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La Educación
Número: (118) II
Año: 1994

5. Mark Miller GRAHAM, ed. Reinterpreting Prehistory of Central America. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1993, xvi, 336 p., references, notes, illustrations, index. Cloth: $35.

This collection of nine articles is part of the papers submitted at the “Central America and Its Neighbors” Conference which was on November 1-4, 1990, at the Museum of Natural History in Denver, Colorado. According to the objectives of the conference, this collection seeks to reassess the intellectual paradigms that have guided the interpretation of society, culture and pre-Columbian art of Central America. The articles, written by art historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists from the United States, Costa Rica and Panama, have as a common thread the relationship between the so-called “high civilizations,” especially the Maya, and its supposedly less-developed southern Central American neighbors. Through this concept, the authors challenge the prevailing notions of Mesoamerica, as well as other intellectual constructions of the prehistory of Central America, which have led to obscure the richness, diversity and internal dynamics of these “less developed” cultures.

Taking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book The Maya and Their Neighbors (Hay et al., eds., 1940) as the starting point, the editor, Mark Miller Graham, presents a general historiographical overview of the studies of the Central American pre-Columbian past in his article, “Displacing the Center: Construction Prehistory in Central America.” Graham seeks to elucidate the ways by which the prevailing intellectual frameworks have been built for its study, as well as the way to restructure them towards a more global comprehension of the region in question. Terence Grieder, in his work “A Global View of Central America,” shows, through four aspects of the Central American cultures, that they had a systemic, “global” view of the world, whereas the so-called High Mesoamerican culture has a more lineal and “plain” view.

Supporting these basic notions, the following five articles concentrate their analysis in specific regions. Rosemary A. Joyce, in “The Construction of the Mesoamerican Frontier and the Mayoid Image of Honduran Polychromes,” examines the relationships between ethnia and traditions of polychrome ceramics, as well as challenges the notions of center and periphery as hegemonic entities for the understanding of art in non-Mayan areas. Oscar M. Fonseca Zamora, “Art, Ideology, and Totality: Representational Art of Costa Rica’s Central Region in the Late Period (AD 800-1500),” presents a historical view of the conceptual frameworks that have guided the archeological research in the region, while at the same time proposing his own paradigm for the study of art, in which art, ideology, totality, theory, method, and interpretation form a cycle around which the phenomena revolved in a play of correspondences (p. 127). This is illustrated through the representational art of the central zone of Costa Rica between the years 800 and 1500 AC. In “Fatal Attractions: Interpretation of Prehistoric Mortuary Remains from Lower Central America” Peter S. Briggs offers a critique of the more recent analysis of the relationship between social structure and mortuary art, concentrating his attention on the areas of Panama and Costa Rica. Richard Cook in “Animal Icons and Pre-Columbian Society: The Felidae, with Special Reference to Panama,” (pp. 169-208) deals with the relationship between the feline imagery with its corresponding ritual paraphernalia and the pre-Columbian cognitive and social environments and the Isthmus of Panama. The last work of this group, “Cosmological Chromatics: Color-Related Symbolism in the Ceramic Art of Ancient Panama,” by Mary W. Helms, analyzes the cultural meaning of color in the polychrome ceramic art of Sitio Conte, Panama.

At the end of the volume, authors Whitney Davis and Frederick W. Lange resume the general critique and reconceptualization of the traditional binomial used to characterize the Central American cultures: high and low societies, center and periphery, simple and complex cultures, the literate and illiterate, among others. Davis, in “Writing Culture in Prehistoric America,” suggests that the analytical categorization of traditions and cultural interactions, as well as central and peripheral cultures, does not necessarily represent the realities of writing as such (p. 267). Lange, in “The Conceptual Structure in Lower Central American Studies: A Central American View,” rejects the imposition of Mesoamerican patterns to interpret Central American prehistory since the latter has peculiar characteristics that are impoverished when they are analyzed from a Mesoamerican perspective. According to him, contrary to what traditional interpretation indicates, this is what gives Central American prehistory its trademark of being culturally successful.

Each essay provides notes and a bibliography, as well as illustrations of pre-Columbian art, which support the written material.

M. Piedad Alliende