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Defensibility and Settlement Patterns in the Guatemalan Maya Highlands

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Greg Borgstede
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (
James R. Mathieu
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (


A long-standing understanding of the Maya highlands suggests that the Postclassic period was characterized by increased warfare and conflict over the preceding Classic period, as seen in settlement patterns and defensive features. Based on recent archaeological work in Guatemala's western highlands, we argue that the archaeological evidence does not support this conclusion; defensive characteristics are also common in the Classic period. Drawing on examples from the Huista-Acatec region of the Cuchumatán Mountains, a typology of defensive characteristics is presented, along with comparative examples elsewhere in the Maya highlands. We suggest that these material correlates of defensibility, while showing that conflict was a central concern in both the Classic and Postclassic periods, lay the foundation for future studies of warfare in the Maya highlands. These insights have implications for the study of settlement pattern defensibility beyond the Maya highlands, including the construction and use of defensive feature typologies, the appropriateness of categorizing societies as either peaceful or militaristic, and the wider identification of cultural continuity.



Se ha pensado que el período postclásico se caracterizó por más guerras que el período clásico precedente, en base a los patrones de asentamiento y rasgos defensivos de las tierras altas mayas de Guatemala. La nueva evidencia arqueológica de nuestro proyecto en las tierras altas occidentales guatemaltecas no apoya esto; rasgos defensivos son tan communes en el período clásico como en el período postclásico. Se presenta una tipología de las características defensivas en la región Huista-Acateco de las montañas Cuchumatánes de Guatemala junto con ejemplos comparativos de otras regiones de las tierras altas mayas. Sugerimos que este correlato material de defensa, además de mostrar que las situaciones de conflicto fueron centrales en los períodos clásico y postclásico, sirve como punto de partida para nuevos estudios de Guerra en las tierras altas mayas. Esto tiene implicaciones para el análisis de los patrones de asentamiento defensivos en otras regiones, incluyendo la elaboración y uso de tipologías de rasgos defensivos, el problema de categorizer sociedades pacíficas o militarizadas, y una más amplia identificación de la continuidad cultural.

Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2007

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