MIT Western Hemisphere Project Home Feedback Search Search Archives Meetings Courses Events About

How Many Mayan Ruins Does It Take to Turn On a Light-Bulb?
The fight to save ancient sites in southern Mexico

David Stuart
Curator, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology
7 p.m., Thursday, October 17, 2002 in MIT Room 4-159

[Image showing a Mayan temple of the Classic period]

To meet 2% of its energy needs, the Mexican government is planning to build a series of dams on the Usumacinta, the country's biggest river. If it proceeds, the project would displace the indigenous descendants of the Mayans and destroy the natural habitats of numerous rare and endangered species in the Lacandon rain forest; it would also flood as many as eighteen ancient Mayan sites that have barely been explored.

Twice in the last twenty years, protests have halted the project. What is at stake this time around?

We will ask David Stuart, a Mayan specialist at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. On a recent expedition to the area, Stuart's team discovered the oldest known Mayan mural, a 1,900-year-old depiction of a religious ceremony involving the Maize God.

See also:

  • An article in the New York Times (September 22, 2002), quoting Dr. Stuart: "We know from explorers and looters that there is amazing stuff there waiting to be found. … If it's under water it's gone — beautiful art, ruins of palaces, hieroglyph inscriptions, stuff we would have nowhere else."

  • An article in Spanish from the Mexican newspaper Reforma (July 23, 2002).

  • An alert issued by an activist group, Global Response, in 1993, the last time the proposal to dam the Usumacinta was floated.

  • An account of recent archaeological discoveries made by Dr. Stuart's team in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala.

  • A functional analysis of pre-Columbian Maya architecture by David Freidel and Charles Suhler of Southern Methodist University.

  • Information on "The Threat of Dams and Flooding to Archaeological Sites along the Usumacinta River," provided by the Sierra del Lacandon Regional Archaeology Project.

  • The archives of the World Commission on Dams, a project that sought to address important questions about the construction of large dams, including:

    • What were the projected versus actual benefits, costs and impacts of the dam?

    • What were the unexpected benefits, costs and impacts?

    • What was the distribution of costs and benefits — who gained and who lost?

    • How were decisions made?

    • Did the project comply with the criteria and guidelines of the day?

    • What were the lessons learned?

  • The Dams and Development Project at the United Nations Environment Program, which "promotes dialog" on "decision-making, planning and management of dams and their alternatives," based on the "core values and strategic priorities" of the World Commission on Dams.