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Academic Staff

Centre of Latin American Studies

Charles Pigott

Dr Charles Pigott

Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow supported by the Isaac Newton Trust

Tel: (01223) (7)67267

My research focuses on the indigenous cultures and languages of Latin America, particularly the oral and written literature of the Maya and Quechua. In view of the fact that such cultures often have very different interpretative frameworks to the ‘Western’ academic tradition, I combine the perspectives of several disciplines in order to attain a holistic understanding. The main disciplines I dialogue with are comparative literature, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy, but my work also has relevance to fields such as psychology, sociology and ecology.

Doctoral Project

My PhD thesis, fully funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and based at the School of Oriental & African Studies (University of London), explored the concept of ‘identity’ in Andean folksongs which I recorded during a year’s fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes. Having initially planned to examine the role of songs for cultural identity, I later realized that such a question would be imposing a European category (‘identity’) over the Andean data, rather than letting the songs speak for themselves. Therefore, I inverted the question, treating the Andean philosophical concepts, as expressed in the songs, as the theory that would critically examine the validity of the European concept of ‘identity’. This intercultural dialogue was aided by the writings of Heidegger, Derrida and Merleau-Ponty, all of whom, in different ways, discuss what it means to be an entity in contact with an environment – the central issue in ‘identity’. Rather than relying on translations of often subtle concepts, I examined all passages in the original Quechua, Spanish, French and German.

Postdoctoral Work

Upon completion of my PhD in 2013, I became interested in the parallels between the Andes and Mesoamerica: their historical significance as cradles of civilization; their contemporary indigenous populations who are experiencing similar cultural processes within Latin America; the central importance of nature in the indigenous worldviews. Further research revealed a key ecological similarity: Mesoamerica and the Andes are the world’s top hotspots for vertebrate diversity. Despite these important similarities, I discovered that there are relatively few comparative studies of Mesoamerica and the Andes. This motivated my application for, and subsequent acceptance of, a Mexican government scholarship held at the Autonomous University of the Yucatan, Mexico, where I learned the Yucatec Mayan language, gained expertise in the Maya cultural context, and delivered a 20-hour self-crafted course in linguistic anthropology in Spanish. As a Research Associate of the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford, I also helped in the development of the Ethno-ornithology World Archive, an Internet database of the importance of birds in world cultures.

Current Project

My current project, based at CLAS and funded by an Early Career Fellowship jointly awarded by The Leverhulme Trust and The Isaac Newton Trust, is entitled Ecological Visions in Mayan and Quechua Literature: A Comparative Study. Taking inspiration from the central importance of nature in both the Maya and Quechua cultures, the project compares Maya and Quechua literary production in terms of how the natural world is perceived, understood and engaged with. Two monographs will be produced, one on Mayan literary interactions with nature, and another exploring the same theme in Quechua literature. A number of comparative articles will result from this. This is the first study to compare an Andean and a Mesoamerican culture in the native languages. The theoretical dimension of the project is broadly situated within the framework of Environmental Humanities, and will open the way for a transdisciplinary symbiosis of comparative literature with ethnobiology, the study of the cultural importance of non-human organisms. The overall aim of the project is to question the extent to which the categories of ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’ can be meaningfully distinguished, and to explore their interrelation, using the method of intercultural dialogue. Alongside the project, I deliver individual seminars in a range of postgraduate courses offered by CLAS, and help to organize the Centre’s termly schedule of seminars by invited speakers.

A podcast about my work was published by the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute in 2016, and is available here.


Languages and Media

In 2009, I appeared on a BBC Panorama programme learning an artificial language and have engaged with radio and newspapers concerning various projects in Peru, Bolivia, Cameroon and Guernsey.

I speak the following languages:

  • Fluent: English (native), Spanish, Portuguese, Quechua (central Peruvian), Quechua (Southern), Mayan (Yucatec)
  • Latent fluency: French, German
  • Proficient: Catalan, Italian