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Why do the ancient Maya fascinate us so much? The field of Maya studies is filled with stories of a single site visit or artwork that changed the course of someone’s life – suddenly we must know all we can about this very foreign culture located so close to home. There are scores of Maya conferences open to the public, and magazines like National Geographic or Archaeology seem to run a story about the ancient Maya in nearly every other issue. Is it because they are mysterious and unknown? Or because they mastered a challenging tropical environment for over a thousand years? Is it that many Americans travel to Mexico and become familiar, even if only in a passing sense, with the deep history of Indigenous Mexico? Or is it simply the superb artwork and architecture of Classic Maya culture, with its graceful lines and intricate stonework? This book sets out to introduce the new student or admirer of ancient Maya society to the best approximation that current scholarship has to offer of the glorious achievements and challenges of this unique ancient society. To those who have already visited the ancient cities of the Maya scattered throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, this book will help the reader see the people who populated those wonderfully diverse and complex cities, and the countryside in between. To those who are new to this culture, I hope to share some of the excitement scholars like myself have for the rich history of Maya society, and to bring you a few steps closer to what life was like in ancient Maya times.
The major Maya cities of the Classic period all contain one or more palace compounds composed of numerous separate rooms linked by interior patios and courtyards. Difficult to access, they were private spaces for the royal extended family to practice courtly arts and enjoy the company of one another in safety. Excavation of a large palace complex at the powerful site of Calakmul provides artifactual evidence that different activities were conducted in each of the many rooms of the palace.1 Lower terrace rooms were used for less important tasks, such as cooking and production of utilitarian stone tools, while the rooms on higher terraces were used for making more prestigious goods such as marine shell ornaments and cotton cloth. Artisans seem to have lived at the base of the palace complex and left few material objects, perhaps because they did not have access to goods other than basic provisions. In the largest cities the presence of more than one such palace compound underscores a persistent competition between dynasties that is also evident in hieroglyphic inscriptions commissioned by those elite who succeeded in taking the throne and installing their family in a secure position of power. Mirroring the lives of the majority of Maya people, the palaces had places for the preparation of food, for craft activities, and for sleeping and rest. But in contrast to most Maya families, the lives of the royalty were full of leisure, with their needs attended to by a large court of attendants, servants, and likely enslaved people (although the evidence for slavery is scant). This left them free to spend time in ritual, perfecting their artistic skills, or reading the almanacs or codices that predicted the nature of each day. Many hours were also spent entertaining visiting dignitaries, hosting feasts, and in private discussion with political allies. Most Classic Maya art depicts these activities, indicating how important it was for dynasties to commemorate the skillful participation of their members in such courtly arts. Diplomacy, the reckoning of time, and spiritual mediation were skills not only that elite members of society possessed but that royals needed to proclaim and display in order to reinforce their highly privileged status within society. It is certain that within Classic Maya society the majority of the population believed deeply in the semi-divine nature of their rulers, but it is also apparent that the rulers took great pains to reinforce this idea whenever possible.
The landscape in Classic Maya times was a patchwork of large areas of sparsely settled agricultural production interspersed with chaotic and sprawling urban centers of varying size. Urbanism has been long debated in Maya studies but is usefully defined as a measure of geographical size, density of occupation, and range of social differentiation.1 Much of what we know about ancient Maya culture comes from the investigation of large cities (anywhere from 3 to 60 square kilometers of settlement with populations estimated to be from 5,000 to 60,000 people at a time)2 where elites ruled and daily life was filled with the spectacle and hardship to be found in any city. Crowded and noisy, but cleaner and more beautiful than the ancient cities of Europe according to firsthand accounts by Spanish explorers, each Maya city was unique. There was no template for how a city was designed, and they grew in what appears to be a haphazard manner, according to the changing fortunes of their leaders and economies. Recently, the idea of “low-density, agro-urbanism” has been applied to Maya cities, and they may have grown according to the environmental and farming potential of different neighborhoods. This would be an energy-efficient way to produce food close to consumers, especially in the absence of wheeled transport or pack animals.3 As in all cities, a great diversity of activities took place on a daily basis – from marketing to construction to performance. Literacy was available to some members of Maya urban centers. It was practiced by scribes and other professionals who studied how to write complicated hieroglyphic inscriptions, by craftspeople who carved texts into stone or wood, and by the members of royal families who consulted books and commissioned monuments to celebrate their accomplishments. Maya cities had ball courts, a central institution of elite culture where men competed against rivals in a reenactment of a mythological cycle that encapsulated the core values of Maya people. New research shows Maya cities had central markets where the goods and crafts produced in small households described in earlier chapters were exchanged or bartered among all levels of society. Often seen as an urban culture, it was the interplay of rural and urban that made city life possible.
While most discussions of Maya culture emphasize the central importance of maize agriculture to Maya identity and daily life, interregional trade in natural resources from a huge variety of micro-environments was equally central to the everyday habits of Maya people during the Classic period. The Yucatan peninsula makes up the majority of the landmass where Maya-speaking people lived in the past, and it is defined by an enormous coastline with hundreds of barrier islands and shallow bays. At the base of the peninsula there are river systems that flow from the southern Maya lowlands out to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Goods from the highlands and southern lowlands moved along these rivers, and then in turn up the coastline. Inland farmers, craftspeople, and their rulers relied on coastal trade for daily necessities, not just exotic jewelry and ritual items. Traders frequented coastal settlements, which were some of the most diverse and interesting places in the Classic period, where people from throughout the Maya world and beyond met and exchanged ideas as well as goods. These ports of trade emphasized economic exchange over dynastic lineage as a means to acquire influence and power, although some ports were controlled by large inland dynastic cities and certain commodities seem to have moved in and out of trade centers based on political alliances crafted or destroyed by the elite. The daily activities of those who lived near the sea were different from those of Maya people who lived at inland centers, and full- and part-time traders held positions of great influence in Maya society. In addition to economic activity, coastal settlements were often places of spiritual significance, even pilgrimage, as they embodied Maya conceptualizations of the sea as a boundary place between one world and another. Scenes from Classic mythology show supernatural creatures traveling to the underworld on a carved wooden canoe – and perhaps in part for its ability to provide not only subsistence but also rare materials, the sea was understood as a metaphor for the primordial place of origin, a realm where deities and potent spirits resided (Figure 6.1).
Today approximately 6 million people who live in the area explored in this book, but also in a diaspora that includes places like Dallas, Texas, and Vancouver, British Columbia, speak one of the many Mayan languages. Learning Mayan at home is a key component of what it means to be a Maya person in the 21st century, as Maya culture is no longer centered only on the maize agricultural system and dynastic kingship we discovered in earlier chapters. Now Maya people create hip-hop, practice law, win the Nobel prize, and also continue to farm small-scale maize fields where they plant corn, beans, and squash as did their ancestors. They live in the large cities of modern Guatemala and in small villages high in the remote mountain ranges of Belize. They do not agree on what it means to be Maya, a term that originated in the colonial period1 but was not embraced by people in the area until much later. They do not agree if the name “Maya” is even meaningful to all of them in the same way,2 other than describing their language family. However, from an outside perspective, Maya culture has both transformed and survived and is an example of one of the most resilient cultures known to scholars of history and culture. But how did we go from royal palaces to hip-hop? What happened between the 9th and 21st centuries? How do Maya people today understand their glorious ancient past – the queens, hieroglyphic panels, and masterpieces of art? What parts of the ancient daily lives we have just discussed are still salient to Maya people today?
Most ancient Maya people spent the majority of their lives in and around domestic settings. Activities and experiences that occurred here shaped not only what people did every day, but how they thought about themselves in many important ways. Even kings and queens, with their very different living quarters, had rituals they performed for their subjects that reenacted the daily habits of simple domestic compounds. Living structures varied according to one’s access to resources: royal families lived in roomy palaces made of stone, with plaster- and mural-covered walls and a high, vaulted ceiling. These buildings were often situated on small hills or artificial platforms to catch the breeze and prevent flooding during tropical rains. Middle-society homes were set atop smaller platforms, and may have had a plaster floor, but the walls of these homes were made of wood and the roofs of thatch. The simplest homes were set on the bedrock or ground level, with a packed dirt floor, wooden walls, and a thatch roof. Ironically, the wooden homes had many advantages over stone palaces – they allowed for more light and air to circulate, making them drier and in some cases cooler, and the materials to construct or repair these simple homes were easily available in the wetlands or forest outside Maya cities. However, they were very vulnerable to fire, especially during the dry season when an attack of flaming arrows could easily set an entire neighborhood aflame. Surrounding the central palaces and temples of ancient Maya cities were thousands of domestic or residential compounds, clusters of small houses, patios, and gardens occupied by extended multigenerational families of parents, children, spouses, and grandparents. In the 16th century, Spanish cleric Bishop Diego de Landa recorded that the Maya people of Yucatan had a matrilocal marriage practice, meaning that young men would move into the residential compound of their wives, so it is likely that multiple generations of family members lived together for most of their lifetime. Many of the tasks that took place in a compound, such as tending small animals, weaving, or gardening, were made easier by the collective efforts of an extended group of relatives.
Maize, or what most people in the United States call corn, was at the heart of ancient Maya culture. It provided the main source of calories, it was the main ritual offering and feast food, and corn deities were central to the guiding mythologies that made royal rulership possible. By the Classic period maize agriculture required constant attention as the plant had become completely dependent on human intervention through the domestication process. Maize is often depicted in Classic art as a delicate, young child, in need of protection. The shared practices of planting, tending, harvesting, and processing maize unified Maya communities and provided a keystone to their cultural identity. Indigenous growing techniques were refined for the tropical climate of the Maya area, but corn was still dependent on the arrival of regular rains, not always a guaranteed phenomenon in the tropics. Maya farmers were greatly assisted in securing agricultural success by the large beehives they kept at the edges of their fields. Native stingless bees produced honey and wax but were perhaps most important for their role in pollination of agricultural plants. Many wild resources were harvested from the rich rainforests that surrounded every settlement. The forests were places of unruly spirits and untapped potential. They were respected as reservoirs of plants, animals, and minerals needed for daily life. Research has shown that many of the forest management techniques used during the Classic period survive today in the most remote areas of the Maya world, and we have learned much about ancient plant and animal management from the modern Indigenous people of southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Within the animate Maya landscape, filled with spirits of place, caves and underground sources of fresh water took on special significance. They were places to connect with the forces of creation and a primary location for rituals of fertility and rain.
Everyday Life in the Classic Maya World introduces readers to a range of people who lived during the Classic period (200–800 CE) of Maya civilization. Traci Ardren here reconstructs the individual experiences of Maya people across all social arenas and experiences, including less-studied populations, such as elders, children, and non-gender binary people. Putting people, rather than objects, at the heart of her narrative, she examines the daily activities of a small rural household of farmers and artists, hunting and bee-keeping rituals, and the bustling activities of the urban marketplace. Ardren bases her study on up-to-date and diverse sources and approaches, including archaeology, art history, epigraphy, and ethnography. Her volume reveals the stories of ancient Maya people and also shows the relevance of those stories today. Written in an engaging style, Everyday Life in the Classic Maya World offers readers at all levels a view into the amazing accomplishments of a culture that continues to fascinate.
Settlement scaling theory predicts that higher site densities lead to increased social interactions that, in turn, boost productivity. The scaling relationship between population and land area holds for several ancient societies, but as demonstrated by the sample of 48 sites in this study, it does not hold for the Northern Maya Lowlands. Removing smaller sites from the sample brings the results closer to scaling expectations. We argue that applications of scaling theory benefit by considering social interaction as a product not only of proximity but also of daily life and spatial layouts.
Inequality and changing responses to food scarcity may create a stigmatization complex around certain foods. Here, we conduct a literature search to develop a working definition of “famine foods” in the Maya lowlands, centering qualities such as hardiness, productivity, nutrition, preparation, and stigmatization complexes. An analysis of the nutritional characteristics that might make up such a food yields the idea that famine foods are likely members of a time- and place-specific arsenal of plant resources. We compare the results of the literature search to botanical data from a rejollada survey from Xuenkal and a solar (house garden) survey conducted in Yaxunah. Examining the data through the lens of a history of manipulation of food access, shifting relations of power, and modern responses to food insecurity illuminates cultural plasticity and resilience in diet and agricultural strategies in the Maya lowlands. We conceptualize solares and rejolladas as food-related resilience strategies.