Professor Juarez: Shaping the Future by Unearthing the Past

As an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, Santiago Juarez is well-versed in the art of uncovering stories buried beneath the ruins. Much of Juarez’s research has been centered around the recent identification of a new archaeological site called Noh K’uh in Chiapas, Mexico, and the ensuing discovery of a pre-classic city hidden beneath the Metzabok community’s agricultural fields. His findings over the last decade have been made possible by an ongoing partnership with the Lacandon Maya and their shared curiosity of what lies under their feet.

Juarez attributes much of his interest in archaeology and anthropology to his father. His specialized interest in Indigenous studies was also largely influenced by his father, but for a much different reason.  

“I knew from the age of ten that I was going to be an archaeologist. … What brought me to Indigenous studies was learning that the message [my dad] was telling me was a very nationalistic one … that this pride in the pyramids, this pride in culture was something the [Mexican] state designed essentially to seize control of all cultural heritage.”

Breaking free from his father’s narrative led Juarez to shift his outlook on his role in these communities. 

“I don’t see [Indigenous Mexican] civilizations as part of my heritage — well, they are, in some sense — but I do see myself as an ally to help protect modern groups’ rights.” 

This perspective has guided Juarez’s work with the Lacandon Maya in the past decade and has taught him to formulate his own conclusions rather than trusting preconceived notions about Mayan culture. When asked about how his experience on the ground in the Mensabak Valley differed from what he expected, Juarez shared how the conventional narratives he read about the Lacandon Maya prior to working with them proved to be largely inaccurate. 

“[The textbook describes them] as a society that still lives in the rainforest, that uses traditional methods out of choice, and holds on to some antiquated technologies because they felt like they were in tune with their culture. I learned in person that that’s wrong.” 

Juarez went on to describe the Lacandon Maya as a community that holds onto their cultural roots while simultaneously embracing modern society. 

“They’re very excited about technology. They’re very engaged. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they’re neglecting their cultural heritage — they’re still speaking Lacandon Mayan, they’re very proud of teaching their children the histories that they’ve heard from their parents and grandparents … pride isn’t an issue for them.”

The Lacandon Maya certainly aren’t the only ones excited about technology. When discussing the geographic information system (GIS) software his team utilized to map out the site of Noh K’uh, Juarez was quite enthusiastic.  He talked about how the use of resources provided by Colgate University such as LiDAR — an acronym for light imaging, detection, and ranging technology — have “exponentially sped up” the process of creating a three dimensional model of the Mensabak Valley. 

“With LiDAR, you’re able to send laser pulses via an airplane but millions of times over and over within minutes. This allows you to create an entire scan of the valley, vegetation and all. What’s beautiful about what we can do in software is erase all the trees, so you can see exactly what’s on the ground down to the centimeter.”

With the help of this technology, Juarez has successfully mapped out various habitations and structures, including the buried temples now disguised as square-shaped hills that the Lacandon Maya first invited Juarez and other archaeologists to examine. 

“After a few years of investigation, I found that the reason [these hills] look a little weird and off is because they’re much older than anything else that’s surrounding the valley… I quickly realized that this is pre-classic — that this is the first generation of civilizations in the region.”

This discovery has produced more questions than answers for Juarez. He is specifically interested in the reason a population of about 5,000 people decided to settle in a region with only enough resources to support 200. Juarez’s research will continue this summer when he returns to Chiapas with a new focus.

“My latest research question focuses on how old the site is and how connected this sacred city was to the valley. My dissertation work revealed that the buildings seem to be aligning to mountains and particular peaks, so now my job is to figure out what’s going on with those peaks.”

When asked about the most rewarding part of his job as a professor and a researcher, Juarez expressed how much he enjoys sharing his findings with his students and working directly with the Indigenous community. He emphasized how rewarding it has been to “[work] in cooperation with [the Lacandon Maya] to figure out what we can find and how we can help each other in terms of helping the community and adding to our geological research.” 

Being able to learn from the Lacandon Maya has been life-changing for Juarez, and he credits much of his personal growth to simply having the chance to interact so closely with this community. 

“Just being on the ground, working with people, living with them, sharing meals, talking about different views of the world — this has transformed who I am not just as a researcher but as a person.” 

As Juarez continues to search for answers, he finds comfort in knowing that the Lacandon Maya will be there to help and support him every step of the way.