On this page we will be assembling materials that might be helpful for considering various methodologies for the study of Mesoamerican cultures and their histories.  We can also assemble useful guidelines for student projects, rubrics, scaffolding, text complexity, assessment, etc.

What is Culture?

One place to begin might be with definitions of culture. There are many definitions available.  Here is one:

  • “Culture describes the cumulative influences on a group of people or society–their collective knowledge, characteristics and learned behaviours. This knowledge is passed on from generation to generation and accounts for the different cultures that we can see around the world, for example Western culture, Eastern culture, Middle Eastern culture, African and Latin culture. Each of these cultures is defined by the values, traditions, social habits and behaviours, language, belief systems, concepts of the universe, dress, food, music and arts that they encompass.” Written by “Susan” of the World Transformation Blog.

Quotes about culture:

Theories about culture:
 For more definitions and discussions, see:

Common Human Cultural Traits

Anthropologist Dennis O’Neill provides the following examples of “universal” human cultural traits:


communicating with a verbal language consisting of a limited set of sounds and grammatical rules for constructing sentences


using age and gender to classify people (e.g., teenager, senior citizen, woman, man)


classifying people based on marriage and descent relationships and having kinship terms to refer to
them (e.g., wife, mother, uncle, cousin)


raising children in some sort of family setting


having a sexual division of labor (e.g., men’s work versus women’s work)


having a concept of privacy


having rules to regulate sexual behavior


distinguishing between good and bad behavior


having some sort of body ornamentation


making jokes and playing games


having art


having some sort of leadership roles for the implementation of community decisions



Historiography is the craft of history.  And what do we mean by history?  History is the study of events in the past, particularly those relating to human activity, but we also have “natural history” which can include animals and environmental history, for example.

Fun quotes about history:

An EDSITEment! page about history:

Historians track change over time and the factors that contribute to changes and continuities. This includes a consideration of causation.

Context is important — what are (or were) the mitigating circumstances?

Agency is important — who were the actors and what roles did they play?

Sources — historians typically study written sources, so “prehistory” is what happened before there were written records of events.  We use “primary” sources (from the horse’s mouth) and “secondary” sources (filtered or interpreted by someone).

The range of acceptable sources for the study of history has been broadening to include buildings, artifacts, art, photographs, and oral traditions, among others.

Evaluating and making sense of our sources leads us into the realm of interpretation.  Historians are sometimes taught to be “objective” and stick to the “facts.” But can interpretation exist without some degree of subjectivity, filters, or lenses on the part of the historian?


In this space we might share approaches to the interpretation of cultures (including their languages, arts, music, foods, clothing, patterns of behavior, values, etc.) and their histories (how these cultures have remained the same or evolved over time).

Interpretation involves explaining and elucidating. It can involve selecting and assembling content.  An interpretive goal may be to help others see and comprehend something better.

It can involve making an argument and providing examples to support one’s point of view.

Our interpretation of the art of Northwest Coastal tribes in a museum in Victoria, British Columbia, we are advised, can be a challenge.  This art is “defined by several distinct stylistic traditions of considerable age which were expressed in both two-dimensional and sculptural form.  The art has several levels of meaning.  It makes the supernatural world visible, it serves as a vehicle to relate myth, and it identifies crest figures.  It is a complex and subtle art, and inherent in each masterpiece is a secret known perhaps only to its maker.  But because we are moved by the perfection of form, we have at least a glimpse of the artist’s intention.”

Could something similar be said for the arts of Mesoamerica, with its multiple cultures, each one with possibly multiple stylistic traditions, all with a potential time depth that could be centuries old? It can take many forms.  It might make the supernatural world visible (in some cases); it can relate myth (e.g. the hero twins keep appearing in all kinds of art, especially in the Maya zones, and the legendary and spiritually-significant feathered serpent is found all over); it can have many levels of meaning; and, it can be complex and subtle.  We are often guessing at intended meaning, and we only occasionally have access to the maker to ask about meaning. Do we dare to make observations about meaning (perhaps with caveats that recognize our weak authority)? Might we comment on and make comparisons about form?

Educational Methodologies

See Sarah Hallermann and John Larmer, “What Does it Mean to Align PBL [Project Based Learning] with Common Core?” in Experts & Newbies, Dec. 5, 2013. They offer many suggestions that could be useful for projects we develop in this summer institute.