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Folkloric accounts of people's creation myths have existed for thousands of years. Many of those stories have never been written and have survived instead only as oral history. But the K'iche' Maya of the western Guatemalan highlands "wrote" theirs. It is a treatise about their creation and their history, and it is one of the most important documents about ancient Mesoamerica.
They might have written their Popol Vuh using the ancient Mayan writing system before the Spanish arrived. If they did, no original copy of it will likely ever be found — the conquistadors would have destroyed every copy that existed.
Around one in ten people in Guatemala is K'iche'. Their name means "many trees," and the best-known is Rigoberta Menchú, who was the 1992 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She received the award for her seminal work in bringing to the world's attention the plight of Guatemala's indigenous people during the civil war that was taking place at the time.
Historically, though, the most celebrated K'iche' is the legendary Tecún Umán, who has a town in Guatemala named after him. He led the K'iche' resistance against the first Spanish conquistadors. He was killed, his army lost the battle and the conquistadors sacked and burnt the K'iche' capital, Q'umarkaj, soon after. In an act of symbolic colonialism they then used some of its ruins to build their own capital in the region, Santa Cruz del Quiché. It remains a thriving town to this day.
If Tecún Umán and his army had been successful in battle, it's possible that the only copies of the Popol Vuh in existence today would be written in the ancient Mayan script and that we would have to learn that script before we could read it. Instead the K'iche', and other Maya peoples, are today learning the script of their ancient ancestors for the first time.
The K'iche' were among the few Maya groups who rose to prominence after the collapse of the great cities and the subsequent decline of the great Maya Empire of the Classic Period (roughly 300 to 1000 CE). They were conquered partly because their Kaqchikel neighbors — also a Post-Classic Maya people — allied almost immediately with the Spanish and fought alongside them.
The fortunes of the K'iche' changed virtually overnight. Their lands were seized and they were relegated to the status of laborers for their new, colonial landowners. Little has changed since that time. In their modern world of contrasts the women pictured above left do their laundry in the local stream, while the woman pictured below right uses a cell phone.
A similar contrast shows two K'iche' people about to enter an Internet café while a woman chops firewood to heat her home.
Ancient K'iche' society was far removed from the concepts of democracy. After the civil war, though, they began to live in what is, officially at least, a democracy.
The oldest known copy of the Popol Vuh was written around 300 years ago. By that time most K'iche' spoke Spanish as well as their own language — which is still the case today. Although the copy was written in Spanish and transliterated into K'iche', it is unlikely that many K'iche' were literate enough to read it. Today they can read the Spanish version. Perhaps one day their "Book of the People" will be available in the script that it should have originally been written in.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2023, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
London, D. S. and London, T. L., (2007) We Were Taught to Plant Corn Not to Kill: Secrets Behind the Silence of the Mayan People. Back Up Books Human Rights Press.
Hawkins, J. P. and Adams, W. R., (2005) Roads to Change in Maya Guatemala: A Field School Approach to Understanding the K’iche’. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
McKillop, H., (2004; reprinted 2006) The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.