Main Navigation

Mesoamerica comes to the U

Maya experts from around the world will convene at the U for the Mesoamerican Conference that focuses on preclassic Maya history between 2000 B.C. and 250 A.D.

Mesoamerican Conference

Friday, Nov. 16 | 1-4 p.m.
Gardner Commons


Friday, Nov. 16 | 7-9 p.m.
Natural History Museum of Utah

Saturday, Nov. 17 | 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Gardner Commons

Thousands of years before the conquistadores sailed to the New World, vast networks of civilizations sprawled across modern-day Mexico and Central America, a geographic area known as Mesoamerica. The most well-known are the Maya, a civilization that may have had its preclassic state society develop in the Mirador Basin. El Mirador is one of the largest preclassic Maya sites, home of the largest structure built at any time by the Maya. El Mirador, a swampy, low-lying area in the northern Petén region of the Guatemalan rainforest, was possibly the Kan Kingdom, a state-level Maya kingdom.

From Nov. 16 to 17, Maya experts from around the world will convene at the University of Utah for the Mesoamerican Conference that focuses on the preclassic Maya history between 2000 B.C. and 250 A.D. All talks are free and open to the public.

Two giants in Maya archaeology will give the keynote addresses: Ray Matheny, professor emeritus of anthropology at Brigham Young University, and Norman Hammond of the University of Cambridge and Boston University. Because of their pioneering work, we now understand that the preclassic period included an advanced state-level civilization as sophisticated and advanced as the classic Maya period.

“To have these two men here is, wow,” said Glenna Nielsen-Grimm, anthropology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Utah and organizer of the conference. “They literally rewrote the books about what we know about the pre-classical Maya history.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Richard Hensen

A student stands on a Mayan ruin in the El Mirador Basin.

Matheny is an anthropologist with broad experience in Mesoamerican archaeology, the American Southwest and Utah and in Bronze and Iron Age Israel. He is interested in the origins of civilizations, especially those of the New World. Hammond’s work focuses on pre-Columbian archaeology, especially Mesoamerica, comparative archaeology history of archaeology  and archaeology and the public.

The Mesoamerican Conference is presented in conjunction with the Museum’s new special exhibition, “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” which focuses on the classic Maya period (150-650 A.D.). The University of Utah’s Department of AnthropologyCollege of Social and Behavioral Science, the Natural History Museum of Utah and the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies are co-presenting the conference.

In addition to the keynotes, researchers from a wide range of disciplines will report on recent research on the Maya Civilization in the Mirador Basin, including the recent discovery of an ancient Mayan superhighway. Richard Hansen, an anthropologist at the University of Utah and director of the Mirador Basin Project, with collaborators used a laser-based mapping system to reveal hundreds of miles of roads that served as ancient Mayan superhighways connecting pyramids, canals, and agricultural terraces, and other structures previously hidden beneath thick rainforest canopy. The superhighways are just one of many discoveries affiliated with the Mirador Basin Project, a multi-institutional interdisciplinary project devoted to investigating, preserving and protecting the Mirador Basin.

The public is welcome to attend any of the talks. Find a detailed program online here.

*Banner photo credit: Richard Hansen