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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie

In Mayan Mexico: Change and Continuity in the Chiapas Highlands (Summer School)

Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state and the ancient home to a large population of Mayan language speakers. Bordering Guatemala, the state is known for its rich history and its diversity of climate and landscapes, ranging from highland temperate zones to lowland rainforest environments.

In the past several decades, the over one million ethnic Maya people who reside in the state’s highlands have seen considerable changes to their ways of living. After the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government implemented a series of modernization programs in the region, beginning with land reform and continuing to establish schools, roads, and experimental microcredit programs. Since the 1970s, indigenous Maya groups have gained increasing political autonomy from the Mexican government, a move that culminated in the 1994 Zapatista rebellion. Today, most of the much the Mayan population continues to practice traditional swidden agriculture, although large parts of the population are shifting from rural to urban livelihoods. The number of speakers of Mayan language has and continues to grow steadily.

In this summer school, we will take a deep look into how these changes happen and how they affect Maya culture and cognition and the ability of Maya people to govern their own communities. The summer school will be based in the highland towns of San Cristobal de las Casas (Spanish-speaking) and Chenalhó (Tzotzil-Maya-speaking), although we will also spend some time visiting sites in the Chiapas lowlands. Students must choose an open-ended research topic (associated with social change), conduct ethnographic research on that topic, and write a research report. The research projects can be done either in the Spanish-speaking or the Tzotzil-speaking site; it will be up to the students to decide where and in what language they want to conduct their research. The research projects will be supervised by Dr. Werner Hertzog.

There will be two courses offered in conjunction with the event:

  • Anthropology of Mesoamerica (Spring 2024).
  • Language course: Tzotzil-Maya (Spring 2024).

Participation criteria:

To participate in the summer school, students must have basic knowledge of either Spanish or a Mayan language spoken in Chiapas (Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, or Ch’ol). The Tzotzil-Maya course offered in Spring 2024 is mandatory for students who don’t speak Spanish and recommended for those who know Spanish but wish to do fieldwork among a Mayan-speaking group. Participants must also take “Anthropology of Mesoamerica” (taught in Spring 2024) and “Doing Ethnography,” which is regularly taught at ISEK.

To participate in the summer school, students should send a one-page motivation letter to Werner Hertzog ( by December 1st, 2023. The motivation letter should briefly answer the following questions: 1) what semester are you in?, 2) why do you expect from this summer school?, 3) do you know Spanish or want to learn a Mayan language? and, without getting too specific, 4) what do you want to research?

Administrative information:

The course will be carried out in summer 2024 and will be credited with 6 ECTS credits towards the degree program (module group “Anthropological Practice (Ethnologische Praxis)” for BA students and module group “Thematic, Regional and Methodological Extensions” for MA students).

The module has a duration of two semesters, it will be booked in spring semester 2024 and will be completed in fall semester 2024.