Mapping Mayan Landscapes

By Derek Smith, Assistant Professor
Department of Geography & Environmental Studies. Carleton University

If Mayan elders of the Yucatan region of Mexico were to write a geography textbook, what would it look like?  While there might be many similarities with the Canadian counterpart, there would  undoubtedly be many differences as well.

The Cathedral of San Ildefonso in the heart of Mérida, site of the 2012 CLAG conference. The cathedral was built in the 16th century on the site of a Mayan temple that was dismantled.

This is in essence, one of the central themes of a new research project funded by SSHRC’s new Insight program.  While considerable research has been done on the cosmovision of the ancient Maya by archaeologists, this project seeks to understand how contemporary Mayan people conceptualize the landscapes surrounding their villages, using a participatory mapping approach. It seeks to understand geography from a Mayan point of view, and to compare this interpretation with the “official” cartographies of the state.

I launched the project in January, when I attended the two-day Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers.  The conference has been held in over dozen different countries, but this year it was held in Mérida, Mexico – which was quite serendipitous for me.  I was able to meet a several researchers addressing a wide variety of topics in the Yucatan region, and I was also able to do some exploratory field research and collect spatial data during the same trip. 

Subterranean cenote near Cuzumá, in the Yucatan region of Mexico.

One of the most striking features of the Mayan landscape are the water-filled cenotes, or sinkholes, that are formed through the dissolution of the limestone bedrock. The Maya have their own classification system for different types of cenotes, but unlike western scientists, they define them not only by their physical characteristics, but also based on their human uses. For centuries, cenotes have been critical sources of water in this relatively dry region, where rivers do not exist because of the highly porous rock.  We know that they were sacred sites for the ancient Maya, but what is their importance today?  They continue to have cultural meaning, but many have also become important tourist destinations, where international visitors can plunge into the crystal clear waters to cool off.  While many local people welcome the economic benefits, others are clearly opposed to the “privatization” of these traditional sites. This shows that how we define cenotes – for example, either as places of natural beauty, or as places of religious significance – can be politically charged, and have significant impacts on indigenous communities.

I am looking for graduate students to participate in this research.  If you are interested, please get in touch (see

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One Response to Mapping Mayan Landscapes

  1. Pingback: gLoeb Xpress « Carleton Library geogenvirospecialist's Blog

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