Living at the edge of Lake Atitlan Guatemala, and calling my property an Adventure Center, I have come to expect adventuresome folks to wander onto my life from time to time. Yesterday afternoon was one such experience. An older but healthy looking gentleman approached me on my porch asking about climbing the San Pedro and Atitlan volcanos. I answered with my standard response about altitude gain, summit heights of over 11,000 feet above sea level, and logistics involved in each summit hike.
The gentleman replied that, while it is not as easy as it used to be, at age 70 he could still manage. As it turns out, I was chatting with Johan Reinhard, who has earned the title Explorer in Residence from the National Geographic Society. Johan has made over 200 ascents over 17,000 ft. in the Andes. He directed teams that recovered four Inca human sacrifices on Ampato (6,312 m/20,708 ft). His expeditions in the Andes during 1996-1999 led to the discovery of fourteen more Inca human sacrifices on five mountains above 5,500 m (18,044 ft), including three perfectly preserved mummies at 6,739 m (22,109 ft) on Llullaillaco, the world’s highest archaeological site. In 1995 and 1999 Time selected Dr. Reinhard’s finds as among “the world’s ten most important scientific discoveries” for each of those years–making him one of the few scientists to have had his research chosen twice for this recognition.
He has lived more than ten years in the Himalayas, conducting anthropological research primarily in Nepal, in addition to having undertaken investigations in Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, and the Garhwal Himalaya. His studies included: Himalayan shamanism (traditional religious practitioners); the role of sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism; the sacred “hidden lands” of Tibetan Buddhism (seven of which he has explored); and culture change from nomadic hunting-gathering to settled agriculture among the Raji.
Since 1980, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Johan Reinhard has conducted anthropological field research in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador. Much of his current research focuses on the sacred beliefs and cultural practices of mountain peoples, especially in the Andes and the Himalaya. His investigations have led him to develop new theories to explain the mysteries of pre-Hispanic ceremonial sites on mountain summits, the Nasca Lines, and the ancient ceremonial centers of Machu Picchu, Chavin, and Tiahuanaco.
Reinhard receiving tika, or tilaka, at a Tihar festival in Bangaon, Nepal. The tilaka is a mark that symbolizes the third eye, or mind’s eye, that is associated with many Hindu gods.
Dr. Reinhard’s current research focusing on the sacred beliefs and cultural practices of mountain peoples brought him to Lake Atitlan Guatemala. His book Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains explores the importance indigenous cultures place on mountains, caves, and lakes. We discussed the highland Mayan’s belief that Lake Atitlan Guatemala is a power vortex, and that the lake holds mysterious powers. Dr. Reinhard is especially interested in the ancient Mayan city that is below the surface of the lake, and of the discoveries that have yet to be explored in this fascinating and well preserved archaeological site. Prior to arriving at Lake Atitlan, he visited the Museum of Cultural Ethnology and Archeology in Guatemala City. At the museum, Dr. Reinhard met with the lead archeologist and viewed artifacts that have been recovered from the site. Much work remains to be done to uncover the mysteries still lying at the underwater site.
He also is interested in relating current day locations to places mentioned in the Popol Vuh.
Of particular interest to Dr. Reinhard, and something that can be viewed and studied by any non academic, is the wooden alter pieces in the Church of Santiago, in the village of Santiago Atitlan Guatemala. Allen J. Christenson’s book Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community gives detailed information on the symbols and carvings in each of the three alter pieces.
The central altarpiece in the sixteenth century Colonial church of Santiago Atitlan is in imminent danger of being dismantled by the local priest who objects to certain traditional Maya components. The altarpiece is unique in its sensitive blending of traditional Maya and orthodox Roman Catholic elements. Originally constructed at an unknown date during the early Colonial era, the altarpiece underwent extensive reconstruction after it collapsed during a series of severe earthquakes in the mid-twentieth century.
The reconstruction effort took place from 1970 to 1981 under the direction of various parish priests, beginning with Fathers Ramon Carlin and Jude Pancini and ending with Father Stanley Rother who died just as the altarpiece was being completed. To support craftsmanship within the community, these priests commissioned a local Tz’utujil
Maya sculptor, Diego Chávez Petzey, and his younger brother, Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, to reerect the monument and to carve replacement panels for those sections that were too damaged for reuse. Both of these artists are still alive and continue to sculpt. Rather than strictly follow the original arrangement of the altarpiece, the Chávez brothers were encouraged to replace damaged panels with entirely new compositions based in part on traditional Maya religious beliefs and rituals familiar to the community.
The relationship between the artists and the parish priests was a collaborative one in which all were active participants. The Chávez brothers carried out the project with the intention of asserting the legitimacy of traditional Tz’utujil-Maya faith as a complement to Roman Catholicism. It was meant to be a unifying gesture within the community and it has done just that over the past 40 years. The altarpiece presents an invaluable visual display of important
Tz’utujil Maya rituals and beliefs that is cherished by the community of Santiago Atitlan as a significant expression of their cultural identity. In traditional Maya faith, such sacred carved objects are living entities and the altarpiece is the focus of veneration by both traditional Maya and orthodox Roman Catholic members of the community
Allen J. Christenson first saw the altarpiece in 1977, at the very time the Chávez brothers were reconstructing it and carving new panels along its base. Even in its unfinished state, the monument struck him with its masterful blending of Roman Catholic and traditional Maya motifs. He was intrigued by it, and still am. His PhD dissertation was centered
on the altarpiece and how it is intimately connected with the life of the community. He subsequently published a book focused on the altarpiece and associated ceremonies in 2001 entitled Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community.
Many other scholars have commented on the altarpiece and it continues to be a major focus of both scholarly and tourist interest from people around the world. To see indigenous beliefs and rituals expressed sculpturally by living Maya artists is extremely rare. Never before or since, has such a sculptural project been undertaken on so grand a scale. In my opinion it is the most significant work of sacred art by living Maya in Guatemala in the last
100 years, if not since the Spanish Conquest.