Water and Ritual

[ Anthropology ]

Water and Ritual

The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers

By Lisa J. Lucero

A pathbreaking investigation of how water and the rituals that invoked an abundant supply of rain were the keys to political power among the ancient Maya.

The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies



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6 x 9 | 269 pp. | 1 maps, 31 figures, 12 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-72611-6

In the southern Maya lowlands, rainfall provided the primary and, in some areas, the only source of water for people and crops. Classic Maya kings sponsored elaborate public rituals that affirmed their close ties to the supernatural world and their ability to intercede with deities and ancestors to ensure an adequate amount of rain, which was then stored to provide water during the four-to-five-month dry season. As long as the rains came, Maya kings supplied their subjects with water and exacted tribute in labor and goods in return. But when the rains failed at the end of the Classic period (AD 850-950), the Maya rulers lost both their claim to supernatural power and their temporal authority. Maya commoners continued to supplicate gods and ancestors for rain in household rituals, but they stopped paying tribute to rulers whom the gods had forsaken.

In this paradigm-shifting book, Lisa Lucero investigates the central role of water and ritual in the rise, dominance, and fall of Classic Maya rulers. She documents commoner, elite, and royal ritual histories in the southern Maya lowlands from the Late Preclassic through the Terminal Classic periods to show how elites and rulers gained political power through the public replication and elaboration of household-level rituals. At the same time, Lucero demonstrates that political power rested equally on material conditions that the Maya rulers could only partially control. Offering a new, more nuanced understanding of these dual bases of power, Lucero makes a compelling case for spiritual and material factors intermingling in the development and demise of Maya political complexity.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers
  • Chapter 1. Water and Ritual
  • Chapter 2. Classic Maya Political Histories
  • Chapter 3. Maya Rituals: Past and Present
  • Chapter 4. Community and the Maya: The Ritual History of Saturday Creek
  • Chapter 5. Local Rulers and the Maya: The Ritual History of Altar de Sacrificios
  • Chapter 6. Regional Rulers and the Maya: The Ritual History of Tikal
  • Chapter 7. The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers
  • Chapter 8. Water, Ritual, and Politics in Ancient Complex Societies
  • Notes
  • References Cited
  • Index

A key goal of this book is to explore how ritual and material factors articulate in the development and demise of political complexity. I attempt to do so using two factors: water and ritual, specifically short-term and long-term seasonal vagaries and traditional rituals writ large. I illustrate this model by examining the emergence and demise of Classic Maya rulers (ca. AD 250-950) in the southern Maya lowlands. My focus is on the way in which Maya kings used their wealth to offset seasonal problems (e.g., provisioning of dry-season water supplies) and integrated people by sponsoring large-scale traditional rituals. These factors are crucial in revealing not only how political agents appropriate the surplus of others but also eventually how such a strategy can fail (Lucero 2002a, 2003; cf. Tainter 1988:31; see Toynbee 1972:223). I concentrate on the Late Classic period (ca. AD 550-850), when the most powerful Maya rulers arose in areas where they could integrate large numbers of farmers and exact tribute—that is, areas with noticeable seasonal water issues and plentiful agricultural land. When seasonal vagaries became more drastic and long-term (decreasing seasonal rainfall), beginning in the late AD 700s, commoners no longer were obligated to pay tribute to kings who clearly had lost the power to propitiate the gods and supply water.

While each Maya center has its own particular history, long-term climatic change set in motion a series of varied, sometimes related, events in the Terminal Classic (ca. AD 850-950) and/or exacerbated local problems (e.g., political competition and warfare). Basically, the most powerful kings lost power; many secondary rulers followed suit, while others (for a brief time) experienced what it was like to be a primary ruler. Climate change, however, was too drastic to support a royal lifestyle for long; soon people largely abandoned their rulers and civic-ceremonial centers—the heart of royal life. A permanent political vacuum resulted, and it is this fact that needs explaining. In the aftermath, there was a major restructuring that focused at the community level. There the Maya continued to conduct the traditional rites that they always had performed.

I illustrate the process of how the politically ambitious replicate and expand traditional rituals as a means to attain and maintain political power using dedication, ancestor veneration, and termination rituals. These rites concern life, death, and renewal—factors key in the lives of all Maya. Other rites undoubtedly were just as important in social and political life, such as community, agricultural, water, and other domestic and traditional rites. They are more difficult to identify in the archaeological record, however—community rites take place in open areas and plazas; agricultural rites in fields; water rites at the edge of aguadas (rain-fed natural sinkholes), reservoirs, and rivers; and so on. In contrast, dedication, ancestor veneration, and termination rites leave clear evidence in the archaeological record, particularly in structures, consisting of caches, burials, and burned surface deposits. Most rituals likely were replicated and expanded by elites to allay conflict in the face of wealth differentiation and later by political leaders to promote political agendas.

To document ancient Maya political histories, I detail ritual histories at minor, secondary, and regional centers before, during, and after the appearance of rulers. The Maya case studies, especially Tikal and Altar de Sacrificios, illustrate the ritual process of how rulers initially emerge but do not necessarily represent the earliest southern lowland Maya kings, who likely arose in the Mirador Basin in northern Guatemala (Hansen et al. 2002). The minor river center of Saturday Creek (another case study) did not have rulers, but its inhabitants conducted the same rites as did those Maya beholden to rulers; this pattern indicates that appropriated rites have a long history (before rulers) and that they never left the home (during rulers).

Before focusing on the Maya, I begin by presenting a general model that articulates the critical role of water and ritual in political systems. Political power is defined here as the ability to exact tribute in the form of surplus goods and labor. Whatever the route to political complexity, a material basis is required to support it, and ritual is key to explaining it. The amount of surplus available to leaders relates to where and how people live. Basically, densely settled people are more easily integrated, whereas dispersed people are less so. My intent is to show the process of how people get other people to contribute to their political coffers, step by step. Rulers need not own critical resources or even control their access per se. What they do need to provide, however, is water during drought, food during famine, and capital to rebuild water or agricultural systems damaged, for example, by flooding. They also need to have the wealth or means to perform the necessary rites of continuance and plenty. When agricultural regimes yield less food for whatever reasons, people abandon their leaders, whose rituals have failed to bring forth prosperity.

Chapter 1 presents the major factors used to distinguish different political systems (community, local polities, and centralized and integrative polities) to provide a backdrop for the political model with ritual at its core. I also define my use of the concept of "collapse" and discuss how political systems fail. Chapter 2 details political histories at southern lowland Maya centers and briefly presents the major factors that distinguish different Maya centers. Chapter 3 describes ethnographic, colonial, and prehispanic evidence of traditional Maya ritual practices to demonstrate their long history. I also present the methods to reveal ancient ritual activities as well as the expectations regarding ritual histories in commoner, elite, and royal contexts. I begin Chapters 4, 5, and 6 with a general discussion of community organizations (Chapter 4), local polities (Chapter 5), and centralized and integrative polities (Chapter 6) and use cross-cultural cases to illustrate them. In addition, Chapter 4 defines Late Classic minor Maya centers and details the history of ritual activities at Saturday Creek. Chapter 5 does the same for secondary Maya centers and Altar de Sacrificios, and Chapter 6 for regional Maya centers and Tikal. Chapter 7 discusses how water and ritual articulated in the rise and fall of Classic Maya rulers. Chapter 8 concludes with a general discussion of the role of ritual and water in ancient political systems.

By Lisa J. Lucero

Lisa J. Lucero is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.