At a remote valley in Chiapas, Mexico, archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Santiago Juarez is studying a small, proto-Maya society. His findings are challenging some presumptions about how early civilization developed, and perhaps about who we are as humans.
Juarez’s recent research is on the Noh K’uh, a Preclassic Maya civilization that flourished between 400 B.C. and 250 A.D. In a June 2022 paper, published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Juarez analyzes the landscape and other geographic features of a Noh K’uh settlement site and shows how the environmental aspects of the site coincide with what appear to be deeply held cosmological beliefs in the society. The broader implications of Juarez’s findings indicate that pragmatic factors — such as competition for resources — commonly assumed to be the main drivers in the formation of early societies, may not be universal.
The site of the ancient Noh K’uh village that Juarez has been studying is in a bowl-like depression, surrounded by hilly terrain. The village itself was made up of numerous compounds, each comprising a group of habitations numbering a dozen or more, constructed of wood and thatch, in which 50–100 extended family members would have lived.
Despite geographic obstacles, the village is oriented strongly along southeast and northwest lines, which Juarez calls the axis mundi. The east-west axis was deeply significant to the Noh K’uh, says Juarez, the east of the sunrise representing life and rebirth, and the west of the sunset representing death. “We know this from looking at the later Maya culture and its classical period, where the east-west was their most sacred alignment because of their sun worship,” says Juarez. In addition, the Noh K’uh was a society that absorbed and assimilated other cultural ideas and symbols readily. The importance of the north-south axis came from an earlier Olmec society, where the mountains, in this case to the north, were the source of creation. “The Noh K’uh seem to be integrating both symbolic systems, and the idea is that they are recreating the universe in the space where they live, integrating the skies and the earth for religious reasons.” As above, so below.
Juarez also points out that the remoteness of the Noh K’uh village, and its location in a valley, further indicate that the site had religious significance. “Those high hills all around the valley would have been natural sites to place an early urbanizing community, and instead they’re putting the village smack in the center of a valley,” says Juarez. The hills would also have been ideal sites to construct temples, and to avoid the flood waters of lower elevations, but the Noh K’uh declined using them so they could maintain the axial alignment of the village. “That means that this is a sacred space, a sacred city,” Juarez says. “And I think that indicates a different model of evolution for societies.”
In conventional archaeological analysis, Juarez explains, it is typically presumed that forces like agriculture or military expediency are what shape early societies, often leading to monarchical cultures. In Juarez’s study of the Noh K’uh, there is a different paradigm at work, less contentious in nature, and more rooted in a spiritual engagement with the landscape in a symbolic way.
“In the broader picture, this would mean that religious practice is the impetus for civilization in the Americas, with agriculture in a support role in the development of complex religious behavior. So that’s very unlike the Old World,” says Juarez. “What’s fascinating to me is that these are the first cities that are emerging in the Americas. They’re not economic or military centers. They’re all almost always religious and native.”
The evidence of the Noh K’uh village and similar societies in the region posits another way of thinking about what motivates humans to build societies and how they develop. “At Noh-K’uh, they’re not doing what you see in Mesopotamia, where you have these small villages that eventually grow to urban centers. They’re flipping the model on its head,” says Juarez. “Instead they’re saying, let’s build a religious space first, and then we’ll decide how to settle around it.”
Artifacts found on the Noh K’uh site further demonstrate, on a smaller scale, both the importance of the cosmos and the inclination of the society to synthesize symbols of other cultures. Juarez points to a set of miniature jade axes (celts) and small stones arranged in a formation that mimicked the geographic axes along which the town was built.
“The jade bits are like cosmic corn, because corn played a big role in these burgeoning societies,” Juarez says.
The green color of the jade represented fertility, and the birth of world out of the primordial sea. The sea itself was the sacred substance that was the origin of the universe. Thus, packed into this small token was a symbolic connection to the cosmos, and every house in the village seems to have had some version of this tiny replica of the cosmological order. “Even at the daily level, it’s about making you feel like you are part of a larger whole, and that permeates even to the broader universe. It’s a kind of complex daily life, where religion and utilitarian activities were always merging.”
Juarez grew up in Chicago, and his introduction to archaeology began with a road trip with his father at age 11. “One day, my dad decided to pull me out of school for two weeks,” Juarez recalls. The pair visited family and went to see archaeological sites across Mexico. “My dad said, ‘This is your heritage. Your ancestors built this.’ It was a very formative trip, and was the beginning of my love affair with archaeology.”
Three decades later, Juarez is still following the road to the past that he first traveled with his father. “That trip showed me that there was a big future for me in archaeology, and I never let it go,” he says. “When I go into these sites, I’m looking for different views, different contexts, different logics that created societies. And I’ve never lost that.”