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 this dissertation has been 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, the author 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, the author 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 historical reminders to a time past but not forgotten and embody traditional knowledge related to cultural beliefs and behaviours, which are intimately linked to the land, materials and climate of the region. Chapter 1 of the dissertation introduces the study region and establishes the primary aims and objectives of the research. Chapters 2 and 3 present the theoretical background and methodological approach governing the research project while Chapter 4 gives an historical overview of Maya house traditions. Chapters 5 and 6 are devoted to the ethnographic findings of the regional survey and Chapter 7 discusses Maya house change in the years since Wauchope’s 1930s investigation. Chapter 8 details the contribution which the ethnographic investigation makes to Euromerican architectural theory in relation to non-Euromerican material and cultural histories in contributing to a world cross-cultural architectural canon and scholarship.
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-Euromerican architectural forms by Euromerican 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 of lifestyle 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.