I’m continuing to skim through James A. O’Kon’s new book, The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology, and I’ve finally come to a straight-up wrongheaded section that flies in the face of facts. Finally! I was beginning to think that this so-called “alternative” book would never get zanier than arguing about the degree of Maya concrete usage.
In chapter 4, Kon begins ranting about blinkered archaeologists and how unfair they’ve been to the Maya for calling them Stone Age people simply because they had no metal tools and worked largely in stone. Don’t you know that this has been a conspiracy to suppress Maya genius?
In this chapter Kon reveals not the bias of archaeology but rather his own. There is no correlation between Neolithic (a term describing the primary composition of a culture’s tools as, well, stone) and a value judgment about whether that culture was primitive. But for Kon, the term Neolithic
I think the Chinese would beg to differ on that last point… pagodas anyone? The Iron Pagoda of Kaifeng is 187 feet tall, 13 stories, and dates back to 1049 CE. (For comparison, the iconic Maya Temple I at Tikal featured on the cover of Kon's book is 154 feet tall.) Oh, right… the Chinese don’t count since we’re only comparing to Europeans because Kon’s big beef is with pre-World War II Eurocentric beliefs.
But back to the Neolithic. It’s true that archaeological classifications developed for a European context do not always fit neatly into other contexts, but it is unfair to argue that the Neolithic was filled with primitive cave people when it includes the wonders of Gobekli Tepe, the complex city of Catal Huyuk, and a wide array of cultures that built large settlements out of wooden houses (which therefore do not survive). When earlier archaeologists described the Maya as Neolithic—which, if a Google search can be believed, is an outdated relic of pre-WWII archaeology—they were describing the lack of metal tools, and nothing more. I can’t find a modern text describing the Maya as Neolithic, but maybe I’m not looking in the right place. All of Kon’s examples are from WWII or earlier.
There is more than one way to describe a culture. Another archaeological descriptor, one still used today, describes a culture as a band, tribe, chiefdom, paramount chiefdom, or state. On that scale, the Maya are universally recognized as state-level actors, the most complex level of cultural development.
The long and short of it is that if you plan to engage in full-throated criticism of a paradigm, you should (a) know what you are talking about and (b) make sure it’s still current.
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