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Landscapes and Peoples in Yucatán, 1500-Present

Thu, March 31, 1:00 to 2:30pm, Westin Seattle Hotel, Adams

Session Submission Type: Panel


This panel presents new research into peoples’ relationships with the subtropical karst landscape of the Yucatán peninsula. Over the last decade, archaeologists have expounded the impact of environmental change and agriculture on the history of the pre-contact Maya in great detail. Ethno- and economic historians have been slightly more subdued on the subject, but have broadly and convincingly asserted that the Yucatán peninsula’s landscape, together with Maya resistance, placed constraints on the extent to which Europeans could exert ecological, political, economic, and cultural dominance over the region. Today, the peninsula’s waterscape of cenotes and caves is one of its main attractions for tourists and archaeologists. And yet, despite broad cross-disciplinary agreement that environment and landscape matter in the peninsula’s past and present, it is only recently that this topic has received significant attention from environmental historians. With this panel, we therefore hope to begin the process of fleshing out the environmental history of the Yucatán peninsula since 1500.

Geoff Wallace’s paper is an analysis of Spanish musings about their failure to produce exportable wealth in Yucatán during the early colonial period. Rebekah Martin’s paper examines physicians’ fears for European health in Yucatán’s ‘insalubrious’ environment. Adrienne Kates turns to the Maya of the early twentieth century and demonstrates their use of Quintana Roo’s forested hinterland as a source of space and economic agency. Finally, Maria de Lourdes Melo Zurita and Paul Munro chronicle the twentieth century expansion of explorers and governance into the peninsula’s underground aquifer. Given growing tourism in Yucatán and the public’s increasing fascination with the peninsula’s landscapes and Maya inhabitants, we believe that a panel discussing the cultural and economic links between people and landscapes in this region to be highly salient to the conference’s theme of ‘Environmental History and its Publics.’

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