Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Timothy W. Pugh

Committee Members

James A. Moore

William J. Parry

Marilyn A. Masson

Subject Categories

Archaeological Anthropology


Mesoamerica, Maya, Guatemala, Postclassic Period, Community Identity


This dissertation focuses on the construction of social identity of the Itza Maya during the Late Postclassic period (1400-1525 CE) at Tayasal in the Petén lakes region, Guatemala. The Itza were the last indigenous group conquered by the Spaniards in the Americas in 1697. Various ethnohistorical documents describe the people and socio-political organization of the Itza during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Avendaño y Loyola 1987; Edmonson 1982, 1986; Jones 1998; López de Cogolludo 1971; Roys 1967; Villagutierre Soto-Mayo 1983). According to the documents, the Itza of the Petén claimed to have migrated from the great city of Chich'en Itza in the northern Yucatán and included several factions and lineage groups in the Petén lakes region (Edmonson 1982; Jones 1998). The archaeological investigations at Tayasal revealed that the Itza of the Petén reused earlier constructions and monuments during the Late Postclassic period. Reuse of earlier constructions was one way of adopting existing architecture for migrants to adapt to new cultural settings and to differentiate themselves from factions. In this research, I use a semiotic approach to understand the manipulation of social memory and establish that the Itza of the Petén created a new community identity by appropriating the local ancient landscape and by propagating their migration myth from distant Chich'en Itza.

Community identity is socially constructed by certain social aspects that are expressed in material culture. Through the material culture that was recovered from archaeological investigations, I propose a multi-scalar community identity for the Itza at Tayasal. Using archaeological and ethnohistorical data, I investigate the Itza’s material culture to examine how migration across political and ethnic boundaries shapes identity construction and transformation. My multidisciplinary perspective uses archaeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory to consider how the migrants construct their identity through the reuse and appropriation of material culture. By examining the aesthetic values of the Itza’s material culture, this research discusses the appropriated migration myths of the Itza. Migration is a very common theme in the origin myths of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican groups. The common use of migration myths in native historical accounts suggests that these myths were foundational symbols among many Mesoamerican people. This research explores migration myths as a criterion of legitimacy and authenticity in the material culture (Boone 2000; Smith 1984).

The results of this study demonstrate that the identified community identity by multiscale analysis of material culture was probably constructed by elites to shape social and power relations. Through material culture, the community identity of the Itza at Tayasal appear to have been constructed by the Itza elites to legitimate their micro-scale community identity within the larger middle- and macro-scale identities. This community identity was based on their claimed ancestors and the local history to strengthen their social credibility there. Likewise, the constructed identity was used to differentiate them from their neighboring rivals such as the Kowoj. It was probably an effort to demonstrate precedence in the region and as a way to differentiate themselves from factions and lineage groups including the Kowoj, who claimed to have migrated from Mayapán, also in the northern Yucatán.