John Mamoru Watanabe

Associate Professor of Anthropology

My research concerns ethnic identity and conflict, religion, and cosmology among Maya peoples of Guatemala and Mexico.  I also  work on Maya relations with the state in late nineteenth century Guatemala.  More broadly, I have written on ritual in human evolution and the emergence of ritual economies in Mesoamerica. 

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My current research centers on how ethnic and national identities emerge historically.  Drawing on late nineteenth-century administrative records and land titles from archives in Guatemala City, I am writing an historical ethnography of relations between Mam Maya communities in western Guatemala and the Guatemalan state as commercial coffee production intensified during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

A related project associated with an Advanced Seminar that I co-directed at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, NM involves comparing Maya communities across the contrasting national histories and political institutions of Mexico and Guatemala.  This comparison seeks to clarify both what remains distinctively "Maya" about these communities, as well as how national power structures and possibilities still meaningfully -- and necessarily -- shape global transformations to modernity and postmodernity across the Maya region.

More broadly, I remain interested in questions of cultural evolution, specifically how something as improbable as symbolic communication and conventional meanings ever evolved in the first place.  Collaboration with primatologist Barbara Smuts on ritual greetings and coalition formation among male baboons has led us to propose that the formalism of ritual may have served as the behavioral basis for mutual trust -- and perhaps truth -- out of which symbolization and language evolved as intensified forms of social cooperation.

In 1993, I received the Karen E. Wetterhahn Memorial Award for Distinguished Creative or Scholarly Achievement from Dartmouth College.  I have also held national fellowships with the Michigan Society of Fellows (1986 - 1989) and the National Humanities Center (19998 - 1999).  I was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2003 - 2004.  In 2000 - 2001, I served as president of the New England Council of Latin American Studies.

In the Anthropology Department, I teach the four-field introductory course, the anthropology of religion, anthropological theory, and courses on Latin American anthropology.

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Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies
B.A. University of California at Santa Cruz
M.A. Harvard University
Ph.D. Harvard University

Selected Publications

In the World of the Sun: A Cognitive Model of Mayan Cosmology. Man n.s. 18 (4): 710-728. (1983)

From Saints to Shibboleths: Image, Structure, and Identity in Maya Religious Syncretism. American Ethnologist 17 (1): 129-148. (1990)

Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World. Austin: University of Texas Press [now out in Spanish with a new preface as "Los que estamos aqui": comunidad e identidad entre los mayas de Santiago Chimaltenango, Huehuetenango, 1937-1990. Eddy H. Gaytan, tr. Serie monografica, no. 15. South Woodstock, VT and La Antigua Guatemala: Plumsock Mesoamerican Studies and Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica, 2006]  --- (1992)

Unimagining the Maya: Anthropologists, Others, and the Inescapable Hubris of Authorship. Bulletin of Latin American Research 14 (1): 25-45. (1995)

John M. Watanabe and Barbara B. Smuts. Explaining Religion without Explaining It Away: Trust, Truth, and the Evolution of Cooperation in Roy A. Rappaport's "The Obvious Aspects of Ritual." In Ecologies for Tomorrow: Reading Rappaport Today, Aletta Biersack, ed. Contemporary Issues Forum, American Anthropologist n.s. 101 (1): 98-112. (1999)

Culturing Identities, the State, and National Consciousness in Late Nineteenth-Century Western Guatemala. Bulletin of Latin American Research 19 (3): 321-340. (2000)

With All the Means that Prudence Would Suggest: "Procedural Culture" and the Writing of Cultural Histories of Power about 19th-Century Mesoamerica. Journal of Latin American Anthropology 6 (2): 134-174. (2001)

Pluralizing Ethnography: Comparison and Representation in Maya Cultures, Histories, and Identities , edited with E F Fischer, (2004).

“Cooperation, Commitment, and Communication in the Evolution of Human Sociality,” in The Evolution and Nature or Sociality among Human and Nonhuman Primates , with B B Smuts, R W Sussman (ed.), (2004) 288-309.

“Culture History in National Contexts: Nineteenth-Century Maya under Mexican and Guatemalan Rule,” in Pluralizing Ethnography: Comparison and Representation in Maya Cultures, Histories, and Identities , edited with E F Fischer, (2004) 35-65.

“Introduction: Emergent Anthropologies and Pluricultural Ethnography in Two Postcolonial Nations,” in Pluralizing Ethnography: Comparison and Representaion in Maya Cultures, Histories, and Identities , edited with E F Fischer, (2004) 3-33.

“Some Models in a Muddle: Lineage and House in Classic Maya Social Organization,” Ancient Mesoamerica , 15:1 (2004) 91-98.

Ritual Economy and the Negotiation of Autarky and Interdependence in a Ritual Mode of Production. In Mesoamerican Ritual Economy: Archaeological and Ethnological Perspectives. E. Christian Wells and Karla L. Davis-Salazar, eds., pp. 301–322. (2007.) Boulder: University of Colorado Press.

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Works in progress

Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World, (Spanish translation)

“Ritual Economy and the Negotiation of Autarky and Interdependence in a Ritual Mode of Production”

19th-century history of ethnic-state relations in western Guatemala