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The Mayan civilisation was one of the most spectacular in pre-Columbian history. But the Mayan people of modern Guatemala rarely had a stake in the archaeological riches of their ancestors — until a maverick researcher arrived in the country 20 years ago.

In this article Michael Bawaya profiles Arthur Demarest, a prominent US expert on the Maya and a pioneer of community archaeology.

Although Demarest's archaeological discoveries have provided crucial insights into the ancient Mayans' society and its collapse, his prime focus is their living descendants.

By making them stakeholders in his excavations, Demarest fulfils a twofold vision: providing them with both long-term employment and an incentive to protect the excavation sites from looting.

He designs projects so locals can find work both on the digs and in related tourist activities, and has incorporated local knowledge into his scientific methodology: the locals tell Demarest where to dig.

The government has also adopted his community-focused philosophy, ruling that all archaeological projects in Guatemala include a community-development component.

Although some feel Demarest puts too much emphasis on public relations, few deny that this tough academic is making a difference in the lives of the locals and the Guatemalan PhD students who work with him.

Link to article in Science