PhD: Casas de Paja

Casas de Paja: Maya House Architectures, Traditions and Transformations

University of Queensland PhD Dissertation (2000/2009)


In 1938, the Carnegie Institution of Washington published the results of ethnoarchaeological research conducted in Guatemala and southern Mexico by North American archaeologist Robert Wauchope. This seminal work, titled Modern\Maya Houses: A Study of Their Archaeological Significance, aimed to understand the significance of traditional Maya houses (known in the study region as casas de paja) for the identification and interpretation of ancient dwelling remains in archaeological excavations. At the time, Wauchope documented only ten distinct house types among six of the 28 Maya language (cultural) groups. Due to its narrow scope, Wauchope’s investigation focused more on the physical properties of house construction and less on the social behaviours and beliefs generating the architectural forms. In recognition of Wauchope’s survey remaining incomplete, the primary aim of my dissertation was to ethnographically record and comparatively analyse the remaining casas de paja in contributing to a greater cross-cultural understanding and theory of the entire repertoire of Maya house architectures. In combining both architectural and anthropological method, I was able to make a number of important research findings; most notably that a pan-Maya, and pre-Columbian, semantic relationship existed between individual house types, indexing a shared cultural history and proto-Maya house architecture that possibly originated as early as
4,000 years prior to present times.

In addition to the architectural documentation of house traditions, I also investigated the processes of house transformation and change in the 70 years since Wauchope’s original survey. The rapid rate of built environment transformation in both Guatemala and Mexico over those intervening years underscores the importance of recording these cultural traditions before they pass. In contemporary times the few remaining chozas or casas de paja stand as historicalreminders to a time past but not forgotten and embody traditional knowledgerelated to cultural beliefs and behaviours, which are intimately linked to the land, materials and climate of the region. In coming to a greater understanding of a past (pre-Columbian) and present (Maya casas de paja) subject, the thesis calls for an understanding, appreciation and acceptance of non-Euroamerican architectural forms by Euroamerican academics and practitioners in moving toward a greater acceptance of a diversity of human needs in the creation of social, cultural and built environments.

The overall significance of this thesis lies in the position that the sustainability oflifestyle practices, and allocation of wisdom, skills, and the fulfilment of human needs, as embodied in building ‘traditions’, are of major relevance to current and future generations.

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