Published: July 16, 2018 By

Deep in the jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula sits Punta Laguna, a small Maya village where chickens roam freely among the pole-and-thatch houses and villagers plant corn to make tortillas. But nobody there is living in the past.

The villagers have TVs, computers and smartphones. When Sarah Kurnick, an assistant professor at CU Boulder who was conducting research in the village, needed help transferring files via Bluetooth, one of the villagers showed her how. 

The Punta Laguna people honor their ancient Maya roots while embracing modern life. 

Kurnick is an anthropological archaeologist specializing in ancient Mesoamerica, particularly the Maya. She is co-directing a community archaeology project at Punta Laguna, a site of significant cultural importance to the people. Kurnick’s research provides a platform for them to engage with the site. The project is also co-directed by David Rogoff of Methodist University. 

“The site is part of an eco-tourism venture that was initiated by, and tangibly benefits, an indigenous group,” she said. “By studying the archaeology there, I’m able to work closely with a contemporary group of Maya people to help them understand their Maya past and to help them benefit from an archaeological investigation.”

The Punta Laguna archaeology site lies within the contemporary community of the same name, a small village of about 125 residents located in a spider monkey reserve. Research indicates the village has been occupied intermittently for more than 1,500 years.

Vanessa Monson, a graduate student in anthropology, is one of the students working with Kurnick this summer. The project provides her an opportunity to work in a different part of Mexico since her personal research is on the southern Pacific coast and she was interested in the community aspect of archeology. It is her first time working at a Maya site.

“Nearly everything has had a bit of an ‘aha’ feel to it,” Monson said. “There is nothing quite like reading about something for years and then experiencing it first-hand. For example, a lot of the initial publications that were first documenting Maya sites talk about how the ruins were swallowed up by the jungle. Our hike every day to reach the excavation area brings those descriptions to life.”

The project was kicked off in 2014 by conducting a survey of the site. That entailed researchers walking in straight lines through the jungle, hacking away at the dense foliage with machetes to uncover overgrown mounds and the ruins of structures. Along the way, curious monkeys would watch the team’s progress until getting bored and scampering off. When the team found something, they marked it with a GPS point, took photos, drew it and described it. Doing that, they were able to document the extent of the site, which provided a basic sense of what was there. It took them two field seasons (three to four months total) to complete the survey.

In addition to the monkeys, the reserve is home to a variety of wildlife: pumas, coati, deer, tropical birds and exotic plants. The Maya families who live on the five-plus million hectares of protected land own and operate the reserve’s tourism co-op, which helps support their village. To generate revenue, the town’s residents give tours of the monkey reserve and the ancient structures. While knowledgeable about the spider monkeys on the reserve, the community knows little about the Maya structures. 

An integral part of working with the villagers for Kurnick is learning their history from their perspective. When she talks with them about their past, it’s clear they’re proud of the history of resistance and revolt throughout the colonial period when the Spanish arrived around 1500. 

“It’s important to hear these fresh voices in a community that has been marginalized,” she said. “Working with local communities is incredibly difficult and slow, but I’ve been surprised and delighted by how well the Punta Laguna community has received us and has been eager to work with us and hosting us in their community.” 

Project goals are to:

  • Understand the relationship between Punta Laguna’s current inhabitants and their ancestors 
  • Practice community archaeology, that lets residents benefit from research they help design and carry out

The archaeology site consists of more than 200 structures, 40 mounds and a ceremonial-like center grouped among the largest buildings. In addition, there is a series of caves, several stelae (large stone slabs) anda cenote (a sinkhole filled with water that the ancient Maya used for funerary deposits).

The team has mostly found broken pieces of ceramics from plates, bowls and jars, and tools of stone and obsidian. A few artifacts are displayed in a community museum at the village, including colorful polychrome pots and an intact obsidian blade.

“An archaeologist is interested in using physical items to study the human past,” she explained. “Anthropology is about studying humans. We’re looking at physical remains of the past, but we’re not focused on just the objects. We’re interested in what objects tell us about people and human actions” 

A recent grant from the National Science Foundation will enable them to continue for at least another three years. 

“I’m delighted to work with an excellent group of archaeologists and anthropologists, and with administrators at CU Boulder who really support community archaeology and this type of research,” Kurnick said.