Why Research on Mayan Architecture Saves Lives


“With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.”

-Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Lamar Smith, USA Today, 9/30/13

In response to their editorial “Rethinking science funding,” I won’t even begin to address the problems when lawmakers begin labeling certain fields of research “questionable” or deciding that certain research should be axed to make room for “higher priorities.” Nor will I address the problematic assertions that social science research grants are “chosen over thousands of others” that these two representatives find more appropriate. These are not new or interesting arguments against research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. In other words: we’ve heard this all before. Rosemary Joyce has posted an eloquent piece addressing some of these points. (Update: Adam Smith has also posted his reaction to the op-ed, here).

Nor do I think that these two are wrong for asking the NSF to justify its research agenda or to provide the public with details about every single project funded. Although I don’t think that our two representatives are “anti-science” (it seems they are reacting to those who do), I do not think they should be involved in the proposal stage of U.S. science research. Trying to build an argument that their position is short-sighted and detracts from the role of scholars from the United States as the thought leaders in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences is fruitless. Because it is clear that, from their perspective, only science, technology, engineering, and medical research is not “questionable.” Although the first pillar of National Science Foundation funding is Intellectual Merit, it is clear that the representatives do not accept the widely held argument that peer-reviewed research funds projects of high intellectual merit, that is, having withstood much questioning.

I only mean to address the quotation above that sets up a false negative comparison, implying that research on Mayan architecture does not help our wounded warriors or save lives. Such research does save lives, and it is in the American people’s interest to continue to devote support to such “questionable” projects, because they do, in fact, improve Americans’ quality of life. Although they were not specifically criticizing any projects that I have been involved with in the past, they might as well have. (Presented without comment, I will note that anthropology and archaeology played a large role in defense recently, helping our armed forces through the HTS project.)

When I first began to contemplate archaeology as a career, it was probably because of that National Geographic factor – the dense, misty jungles covering giant pyramids filled with ancient wonders. Anthropologists and archaeologists study the human condition, learning how peoples in the past conceived of their environment, expressed their own values, and navigated social turmoil in order to build our own knowledge base to use in the present.

My own work examines the basic question of why people in the past cooperated to build big things, and whether the act of building played a role in the social trajectory of the community. In other words, did monumental building outstrip resources and eventually lead to migration and abandonment, a.k.a. “collapse”? I’m happy to sit and discuss with U.S. taxpayers about the intellectual merit of this project in relation to contemporary social problems in our country.

But way back when, as an undergraduate, I quickly realized that the impact of archaeology was much broader. I deliberately use the phrase “broader impact,” because Broader Impacts are the driving measures of the National Science Foundation (the web site of which has been, ironically, shut down because of the choices made by the very same representatives). I received a National Science Foundation grant in 2011-2012 for $20,000 to conduct fieldwork at the site of El Palmar, Guatemala. I should add that my first round proposal was rejected, and one reviewer called into question my broader impacts, which is exactly what the representatives should know. Even a small (by NSF standards) dissertation grant for a graduate student in anthropology is heavily peer-reviewed, and only a broad consensus leads to a successful proposal. There are many gatekeepers to avoid funding “questionable” research.

My final report to the NSF includes the answer to the following question:

What research and teaching skills and experience has the project helped provide to those who worked on the project?

The co-principal investigator received doctoral field training on survey and excavation techniques, as well as training on laboratory analysis of archaeological materials. The project data will serve as the major empirical basis for the doctoral dissertation of the co-principal investigator, expected to be completed in May, 2012 [Editor’s note: it took me an extra year!].

Additionally, Guatemalan archaeological students received field and laboratory field training as part of the project. These students will eventually contribute to strengthening the national archaeology program for future projects.

The broader impacts of the project are found in the promotion of community development in the area near El Palmar, most notably in Cruce Dos Aguadas, Petén. Because of the harsh reality of the economy in this rural part of Central America, archaeological fieldwork is often the only source of income for many of the excavation and camp assistants. The El Palmar dissertation work collaborated with local project assistants, contributing not only to short-term economic development, but also long-term career prospects as qualified excavators. This, in turn, will strengthen connections with the local community and promote the responsible stewardship of archaeological and cultural heritage.

I will not dwell on the effects of the National Science Foundation funding on my own life. I received my Ph.D. in May of this year and am employed teaching and doing research. Suffice it to say my quality of life as an American has improved.

Where the representatives are, respectfully, wrong, is in their judgment of the ability of research on Mayan architecture (or rangeland management in Mongolia, or metallurgy in prehistoric Russia, or the Bronze Age in Cyprus, or early New Zealand, etc.) to actually save lives and improve quality of others’ lives here at home. As an anthropologist, I know that defining what is strictly “American” in our globalized world is more complex than simply asking for a birth certificate (as do others, see http://www.defineamerican.com/).

While I can only speak about my experience, I call upon others to report theirs.

Guatemala is a country that has been deeply troubled since colonization and the subsequent break from Spain. However, socioeconomic problems greatly accelerated after an American CIA-backed coup in the 1950s led to three decades of civil war, displacing populations and leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The country is still trying to come to terms with its modern history.

One way that my small project helped is to contribute to a growing movement in Guatemala to protect its cultural and natural patrimony through constructive means: archaeology, ethnography, biology, ecology, and so on. As more Guatemalan-born archaeologists take charge of their past, they strengthen a sense of national identity. And as American researchers representing our country and supporting professionals and students through NSF funds, we send a message that the U.S. wants strong and healthy democratic traditions projected through helping the growth of in-country projects of science and conservation.

But finally, I want to address how research into Mayan Architecture (or, Insert Questionable Social Science Topic Here) saves lives. Put very bluntly, many of the people we work with in the northern department of Guatemala choose to work with archaeological projects over what very often is the other attractive alternative: narcotrafficking. Without comment on the perceived failing of the US or Mexico’s policy on drug cartel activity, the sad reality of this part of the world is that the US demand for illegal drugs is fueling destruction of property and community in Central America.

These people may not be deemed “American” by our representatives because they live beyond the U.S. borders, but their blood, sweat, and tears enter our country through the vast transnational flows of people and ideas in the Americas. By intervening in these communities, displaced by civil war and with little economic recourse, archaeologists have planted the seeds of long-term prosperity and archaeological and natural sustainability. Tourism is growing in the area, resulting both from Guatemalan-backed funding and U.S.-based funders recognizing the leading role that the U.S. must play in the region.

In short, yes, we save the lives of individuals and their families at our research sites. They, or their sons and daughters might end up migrating to the representatives’ home states of Texas one year, Virginia the next, but back on a plane to Guatemala to pick broccoli that ends up in our U.S. supermarkets the year after that. Their grandchildren may be running for the House of Representatives one day.

The American people should prioritize research spending “in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life,” as the representatives note. But not at the expense of SBE research that creates useful knowledge, contributes to local and U.S. economic and defense interests, and trains American researchers to understand other cultures and histories.

We should never cease to raise a magnifying glass to our neighbors, a mirror to ourselves, or an ear to the past. That, representatives, is common sense.

“If ever the humanities were necessary…it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation.”

Mildred Bliss to Professor Paul Sachs, Director of the Fogg Museum, May 9th, 1942.

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Categories: Archaeology, Maya

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