Testing the Maya: The Carnegie Institution and Eugenic Thought in Interwar Yucatán

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:50 PM
Armitage Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Alexandra Maria Puerto, Occidental College
This paper examines how the “Program on Maya Research,” funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1924-1948, constructed the Maya of southeastern Yucatán as research subjects. More specifically, the study focuses on the efforts by Morris Steggerda, a biologist and investigator at the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, to collect physical and psychological data from Yucatec Maya communities in the 1930s. My purpose is to explore how U.S. eugenic thought informed Steggerda’s interpretation of the modern Maya as genetically predisposed to lower intelligence. This scientific representation served to reinforce the popular notion that the modern Maya were separate from the ancient Maya not only culturally but also biologically. Ultimately, Steggerda failed to prove biological difference; nonetheless, he asserted the mental inferiority of the Maya reflecting the period’s shift from a scientific emphasis upon external somatic characteristics to internal cognitive capabilities. An examination of the specific ways eugenic preconceptions guided Steggerda’s research reflects not only the subjective nature of scientific inquiry and how cultural processes of racialization shaped western knowledge about the contemporary Maya, but also the desire of U.S. researchers to find the “origins of man” in the Americas at a time when the U.S. emerged as a nation intent on making Latin America its sphere of influence as well as a global leader working to distinguish itself from the Old World.