John M. Watanabe

|Associate Professor
Academic Appointments

Associate Professor of Anthropology

My research concerns ethnic identity and conflict, religion, and cosmology among Maya peoples of Guatemala and Mexico.  I also  work on Maya relations with the state in late nineteenth century Guatemala.  More broadly, I have written on ritual and religion in human evolution and the emergence of ritual economies in Mesoamerica. 

I have taught at Dartmouth since 1989.  I feel strongly that my task as a professor is to challenge students to get better, not to judge whether they are "good enough" or not, and this means holding students to high standards (consolation to stressed students, grading harder is a lot more work than grading easier).  I also strongly believe that good scholarship and good teaching go hand in hand: doing research reminds me not to believe the generalizations I make to students as I introduce them to new material; teaching forces me to generalize the relevance of my research that may sound like way too much information for someone not yet as committed as I am to anthropology.

My current research centers on how ethnic and national identities emerge historically.  Drawing on late nineteenth-century administrative records and land titles from archives in Guatemala City, I am writing an historical ethnography of relations between Mam Maya communities in western Guatemala and the Guatemalan state as commercial coffee production intensified during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

A related project associated with an Advanced Seminar that I co-directed at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, NM involves comparing Maya communities across the contrasting national histories and political institutions of Mexico and Guatemala.  This comparison seeks to clarify both what remains distinctively "Maya" about these communities, as well as how national power structures and possibilities still meaningfully -- and necessarily -- shape global transformations to modernity and postmodernity across the Maya region.

More broadly, I remain interested in questions of cultural evolution, specifically how something as improbable as symbolic communication and conventional meanings ever evolved in the first place.  Work on ritual greetings and coalition formation among male baboons has focused on how the formalism of ritual may have served as the behavioral basis for mutual trust -- and perhaps truth -- out of which symbolization and language evolved as intensified forms of social cooperation.

In 1993, I received the Karen E. Wetterhahn Memorial Award for Distinguished Creative or Scholarly Achievement from Dartmouth College.  I have also held national fellowships with the Michigan Society of Fellows (1986 - 1989) and the National Humanities Center (19998 - 1999).  I was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2003 - 2004.  In 2000 - 2001, I served as president of the New England Council of Latin American Studies.

In the Anthropology Department, I teach the four-field introductory course, the anthropology of religion, anthropological theory, and courses on Latin American anthropology.


Silsby, Room 405
HB 6047




  • B.A. University of California at Santa Cruz, 1975
  • M.A. Harvard University, 1978
  • Ph.D. Harvard University, 1984

Selected Publications

  • Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World. Austin: University of Texas Press [now out in Spanish with a new preface as "Los que estamos aqui": comunidad e identidad entre los mayas de Santiago Chimaltenango, Huehuetenango, 1937-1990. Eddy H. Gaytan, tr. Serie monografica, no. 15. South Woodstock, VT and La Antigua Guatemala: Plumsock Mesoamerican Studies and Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica, 2006].   (1992)

  • Pluralizing Ethnography: Comparison and Representation in Maya Cultures, Histories, and Identities. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series. Austin: School of American Research Press (edited with E F Fischer).  (2004)

  • Racing to the Top: Descent Ideologies and Why Ladinos in Guatemala Never Meant to be Mestizos. Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 11.  (2016)

  • Ritual Economy and the Negotiation of Autarky and Interdependence in a Ritual Mode of Production. In Mesoamerican Ritual Economy: Archaeological and Ethnological Perspectives. E. Christian Wells and Karla L. Davis-Salazar (eds.), pp. 301–322.  Boulder: University of Colorado Press.  (2007)

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Works In Progress

19th-century history of ethnic-state relations in western Guatemala