Wild Rockies Field Institute

Yucatan Cultural Ecology

Dates: July 20--July 27, 2008

Cost: $1795

Course listing: Anthropology 395 or Forestry 395: Yucatan Cultural Ecology (2 semester credits)


Join us for part of your Winter Break as we explore Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, homeland of the Maya people. With their stone cities and sophisticated writing, the ancient Maya were one of the most advanced pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. Today, the villages, cornfields, and gardens of their contemporary descendants dot the Yucatecan countryside amid rolling limestone hills and dry tropical forest. This one-week course will explore the cultural ecology of the present-day Yucatec Maya, their adaptation to a unique tropical forest environment, and their links to a two thousand-year history involving dramatic environmental and cultural change.

Among the questions students will examine in this field study are:

  • How have past dynamics of settlement and natural resource use by the Maya influenced the present environment of Yucatan?
  • What role does biodiversity play in the stability and productivity of traditional Mayan agriculture and household subsistence?
  • How should wildlands protection and biodiversity conservation proceed when a biologically rich forest landscape has been inhabited, farmed, and tended for thousands of years?
  • How is the sustainability of present-day Maya farming affected by regional development like tourism and other socio-economic changes?

Our field studies in Yucatan will begin with visits to Mayan archeological sites, both excavated stone ruins like Uxmal and Chichen Itzá, and others still hidden deep in the forest, a unique backdrop for examining how ancient Maya populations utilized natural resources and shaped the region's forestlands. Additional colonial-era historical sites will offer the opportunity to learn about post-conquest Yucatan history and interactions between Spanish and Maya cultures.

The bulk of the course will be spent exploring the patchwork of tropical forest and fields that forms the landscape for present-day Maya subsistence in rural Yucatan. Students will learn about community-run approaches to managing local agricultural lands, and will walk forest trails to visit milpas (traditional cornfields intercropped with beans and squash), tree gardens, apiaries where villagers keep stingless bees, and other sites that demonstrate how rural Yucatecan communities maintain their natural resource base. We will be guided by local farmers and talk with them about their management of land and forest and their perspectives on conservation. (Please note that knowledge of Spanish or Yucatec Maya is not necessary for participation in this course.)

By basing our stay in a Mayan village, students will experience many aspects of local life reflecting the region's distinct blend of Mayan heritage and Spanish/mestizo influences. We will sleep in hammocks, join villagers for a ceremonial feast (including preparing a traditional pit oven), visit Mayan home gardens and family compounds, learn traditional jarana dances and other cultural activities, and visit local swimming holes. In discussions with villagers we will hear local perspectives on contemporary changes in rural Maya culture, including increased involvement in tourism, urban wage labor, agricultural intensification, and community development.

Throughout this field study, students will draw on readings from ethnobotany, human ecology, cultural anthropology, archeology, and agrarian studies to complement what they learn from the Yucatecan landscape and the perspectives of local residents. In addition to scheduled course activities and daily group discussions, students will identify and carry out a field research project on a particular aspect of Mayan cultural ecology, working either singly or in pairs. We will then present our project findings in a group meeting on the final day.


The number of students will be limited to ten (10). Our courses are multidisciplinary and our students come from all majors. There are no academic prerequisites for any of our courses. The best background is a sense of curiosity, a willingness to take responsibility for your academic growth, and a love of adventure. No prior backcountry experience is necessary, but you will have more fun if you arrive in good physical condition. Early applications will be accepted through March 20, 2008; applications are currently being reviewed on a space available basis. First half of tuition payment will be due three weeks after acceptance. Remaining tuition will be due by June 6, 2008.

All students traveling to Mexico will need a passport! Please plan in advance.


$1795 per student includes tuition, lunch food (main meal of the day), on-course transportation, group gear, and incidental fees (maps, study guides, etc.). Students will be expected to provide their own breakfast and lunch meals, and to buy the course text that is provided by WRFI. An additional $135 filing fee is required to receive academic credit for the course from the University of Montana.


John Tuxill and Kim Wilkinson

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