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.
            The 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 groups?
            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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