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Today’s anxieties compared with ancient Maya life

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A professor from the U.S. told fellow Mayanists in Izamal that fears of terrorism in today’s world connect with what ancient civilizations encountered years ago.

Some of the reports expressing fear of a Maya threat to Spanish security in the late 1500s and early 1600s sound a great deal like today’s social media chatter about ISIS activities in the U.S., said Dr. Stephen Webre, a professor of history at Louisiana Tech University.

Webre was among a select group of researchers from 14 countries who recently gathered to present findings at the 10th International Congress of Mayanists – a triennial gathering of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, linguists, and other specialists dedicated to the study of Maya culture.


Webre, who is the Garnie W. McGinty Chair in History and also serves as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, presented a paper titled “The Presence of Fear on Guatemala’s Northern Frontier, 1555-1635,” which examined the role of fear in Spanish relations with the Ch’olti’ Maya.

“Whether the threats in question are real or imagined, there can be no doubt that fear has played a large role in human history,” said Webre. “As a subject for historical research, fear belongs to the field of study known as history of emotions.”

Some historians are skeptical of a history of emotions because it is difficult or impossible to know what subconscious factors motivated some person who lived three or four hundred years ago, the professor acknowledged.

“Even so, the role of fear is still important to pursue in the historical record,” Webre said.  “Human beings often make important decisions on irrational grounds. It is clear from surviving documentation that both the Spanish and the Maya used terror as a psychological weapon, deliberately provoking fear in order to achieve their objectives.”

A specialist in Latin American history, Webre’s publications include three books and numerous articles in scholarly journals. He is a former president of the Louisiana Historical Association and the Southwest Historical Association, a contributing editor of the Handbook of Latin American Studies and is a corresponding member of the Guatemalan Academy of Geography and History.

At the gathering, experts from Germany, Canada, Denmark, El Salvador, Spain, United States, France, Guatemala, Japan, Poland, United Kingdom, Russia, Switzerland and Mexico participated in 20 different symposia, four plenary lectures and 285 tables.

Laura Sotelo Santos, the conference coordinator, praised attendees for the quality, originality and rigor of their academic presentations.

“It makes us think about our social responsibility to contribute to safeguarding the cultural, tangible and intangible heritage; intercultural dialogue; our duty to work with prudence, tolerance and respect, and to building peace and equality in this century,” she said.

The closing ceremony was led by the director of the Institute of Philological Investigations of UNAM, Mario Ruz Sosa, who thanked researchers and the organizing committee.

The keynote speaker was Luis Alonso Ramirez Carrillo, a faculty member of UADY, who spoke on the Maya of this region and neighboring countries.

For the first time, the Alberto Ruz Lhuillier prize was awarded to six young researchers under 35 years of age, who received a special diploma and an economic stimulus.

Another conference for students of Maya culture will be held on the other side of the world.

The 21st European Maya Conference will be held in Moscow from Oct. 17 to 22. The meeting is organized by the Knorozov Center for Mesoamerican Studies, Russian State University for the Humanities and the Department of Ancient History, Lomonosov Moscow State University in cooperation with Wayeb (European Association of Mayanists). The conference is supported financially by the Russian Scientific Foundation.

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