts and symbolism.
7) Visit of team members to the Nahua village of Sta Catarina.

Leiden University's center of excellence in indigenous American studies

At Leiden University there exists an important tradition of interest and research concerning the indigenous peoples of the Americas. While several indigenous American languages and literatures are studied and taught in the Faculty of Humanities, the Faculty of Archaeology focuses on the past remains and living cultural traditions in Mesoamerica as well as in the Caribbean, Central American and Andean regions. These different specialisations have received important grants from a.o. the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the European Research Council.  

Methods and results

A series of iconographical, ethnographic, ethno-archaeological and historical research projects is carried out to document and analyse Mesoamerican perception and symbolism of time in past and present. Fieldwork in various indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala is combined with intensive seminars and international workshops on this topic at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University. The collected empirical data are applied to the reading of pre-colonial manuscripts and related visual art, which leads to new insights into their meaning. A focus on ritual is combined with an analysis of issues of representation, heritage and intercultural relations.

All this leads to a series of PhD dissertations, postdoc articles and other publications.

Sacred landscape: Yuku Kasa, the place of the souls, in the Southern Mixteca Alta.

In the process a decolonizing methodology is followed and further elaborated. This specific research is connected with a more general interest in heritage and rights of indigenous peoples worldwide, manifest in Leiden workshops on this topic, with participation of indigenous experts.

Connection with other research

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