Culture, History, Biology, and Body: Native and Non-Native Acquisition of Technological Skill



Each culture defines the appropriate ways for people to use their bodies (Mauss 1934). In this paper we examine the uses of the body in a technical skill, that of Zinacantec Maya backstrap loom weaving. We hypothesize that native learners of weaving are different from non-native learners in that they are endowed from birth on with the biology and cultural experience needed for weaving. Maya newborns have distinctive patterns of motor behavior and visual attention. These patterns, reinforced by cultural experience, are utilized when girls learn to weave, highlighting the interplay between culture and biology. Non-native learners do not begin life with the same patterns of motor behavior or cultural experience and thus begin the acquisition of the body techniques involved in the complex skill of weaving with a deficit. Conclusions are based on an empirical, historical study of two generations of girls learning to weave in Nabenchauk, a Zinacantec Maya hamlet in Chiapas, Mexico.