Autocratic Maya Polities Experienced Higher Wealth Inequalities than Other Mesoamerican States

by johnsmith

Archaeologists have examined the remains of houses in Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il, two medium size, peripheral Classic Maya (250-900 CE) polities located in southern Belize, and compared them with other Mesoamerican societies; they found that more autocratic Classic Maya, where principals exercised degrees of control over exclusionary exchange networks, maintained high degrees of wealth inequality compared to most other Mesoamerican states, which generally are characterized by more collective forms of governance.

Tikal, one of the most powerful Classic Maya cities. Image credit: Bruno Girin / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tikal, one of the most powerful Classic Maya cities. Image credit: Bruno Girin / CC BY-SA 2.0.

“In more autocratic societies wealth inequality is pronounced between different social groups, and also between people living in the same neighborhoods who were previously assumed by archaeologists to be economic equals,” said lead author Dr. Amy Thompson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Much of this inequality is linked to access to market goods or trade networks.”

To learn about how wealth was dispersed across the community, Dr. Thompson and her colleagues analyzed the remains of ancient houses.

“Differences in house size are a reflection of wealth inequality,” Dr. Thompson explained.

“By looking at how house size varies within different neighborhoods within ancient cities, we can learn about wealth inequality in Classic Maya cities.”

“Everything is looked at in a relative sense,” said co-author Dr. Gary Feinman, a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History.

“We’re comparing houses within a neighborhood to each other, and it still reveals a pattern.”

“It would be like if you compared all the houses in Kansas, some might be bigger than the houses in Manhattan, but that relative pattern of wealth distribution in Kansas, as compared to Manhattan, would still tell you something about wealth differentials in both areas.”

To study Maya houses, the researchers looked at a number of variables beyond just size.

“Using household archaeology, we can get at the interactions and relationships between the people,” Dr. Thompson said.

“We document where these houses are on the landscape, how big they are, where they’re located in relationship to each other, and which resources — like water and good agricultural land — are nearby.”

For further clues about the distribution of wealth, the scientists also excavated houses to learn about the types of ceramics and stone tools that the people used.

They found that patterns of wealth inequality were fairly consistent in different neighborhoods within Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il, two Classic Maya cities in southern Belize, even if one neighborhood was richer overall than another.

Nevertheless, at both sites distinctions in wealth were most magnified in neighborhoods with access to exchange routes.

“People have known for decades, if not centuries, that the Classic Maya were unequal,” said Dr. Keith Prufer, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

“But the real thing we can add is that this inequality trickled down, even to neighborhoods. That hasn’t really been well documented before.”

The results were published in the journal PLoS ONE.


A.E. Thompson et al. 2021. Assessing Classic Maya multi-scalar household inequality in southern Belize. PLoS ONE 16 (3): e0248169; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0248169

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