Shaped by the land, or the land is shaped by us?

How do communities decide where to come to rest and develop their village/town/city/etc.? Of course this answer is going to be highly dependent on the community in question – we need to understand why they are looking for a place to begin with, what sorts of conditions align with their cultural prerogatives, and what places are possible for their settlement (among many other considerations). Ángel Julián García Zambrano’s paper Transference of Primordial Threshold Crossings onto the Geomorphology of Mesoamerican Foundational Landscapes takes this question up in earnest regarding early Mesoamerican communities.

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Zambrano explains that the ontologies of early Mesoamerican cultures were imbued with “the act of crossing a threshold that allowed for communication between the earth’s inner watery realm and its surface” (215), enacted through traversing physical landscapes that were seen as thresholds between the two realms. These include specific landscape properties such as saddles in ridges – especially those with a prominence at the lowest part of the saddle – caves, tunnels, gullies, and springs. Although an oversimplification, this means that as early Mesoamerican cultures traversed their landscapes, they looked for landscape features that connected them to their beliefs. In places where these features were prominent, they founded towns. Furthermore and beyond mere founding, these cultures developed infrastructure that imitated, accentuated, and celebrated the landscape. For example, Zambrano explains how Utatlan in Guatemala is positioned with respect to the nearby ridge, with the protruding pyramid top aligned in the center of the saddle. The takeaway is that the land has a critical role in the built environments of these cultures, understood through the culture’s ontological lenses.

What does this mean to me? I see a distinction between Zambrano’s examples and the ways in which western cultures (read: settler colonial cultures) enact their relationships with the land. If the land is seen as an ‘other’ that must be tamed/settled/extracted, then settlement happens in ways that impose built environments on the land with the underlying perspective that “I will build wherever and whatever I want since the land is not part of me and my culture”. On the other hand, and exemplified in Zambrano’s paper, some cultures see the land as integral to their understanding of themselves and settle in ways that align with (not conceptually orthogonal to) the landscape. This indicates, to me, a distinct relationship with the land in ways that I cannot imagine analogous in western cultures. Although it should be obvious that I have some normative suppositions and about these two ways of integrating into/onto the land, I only mean to recognize that this difference is real and is but one more way that people have developed relationships to their environments.

That is all!