Territorial Organization of the Lowland Classic Maya

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Science  01 Jun 1973:
Vol. 180, Issue 4089, pp. 911-916
DOI: 10.1126/science.180.4089.911


Thus far I have discussed ancient Maya sociopolitical structure from the upper levels of the hierarchy downward. Let me now summarize their territorial organization from the bottom upward, starting at the hamlet level (Fig. 8).

The smallest unit of settlement—one usually overlooked by archeological surveys in the lowland rain forest—was probably a cluster of thatched huts occupied by a group of related families; larger clusters may have been divided into four quadrants along the lines suggested by Coe (26). Because of the long fallow period (6 to 8 years) characteristic of slash-and-burn agriculture in the Petén, these small hamlets are presumed to have changed location over the years, although they probably shifted in a somewhat circular fashion around a tertiary ceremonial-civic center for whose maintenance they were partly responsible. These tertiary centers were spaced at fairly regular intervals around secondary ceremonial-civic centers with pyramids, carved monuments, and palace-like residences.

In turn, the secondary centers occurred at such regular intervals as to form hexagonal patterns around primary centers, which were still larger, with acropolises, multiple ceremonial plazas, and greater numbers of monuments. In some cases, the distance between secondary centers was roughly twice the distance between secondary and tertiary centers, creating a lattice of nested hexagonal cells. This pattern, which conforms to a Western theoretical construct, was presumably caused by factors of service function, travel, and transport. The pattern was not recognized by the Maya at all. They simply recognized that a whole series of smaller centers were dependent on a primary center and therefore mentioned its emblem glyph. Linking the centers of the various hexagons were marriage alliances between members of royal dynasties, who had no kinship ties with the farmers in the hamlets.

Out of the large number of primary centers available to them, the Maya selected four as regional capitals. True to their cosmology, the Maya regarded these capitals as associated with the four quadrants of their realm, regardless of their actual location. Each was the home city for a very important dynasty whose junior members probably ruled secondary centers. Since the hexagonal lattices were probably adjusted to variations in population density, each of the four quadrants of the Maya realm probably controlled a comparable number of persons. So strong was the cognized model that, despite the rise and fall of individual centers, there seem always to have been four capitals, each associated with a direction and, presumably, with a color.

There is still a great deal to learn about the social, political, and territorial organization of the lowland Maya, and parts of the picture presented here need far more data for their confirmation. What seems likely is that the Maya had an overall quadripartite organization (rather than a core and buffer zone) and that within each quadrant there was at least a five-tiered administrative hierarchy of capital, secondary center, tertiary center, village, and hamlet. Perhaps most significant, there was no real conflict between the lattice-like network predicted by locational analysis and the cosmological four-part structure predicted by epigraphy and ethnology.

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