How Did Ancient Mayan Cities Deal With Immigration?

Dr. Miller Wolf presenting at Miami.

Immigration may have been just as important an issue for ancient Mayan cities as it is in large urban centers today, archaeologist Katherine Miller Wolf told Miami students and faculty.

Dr. Miller Wolf, who spent several years in Copan, Honduras doing archaeological fieldwork, discussed these issues in her lecture, “Creating Community in Copan: The Intersection of Kinship & Migration at the Ancient Maya Frontier,” on Sept. 29, 2017.  

“I think [Copan] was a frontier city and people were moving there for economic reasons and opportunities, in much the same way that we see in cities today,” Wolf said.

Wolf became interested in migration after studying the Maya’s extensive trade routes. “We know that objects are moving, but it would follow that people are moving as well, as we see the interchanging of ideas and language and things like that,” Wolf said.

As a bioarchaeologist, Wolf studies human remains, such as teeth and bones, to determine information about these civilizations, such as how the people were related and where they were located.  

Her research shows a significant presence of related non-locals buried in Copan. According to Wolf, this indicates that there was regular migration of people outside of the area and outside of the civilization, and these migrants would be integrated into the society or marry into a local family.

“It really changes the way you think about kinship and the way we think about social organization of the past,” Wolf said. “It’s not as static as we often conceptualize at the outside of our research.”

Wolf is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University East. She earned her doctorate in Anthropology in 2014 from the Center of Bioarchaeological Research in the School of Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.  

“I think [Copan] was a frontier city and people were moving there for economic reasons and opportunities, in much the same way that we see in cities today,” Wolf said. In the future, Wolf will be exploring questions of migration and kinship at other Mayan civilization archaeological sites, including Blue Creek, Belize; Ucanal, Guatemala and Tayasal, Guatemala. This was the first of the Anthropology Department’s annual Lectures in Contemporary Anthropology. It was co-sponsored by the Department of Classics, Department of Global and Intercultural Studies, Latin American Studies Program. Written by Maya Fenter