Mexico's Unconquered Maya Hold Tight to Their Old Ways

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The sites contain well-preserved mounds and low platforms of slab stone masonry.

"The most surprising element is that much of the culture and behavior from pre-contact Maya culture continues to [the] present, including stone tool use and head-shaping," said Palka, whose work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Other Maya groups traded their bows and arrows for guns once they became available, while the Lacandon around Lake Mensabak continued to use traditional weapons into the 20th century, according to Palka.

"When I dig some of these sites, I find a stone knife right next to a steel machete," he said. "These people were not ignoring ancient technologies that have always worked for them."

Google Maya

Palka's research techniques are somewhat unusual. Though he has relied on Spanish documents to verify the presence of ancient sites at the lake district, he has also used topographic maps and Google Earth to locate them.

Additionally, Palka works closely with the local community.

"The big draw is to work with the Lacandon at the lake and have them helping with the archaeology, recording their interpretations of history and objects as they're being uncovered," Palka said.

"The young ones are very open to us working there because they want to know about their history," Sánchez Balderas added.

"By now the elders who had that knowledge of Lacandon Maya cosmovision, or understanding of the universe, have died. So this is an important part of the research, that we help them reinforce their identity."

Palka and Sánchez Balderas's work may also help the community to preserve its own culture before the tides of globalization wash it away, said New Mexico State University's Alexander.

"Because globalization is now reshaping the cultural map in the deepest depths of the rain forests in Mexico and Guatemala, the Lacandon Maya are less and less able to avoid contact," says Alexander. "As a result, this is a cultural manifestation that is increasingly threatened."

The community is constructing a cultural center, which Palka said he hopes will be a home for archaeological and ecological information, and a draw for tourists to help the community generate income.

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