May 12, 2007 Judith
Storniolo, "Establishing the character of the Cholti Maya"
Judith Storniolo shared her work on establishing the character of the
Cholti Maya, a now extinct group who were predecessors of the Ch’orti
Maya of today. The Chorti and, by extension, the Cholti have several
unique characteristics. Genetic analyses have determined that the
Ch’orti have extremely low amounts of the two haplotypes of
mitochondrial DNA that are most common among other Maya, types A and B.
Instead, they have a greater percentage of C and D haplotypes, which
are most common in South America. The people who have the highest
percentage of these haplotypes can be found in Patagonia.
According to haplotypic analysis, the closet relatives of the Chorti
and Cholti would be the Caribbean Arawaks. The Cholti had ties to
both the Southern Highlands and the Yucatan in the pre-classic period.
A carving above a cave at Loltun in the Yucatan, which is more than
2000 years old, depicts a figure wearing an early pre-classic style
principal bird deity mask and carrying a staff with triangular
projections at the top in one hand and, in the other hand, a smaller
S-shaped object. This S-shaped object can also be seen at
Teotihuacán. A similar figure has been found in
Kaminaljuyu, in the Southern Highlands, near the Pacific. The Cholti
would have been a connection between the two and the probable source of
that connection would have been jade.
Motagua Valley, home of the Cholti, contains a nine mile long vein of
jadeite, which was the source of Mesoamerican jade from the time of the
Olmec to the present day. Jadeite is a rare mineral, which occurs in
combination with serpentineite and is found in Myanmar, New
Zealand, Japan, Russia, California as well as in Guatemala. Jadeite is
only formed at temperatures between 400 and 700 degrees, under very
high pressures, such as those created at about fifteen miles below the
surface of the earth. It can be produced when the edge of a tectonic
plate dives steeply below an adjoining plate. The jadeite later must
return to the surface for it to be accessible for mining. Central
America, where the Caribbean, Cocos and North American plates
intersect, is an ideal location for the formation of jadeite.
Fortuitously, the jadeite here has returned to the surface. Colombia
has equivalent tectonic activity, but no jadeite. Jadeite is
still being mined in the Motagua Valley today; currently blue jade in
high demand. Jade, of course, was very important to ancient Maya kings,
for its use in ear flares, pectorals, necklaces, and, later, for the
construction of mosaic masks to cover their faces in the tomb. Another
product of this tectonically active region is volcanically produced
obsidian. In addition, the rich soil and tropical climate
of the mouth of the Motagua was ideal for the cultivation of
cacao.. The availability of these valuable resources and the
cacao gave the Cholti an extremely rich trade base, which led to
extensive travel to the Pacific Coast and down the river to the
Caribbean. Was this travel the source of their unusual genetic makeup?
Did they migrate to this rich valley from the Caribbean? Or did they
settle there very early, and travel and mix their genes with other
Colonial historical records are another source of information about the
Cholti. From 1516 through at least 1695, there are mentions of the
Cholti in the literature. Fray Francisco Moran, who died in 1664, wrote
both a Cholti Catechism and a narrative about the Cholti. His
work with the Cholti language demonstrated that Cholti had a
unique grammatical construction not found in other Cholan languages, an
example of another divergence from mainstream Maya culture.
A clue to what may have happened to the Cholti can be found in
the Madrid Codex of the Itza. One section shows a
Cholti motif: an Ajaw head being carried in a pot, face up. This
section also has the same unique grammatical structure that Moran
discovered; both prove that there was interaction between the two
groups. There is also further colonial documentation that the Itza may
have been relocated to the Highlands, and also that some of the Cholti
may have moved to the Yucatan; at either place both groups would have
met. This move may have marked a death knell for the Cholti, as there
is no mention of them after 1695. We thank Judi for her most
informative and interesting talk.
Judith Storniolo is an Auxiliary Professor of Anthropology at
Drexel University. She has done fieldwork among the Yucatec Maya
in Quintana Roo and Yucatan, the Lacandon of Chiapas and the Chorti
Maya of Guatemala. Her research focuses on hieroglyphic
decipherment, linguistic reconstruction of Lowland Maya language groups
and establishing the linguistic affiliation of the Maya inscriptions
and the three remaining codices.
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