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The Mayan Language Institute lays foundation for interdisciplinary research on public health and Indigenous knowledge in Guatemala

April 27, 2020 2:00 PM
Riley Moran

Field research conducted by two members of the Stone Center’s Mayan Language Institute (MLI) team has culminated in the publication of the article “K’iche’ Mayan Food Groups and Its implications for Guatemalan Food Guidelines” in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Food and Nutrition Bulletin. Miguel Cuj, a Vanderbilt University graduate student who has served as teaching assistant for the Stone Center’s Mayan Language Institute (MLI) during the past two summers, has collaborated with Mareike Sattler, Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt University and MLI K’iche’ Faculty Lead, and nutritional anthropologist Sasha de Beausset on field work investigating public health approaches to food and nutrition in Guatemala. All research on this project was facilitated through networks Cuj and Sattler have developed through the MLI program.

Through an analysis of cognitive and language structures, the article examines K’iche’ Mayan food categories in comparison with the Guatemalan Food Guidelines (GFG) put forward by the National Ministry of Health as part of its strategy to combat the rise of noncommunicable diseases. The research concludes that understandings of food groups and their uses in the K’iche’ language differ significantly from the descriptions communicated through the GFG. Cuj, Sattler, and de Beausset recommend that Indigenous knowledge must be better integrated into the GFG in order to strengthen public health approaches to food and nutrition. See the abstract below and access the full article online at SAGE Journals.


The anthropology of linguistics, food, and nutrition sciences has a key role with regard to taking a critical look at the Guatemalan Food Guidelines (GFG). These GFG are communicated to native communities to interpret their eating patterns and the structural cognitive interpretation of these food groups in a cultural context. Our understanding of food is informed by cognitive structure represented by language. Since food is fundamental in human cultural identities, understanding food and food categories from the perspective of Mayan indigenous groups should be a fundamental pillar of health, food, and nutrition. The purpose of this research was to explore the GFG and compare them to K’iche’ understandings of food groups in terms of cognitive structural similarities and differences. The research was carried out in the field by way of semi-structured interviews and participant observation among K’iche’ Mayan families in Nahualá (Western Guatemala) to compare and contrast data collected on K’iche’ food groups and corresponding cognitive structure with previously published findings on the GFG. These findings were confirmed through fieldwork, though some of the nuances of subcategories have changed, and significant stress was placed on 2 food groups: wa (corn-based food) and ri’kil (non-corn-based food). The research concludes that the cognitive structure and understanding of food groups and their uses communicated through K’iche’ language differ significantly from the hierarchical, technical description of food groups communicated through the GFG. In order to strengthen public health approaches to food and nutrition, indigenous knowledge must be respected, learned, and integrated into GFG.