Skip to Content

Recovering Our History

Posted On August 24, 2020 | 13:09 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Iyaxel Cojti Ren tracks the emergence of the ancient Kaqchikel polity in the Guatemalan highlands during the Late Postclassic period

Iyaxel Cojti Ren is postdoctoral fellow in Pre-Columbian art and archaeology. Her talk, “The Emergence of the Ancient Maya Kaqchikel Polity as Explained Through the Saqarik (Dawn) Tradition in the Guatemalan Highlands,” discussed how the Kaqchikel polity formed and resisted the K’iche’ hegemony in the Late Postclassic period.


Q&A with Iyaxel Cojti Ren

Who are the Kaqchikel and the K’iche’?

 The Kaqchikel and K’iche’ are two Maya ethnolinguistic groups who live mainly in the highlands of Guatemala. There are twenty-two Maya languages spoken in Guatemala; K’iche’ and Kaqchikel have the highest numbers of speakers. These two languages are named after the strongest polities that governed in the highlands during the Late Postclassic period (1200­–1524). During that period, the history and cultural development of the two nations were intertwined because of marriages and political alliances, so it is necessary to trace how the sociopolitical relations between them changed over time in order to understand the early history of the Kaqchikel.


What has your research revealed about the Kaqchikel?

My research focuses on the reconstruction of the early history of the Kaqchikel polity, which is divided into phases or series of “dawns” called saqer/saqarik. Each dawn, according to Kaqchikel cosmovision, represented a phase in their sociopolitical development. The first dawn was marked by the beginning of an alliance with the K’iche’ leaders and incorporation into the K’iche’ administration as military auxiliaries and dependent allies. To improve their sociopolitical and economic status, the Kaqchikel and their allies used various strategies, including specialization in the military field, establishing alliances, and arranging marriages with noble women from stronger polities to advance their status. 

These strategic practices allowed the Kaqchikel to strengthen their sociopolitical organization and claim from the K’iche’ privileges and the right to have their own government and citadel. Their first citadel was named Chi Awär and was founded in approximately 1430.

In 2016 I conducted a small archaeological project at Chi Awär, in the Chichicastenango municipality. The site is very important because it is where the Kaqchikel government consolidated and where they achieved a certain degree of autonomy. But they were still under the political and cultural influence of the K’iche’ polity, as revealed by the material culture from Chi Awär.

Chi Awär had a short occupation because the Kaqchikel were forced to move out, from this site and from K’iche’ territory, because they were seen by certain sectors of K’iche’ society as potential rivals, since their power and economic status were increasing. After the abandonment of Chi Awär, Kaqchikel leaders and part of their population moved to Chi Iximche’. This site was founded in 1470 and is where the Kaqchikel experienced their last dawn before the Spanish invasion.

This research is very important for me because, as a K’iche’ woman from Chichicastenango, I always wanted to know more about my own history, which I consider an important component of my ethnic identity. I hope my current and future investigations also contribute to the recovery of the history of highland peoples and support their current political, cultural, and educational agendas.

Another interesting aspect of my research was the discovery that the current Chichicastenango territory was bilingual during the Late Postclassic period. The Kaqchikel spoken in this territory was the same language spoken in the neighboring Sololá department, characterized by the use of ten lax and tense vowels. In a stable bilingual context, the languages influence each other and linguistic elements transfer in both directions. This could be the reason the K’iche’ variant spoken in Chichicastenango used the Kaqchikel vocalic system. K’iche’ dialects generally use long and short vowels, with the exception of the K’iche’ spoken in Chichicastenango.  

When did this switch happen? This process happened during the Late Postclassic period, when the Kaqchikel became allies with the K’iche’ and settled in the Chichicastenango territory at the end of the fourteenth century. I think that after the establishment of the Reducciones during the colonial period, the new Chichicastenango town was converted to a monolingual town where K’iche’ was the predominant language. I’m not a linguist, so I want to collaborate with linguists to better analyze this case.  


Tell me about your work on the Justin Kerr archive.

My project consists of cataloguing the Kerr archive, which comprises pictures of Maya ceramic objects and some artifacts from other Mesoamerican cultures. This archive project involves incorporating additional data to enhance searchability of the items, and importing the records published in to HOLLIS Images, Harvard University's image catalog. I am very happy to work with the Kerr archive and learn about the history and culture of the ancient Maya during the cataloguing process.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.