Megan O’Neil Lecture: “The Ancient Maya: (Not A) Lost Civilization”

In a virtual lecture hosted by the Carlos Museum and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative (NAISI) on January 19, 2023, Professor Megan O’Neil, Assistant Professor of Art History at Emory University and Faculty Curator of the Art of the Americas, delved into the complex and often misunderstood history of the Mayan Civilization. Titled “The Maya: (Not A) Lost Civilization,” Dr. O’Neil’s lecture aimed to challenge the misconceptions and biases that have long clouded our understanding of the ancient civilization, and instead center the voices of the Mayan people themselves in the telling of their history.

Dr. O’Neil began by providing context for the lecture, outlining the geographic location and major architectural achievements of the Mayans, as well as their relationships with other Indigenous communities in Mesoamerica. She then delved into the colonial attempts to explain the Mayans through a Euro-American lens, which erased enduring histories of Mayan presence and cultural continuity in their homeland. These erasures and colonial mythologies have had lasting ramifications to this day– from wild conspiracy theories of “ancient aliens” to the destruction of Mayan cultural heritage sites.

Along with a new generation of researchers, linguists, and Mayan script writers, Dr. O’Neil is dismantling misconceptions with a return to Mayan history told through encoded literature, oral tradition, and temple inscriptions. Together, they are deciphering ancient Mayan scripts which reveal the daily lives of everyday Mayans, legacies of powerful rulers, and artistic styling of Mayan inscriptions. Knowledge encoded as riddles within monastic manuscripts produced during the first waves of colonial Christianization the Mayan people are reemerging traditional records and regional dialects. Previous generations of scholars projected their patriarchal views onto Mayan art, but now, modern reexaminations reveal the egalitarian relationship between men and women in all aspects of Mayan societies. 

Professor O’Neil ended the lecture spotlighting the works of many contemporary Mayan artists who strive to reclaim Mayan culture such as Walter Paz Joj, a Mayan scribe who create new scripts inspired by ancient Mayan inscriptions, and Balam Ajpu, a Mayan hip-hop group who creates music to reclaim Mayan expression. She also highlights the work of numerous activists,like Victor Montejo, Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, and Avexnim Cojti Ren, who secure Mayan representation in research, access to their cultural spaces, and rights for Mayans to tell their own story on their own terms.

Professor Megan O’Neil’s The Maya: Lost Civilization is available at the Carlos Museum bookstore. Look forward to her upcoming projects and new exhibition at the Carlos Museum (2024) as well. To read more of Dr. O’Neil’s work, click here.