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“An Admiring Look at 19th Century Scholarship in the 21st Century: Quen Santo Revisited” By James Brady

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I had the unique opportunity to listen to James Brady discuss his research in Quen Santo (Huehuetenango, Guatemala). Interestingly enough, I learned that Eduard Seler was responsible for the original research of the cave system. With the technology Seler had available, he did an excellent job at documenting the area even if his worldview skewed his thoughts away from an accurate interpretation. I did not know that during the time of the original research Europeans generally interpreted cave sites as “primitive” and associated them with “Stone Age people.”

After 100 years, James Brady and his team were able to finish what Seler left out: the caves were actually holy “sanctuaries” that are still respected today and Quen Santo, in particular, continues to be a Maya pilgrimage site. The archaeological team had to take an alcade rezador (“prayer man”) with them and complete rituals with candles and incense each morning prior to entering the caves, and repeated this at every altar found within the cave as well.

Personally, I found James Brady’s presentation humorous when he retold the conflicts he encountered. Women are apparently prohibited from entering the caves, but their prayer man “had a dream” in which the Earth Lord granted them entry; but this entry could be revoked if the Earth Lord knew that the women were on their periods and cause bad karma. The last spectacular point I really enjoyed was that the Quen Santo caves are not limestone, but tectonic caves caused by uplifts over the years. The Maya built walls enclosing these uplifts where natural boundaries were absent.

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