Maya Political Science

[ Archaeology ]

Maya Political Science

Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos

By Prudence M. Rice

Rice builds a new model of Classic lowland Maya (AD 179–948) political organization and political geography.



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6 x 9 | 376 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70569-2

How did the ancient Maya rule their world? Despite more than a century of archaeological investigation and glyphic decipherment, the nature of Maya political organization and political geography has remained an open question. Many debates have raged over models of centralization versus decentralization, superordinate and subordinate status—with far-flung analogies to emerging states in Europe, Asia, and Africa. But Prudence Rice asserts that neither the model of two giant "superpowers" nor that which postulates scores of small, weakly independent polities fits the accumulating body of material and cultural evidence.

In this groundbreaking book, Rice builds a new model of Classic lowland Maya (AD 179-948) political organization and political geography. Using the method of direct historical analogy, she integrates ethnohistoric and ethnographic knowledge of the Colonial-period and modern Maya with archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic data from the ancient Maya. On this basis of cultural continuity, she constructs a convincing case that the fundamental ordering principles of Classic Maya geopolitical organization were the calendar (specifically a 256-year cycle of time known as the may) and the concept of quadripartition, or the division of the cosmos into four cardinal directions. Rice also examines this new model of geopolitical organization in the Preclassic and Postclassic periods and demonstrates that it offers fresh insights into the nature of rulership, ballgame ritual, and warfare among the Classic lowland Maya.

  • Preface
  • Note on Orthography and Dates
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Approaches to Maya Political Organization
    • Explanation, Analogy, and the Direct-Historical Approach
    • Sources for a Direct-Historical Approach: A Critical Review
      • Classic Period Hieroglyphic Inscriptions
      • Native Texts of the Postclassic and Colonial Periods
      • Spanish Colonial Documents
      • Dictionaries
      • Modern Ethnography
    • Maya Cosmology and Worldview
  • 2. Previous Reconstructions of Classic Maya Political Organization
    • Early Thoughts
    • The Political Geography of the Yucatan Maya
    • Twentieth-Century Ethnography
    • Site Size and Size-Hierarchy Models
    • Inscription-based Models
      • The Importance of Emblem Glyphs
      • Emblem Glyph-based (and Other) Decentralized Models
      • Emblem Glyph-based Centralized Models
    • Time and Its Cycles
  • 3. Maya Politico-Religious Calendrics
    • Maya Cosmology and Calendrical Science
      • Maya Calendars
      • Calendrical Origins
      • Calendrical Transformations
    • The Postclassic Maya May
      • The May and Its Seats
      • The Books of the Chilam B'alams and Rituals of the May
    • Overview
  • 4. Tikal as Early Seat of the May
    • Preclassic Ritual Architecture and K'atun Seats
    • Early Classic Tikal and Its Rulers
      • The Institution of Kingship
      • Tikal's Dynastic Founding
      • Tikal's Name and Emblem Glyph
      • The Dynasty Continues
      • The Central Mexican Presence
    • Tikal in the Middle Classic Period
    • The Meaning of the Middle
    • Overview
  • 5. Tikal's Late and Terminal Classic Seating of the May
    • Tikal as Late Classic May Ku
      • Twin-Pyramid Groups
      • Tikal's Late Classic Monuments
      • Late Classic Period-ending Monuments in Tikal's Realm
      • Interpretations: Tikal's Late Classic May Seating
    • Tikal and Its May Realm in the Terminal Classic Period
      • Monuments and Themes
      • Other Sites in Tikal's Terminal Classic May Realm
    • Overview
  • 6. Other Classic Period May-based Realms
    • Copán, Honduras, and Quiriguá, Guatemala
    • Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico
    • Other Sites and Regions
      • Caracol, Belize
      • Palenque and Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico
      • Dos Pilas, Petén, Guatemala
    • Overview
  • 7. New Terminal Classic May Realms
    • The Southern Lowlands
      • Seibal as May Ku: Structure A-3 Monuments
      • Lake Petén Itzá
      • Ucanal
    • The Northern Lowlands
      • The Puuc Region
      • Chich'en Itza, Yucatán
      • Dzibilchaltún and Cobá
    • Overview
  • 8. Implications of the May Model
    • Identifying the May
    • Calendrical Rituals Involving Fire
      • Burner Rituals
      • New Year's Ceremonies
      • Fire Walking
    • Ballcourts and the Ballgame
    • Maya "Warfare"
    • Dual Rulership
    • Overview
  • 9. Conclusion
    • Origin and Operation of the May System
    • The Classic Maya: A Theocratic State
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The political organization of the Classic period (A.D. 179-948) lowland Maya civilization of northern Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico (Fig. 1.1) has defied explication. Proposed models debate centralized versus decentralized, stable versus unstable, and chiefly versus state systems, often with far-flung analogies: Mediterranean city-states, medieval feudal systems, African segmentary "states," Aegean peer-polities, Thai galactic polities, and Bali theater states. All lack compelling goodness of fit and insight into process.

A more productive avenue for investigating Maya political organization begins with the "direct-historical approach," which integrates modern ethnography and indigenous lowland Maya and Spanish commentary from the contact, conquest, and Colonial periods (roughly A.D. 1500-1800) with Classic period inscriptions. Together, these sources reveal that Maya political organization was structured by short-and long-term temporal cycles recorded in their calendars, particularly recurring intervals of approximately twenty years (the k'atun) and 256 years (the may). Maya calendrical science, in other words, was not only a system of precise and predictive astronomical calculations and record keeping but also the foundation or "deep structure" of their political science. The key is deceptively simple: the Maya are "the people of the cycle, the people of the may."

Explanation, Analogy, and the Direct-Historical Approach

Archaeological epistemology—how we know what we know—is a complex intermingling of theory and empiricism, generalizing and particularizing, and deduction and induction, just as archaeology itself is an intricate blend of scientific and humanities scholarship. Archaeologists are interested in explaining the prehistoric past, particularly the dynamic but elusive processes contributing to social and cultural change (Fritz and Plog 1970; Watson, LeBlanc, and Redman 1971; Renfrew 1973; Hill 1977). Ultimately, what archaeologists seek are syntheses of descriptive and chronological data with causal mechanisms that result in satisfyingly conclusive—or at least minimally plausible—explanations of the events and processes of change in prehistory.

Archaeologists' interpretations of the past have their conceptual basis in analogy and analogical reasoning. An analogy is a similarity that permits comparison, a relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar that increases understanding of the latter. Analogical reasoning is a type of inferential argument used in logic, linguistics, mathematics, biology, and many social science fields, in which "one thing is inferred to be similar to another thing in a certain respect on the basis of the known similarity in other respects" (Random House Dictionary; emphasis added). Simultaneously objective, subjective, deductive, inductive, and abductive, analogical reasoning invokes comparisons between the unknown and the known on the basis of recognition of shared similarities or homologies in the relations between things, not in the things themselves.

For archaeologists, the relations of interest are those between the form of artifacts or patterns of their occurrence and the human behavior underlying their use or associations. As a simple example, a sharp, straight edge on an ancient stone tool that is similar to the sharp, straight edge on a modern knife prompts extensions to other similarities, leading to the interpretation that the stone tool would have had cutting and slicing functions like modern knives. Therefore, the archaeologist calls it a "stone knife."

Analogical reasoning is far less straightforward when it comes to human behavior because of the inconveniently intervening variables of human motivations, beliefs, preferences, social constraints, decision making, and so forth. Consequently, archaeologists employ two kinds of analogies, general comparative and direct-historical (see Lyman and O'Brien 2001). "General comparative analogy" refers to broad cross-cultural correlations among artifacts, their functions, and human behavior that may be observed widely throughout prehistory as well as in the modern world. The knife example, above, represents such a general comparative analogy. A direct-historical analogy draws specific parallels with historical or living peoples, particularly those occupying the same area, where there might be continuities from the past into the present.

From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the proper use of analogy was debated in Americanist archaeology (e.g., Ascher 1961; Gould and Watson 1982; Wylie 1985) and the role of analogical reasoning—what one archaeologist dubbed "the tyranny of the ethnographic record" (Wobst 1978)—was subject to methodological and philosophical scrutiny. This debate largely could be attributed to investigators playing fast and loose with the data and selecting analogues that were inappropriate. What emerged from these discussions was dubbed "the New Analogy" and called for careful review of criteria for appropriate and inappropriate analogies. "Appropriateness," it was widely agreed, is a matter of scientific parsimony, justifiability, reliability, validity, and especially continuity.

Continuity is key. The success of the direct-historical approach varies with the degree of continuity between groups, including cultural (technology and subsistence related), linguistic, temporal, and geographic comparisons. To illustrate, in general, it is more appropriate to draw analogies between the culture and behavior of the prehistoric Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest and the modern Pueblos than between the prehistoric Pueblos and, say, the ancient Etruscans, because of the considerable differences in cultural, temporal, and geographic circumstances of the latter. Analogies become increasingly inappropriate—or, perhaps better said, are decreasingly credible as explanations—the greater the separation in time, distance, societal complexity, and so on. In general, the more spatiotemporally removed and culturally generalized, the less useful the analogy.

The most appropriate, credible, and enlightening kinds of analogies in archaeology, then, are specific rather than general, and are drawn from known continuities through the direct-historical approach. This process for investigating culture (pre-)histories involves "working back into prehistoric time from the documented historical horizon" (Willey and Sabloff 1974:108). Its advantage is the greater "prior probability" that a given analogy is correct because of known continuities in the compared cultures (Salmon 1982).

What is the best or most appropriate source of analogy for explaining Classic lowland Maya political organization? My position favors the direct-historical approach (see also Marcus 1993:115), and thus I seek similarities between the Classic lowland Maya and their Postclassic, early Colonial period, and modern descendants in the lowlands. "Most appropriate" does not mean perfect isomorphism, freedom from error, absolute "truth," or proof of a theory. Clearly circumstances differ between the Maya in Petén (the modern political unit encompassing northern Guatemala) in A.D. 750 and the Maya in northern Yucatán in A.D. 1500-1950. And by adopting the direct-historical approach as the methodological armature of my study, I am neither negating nor ignoring the usefulness of insights gained from analogies to behavior, events, and phenomena drawn from farther afield. Nevertheless, I maintain that we can learn more about Classic Maya political organization by working back from the Postclassic lowland Maya than we can by beginning with African chiefdoms or feudal Europe. (See Table 1.1.)

What do the terms "political" and "political organization" mean? Anthropologists have grappled with this question for many decades, because what constitutes politics or a political system in modern Western society may be more elusive or opaque in non-Western ones. For archaeologists, the problems of comprehending political arrangements are exacerbated, being restricted to aspects deducible from the fragmentary material record of prehistoric societies.

Much anthropological thinking on political systems in prehistory dates from early British functionalism and structural-functionalism of the 1940s. Theorists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1940), M. G. Smith (1960, 1968), and others (see Cohen and Middleton 1967; de Montmollin 1989; Kurtz 2001:68-80) defined "the political" in a complex society by


  1. its structures:
    1. an administrative or organizational sector, usually hierarchical, of policy- or decision-making roles, and
    2. a "political" sector where decisions are made and competition for power takes place; and also
  2. 2. its functions: rules and sanctions that implement policy, maintain societal order, and safeguard territorial sovereignty.

Modern political anthropology has strayed little from this structural-functional milieu (Kurtz 2001; cf. Roscoe 1993), and this is also true for studies of the Classic Maya civilization, although the latter have been amplified by analogy to modern Maya and readings of contemporaneous texts. These texts consist of Classic period hieroglyphic inscriptions, which can be found carved in stone, particularly on upright monoliths (pl. stelae; sing. stela), wall panels, and benches, as well as on wooden lintels over doorways and painted on the walls of tombs and on polychrome pottery. These reveal some of the administrative structures and functions, including elite titles and mythico-religious charters, rituals, and sanctions, that maintained societal and cosmological order. But despite a high level of detail, these texts have yielded little information thus far about processes in the "political" sector, about how and why the system "works." In the succeeding chapters I describe Maya political organization as it developed and was both structured by and practiced through celebration of calendrical cycles. In advancing this argument, I bring certain biases, viewpoints, and assumptions about the Maya, which are identified here.

"Political organization," as I use the term, refers to the hierarchically structured offices (or roles) of power and authority existing within, between, and among polities and their elites, whereby decisions about internal and external relations (including those with the supernatural realm) and allocation of resources (human, material, and ideational) are made and implemented (see Kurtz 2001:22-23, 31-38). In part because the present discussion, like most of those in archaeology, has a temporal dimension, I find Roscoe's (1993) essay on political evolution and practice theory particularly illuminating. Roscoe articulates the recursive relations between, on the one hand, agency (of leaders or rulers), increasing centralization of political power, and demographic nucleation and, on the other, relations of autonomy and dependence among subordinates that are mediated by time and distance. He also departs from traditional thinking by highlighting the role of ideology and "nonmaterial circumstances" in political systems, an approach that is especially useful for my arguments about the role of calendrical cycles. The Maya represent an unusually lucid example of these complex relations among individuals, institutions, and time—or, stated differently, between practice, agency, structure, and cosmos.

I believe the Classic Maya represent a state (rather than chiefdom) level of organization and share many cross-cultural similarities with other archaic states (see Marcus 1993, 1998; Feinman and Marcus 1998), such as four-tiered (rather than three-tiered) settlement hierarchies. There is, however, little consensus on what to call individual Maya "political" units. The terms "state," "city-state," "nation," "hegemon," "kingdom," "civilization," "empire," and so on have been applied at various times, but they carry considerable theoretical baggage that intensifies confusion. One alternative term is "regional state," a spatially large and socially complex political unit having one or more major population centers (Culbert 1991a:xvii). Another is "polity" (from Latin polis), a relatively neutral designator of an autonomous sociopolitical unit. "Polity" does not translate directly into Spanish, however, and some Spanish-speaking archaeologists (Lacadena and Ciudad Ruíz 1998) have advocated use of the Maya's own term, ajawlel or ajawlil 'rule, reign' (and perhaps by extension, the territory?) of an ajaw 'lord, king'. But given the accumulating evidence that the Classic Maya had a higher-order position above an ajaw, even this term is inadequate.

The Classic Maya had a complex social organization with an elite stratum at the top. An "elite" may be defined as a "small group within the upper echelon of a society that exerts ideological, political, social, or economic power or any combination of these" (Culbert 1991a:xvii) or, more simply, as "those who run society's institutions" (Chase and Chase 1992; see also Yoffee 1991). Maya kings were divinely sanctioned and sacred; rulership was hereditary in certain royal matrilines and patrilines, or ch'ib'als (or perhaps through the naj 'house, lineage'; see Gillespie 2000b); and female as well as male rulers (i.e., "queens" as well as "kings") were recognized.

Sources for a Direct-Historical Approach: A Critical Review

Five sources of direct, historical, analogical information can be used to reconstruct Classic period lowland Maya political organization. Of these, the most direct and historical, yet enigmatic, are the Classic Maya's own writings, the hieroglyphic inscriptions. The remaining four sources—later indigenous Maya texts, Spanish ethnohistoric documents, dictionaries, and modern ethnographic accounts—are more abundant and approachable to modern readers but represent decreasing continuities with the Maya in the heartland of Classic civilization, the Department of El Petén. Discontinuities are both spatial and temporal, as these writings come from or refer primarily to the northern Yucatán peninsula or the Maya highlands and are Postclassic or later in date.

Classic Period Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

The Classic period Maya of the southern lowlands chronicled their "politics"—the internal and external accomplishments of their royal dynasties—in abundant and flamboyant, albeit cryptic, style. Maya hieroglyphic writing is a combination of systems, phonetic and logographic, with signs representing whole words and syllables. Of perhaps more than one thousand "glyphic components," three hundred to five hundred glyphs or signs were regularly used, approximately 60 percent of them now deciphered (Martin and Grube 2000:11). Recently it was suggested that Classic texts were written not in Ch'olan and/or Yukatekan Mayan, as long assumed, but in a "prestige" or "high" language called Classic Ch'olti'an, related to the now extinct Ch'olti' language of the Eastern Ch'olan Maya language family (Houston, Robertson, and Stuart 2000). This language, if in fact it existed, is thought to have originated in western and south-central Petén, and would have been used in the inscriptions and perhaps also spoken by elites and priests (Houston 2000:162).

Virtually the only surviving examples of Maya hieroglyphic texts are those inscribed and sometimes painted narratives on stelae (see Stuart 1996) and carved elements of buildings, such as stone panels, tomb walls, benches, or wooden lintels over temple doorways. Some texts appear on painted pottery, but many are the so-called Primary Standard Sequence (Coe 1978:13; Grube 1991; Reents-Budet 1994) consisting of brief pro forma statements about ownership of the vessel. No Classic period painted codices ("books" of sized bark "paper") are known to have survived.

With advances in decipherment, archaeologists are increasingly able to study Classic Maya civilization as the Maya themselves wrote about it (Stuart 1995), with the result that Maya archaeology is moving toward the subfield of historical or "text-aided" archaeology (Little 1992). Historical archaeology is a multi- and interdisciplinary endeavor in which written and material records are evaluated, one against the other, to illuminate events and circumstances of the past. But as historians and historical archaeologists have long known—and the past decade of postmodern, critical, and reflexive approaches in anthropology has emphasized—dangers abound in placing too much reliance on written records for reconstructing political organization and history. No written texts are unbiased records of historical "reality": all histories were written with a purpose and can be consciously manipulated and revised as those purposes change.

Maya monuments are sometimes considered public propaganda displays—stone billboards, in effect—proclaiming the supernatural power of divine kings. This viewpoint has been critiqued (Stuart 1996:153) with the observation that stelae often have a "strong self-referential quality" that almost approaches personification of the monument itself. But the monuments are about the rulers, and their texts record royal dynasties, royal ancestors, royal genealogies, and royal triumphs vis-à-vis kings of other cities. Quotidian matters such as internal decision making and intercourt squabbles, crop yields, pottery production quotas, corvée labor assignments, and so forth were not recorded in this way. Classic Maya inscriptions largely convey "winners' history" (Hammond 1991:2) or "heroic history" (Sahlins 1983:522) and should be interpreted with due diligence. The events they record may be little more than dynastic chest thumping or claims to fulfillment of quasi-historical prophetic mandates. Rulers could put their own rhetorical "spin" on events by commissioning texts to proclaim what they wanted present and future generations to believe about themselves and their royal dynasties. We must remain alert to the possible tyranny of the epigraphic record.

There is another danger in relying on dated, carved stelae to explore the may hypothesis, as I must do here, because key monuments may be missing from key sites (see Coggins 1970; Robertson 1972). We know that early monuments, in particular, were often moved, defaced, or buried by later occupants of the sites; in more recent times looting and other activities such as logging and agriculture have exacerbated the losses. Dates and imagery on the monuments might have been removed by the erosive forces of nature. Plain stelae might have had commemorative dates and glyphs recorded in perishable media, such as paint over stucco, rather than carved on them. In addition, some important lowland cities lack stelae entirely. However, certain elements of politico-ritual organization are mirrored in architectural and stylistic components, often shared widely throughout the lowlands.

Native Texts of the Postclassic and Colonial Periods

A direct-historical approach to Classic period lowland political organization may be effected by cautiously working backward in time from extant, indigenous texts written in the Postclassic and Colonial periods. Several kinds of documents have survived the centuries and are useful today.

One category of native Mesoamerican text is the codex. Codices are known from highland Mexico and the Maya area, date from the Postclassic and Colonial periods, and probably are, at least in part, copies of earlier versions. Providing extensive treatment of astronomical and divinatory affairs, these books "shaped practically every aspect of individual and community behavior" (Boone 1992:197). In the Maya lowlands codices were made of long strips of the beaten bark of the fig tree (Ficus cotonifolia; copo in Yukatekan Maya), sized with a lime wash and folded accordion style. Each "page" (Fig. 1.2) had hieroglyphic texts, tables, and illustrations written in black pigment, with red, blue, and other color highlights.

Sadly, only four of these codices from the Maya lowlands are known today, all dating to the Postclassic period and written primarily in Yukatekan Maya; as noted, no Classic period codices survive. The Franciscan friar Diego de Landa, writing in the sixteenth century, tells us why:

We found a large number of books in these [hieroglyphic] characters and, as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction. (Tozzer 1941:169)

Small wonder! The major book-burning episode in the northern lowlands is thought to have accompanied the Inquisition at Maní on July 12, 1562 (Tozzer 1941:77-78n340).

The surviving Maya codices are named for the places where they were found or now reside: Dresdensis (Vienna), Tro-Cortesianus or Madrid (three fragments owned by separate families in Spain), Pérez or Peresianus (Paris), and Grolier (the Grolier Club in New York). All treat "predictive astronomy," that is, tables by which to predict the astronomical events and cycles governing ritual. The dates and origins of all three are subject to debate, although prototype astronomical tables may go back to the mid-eighth century (Justeson 1989:76).

The Dresden Codex, which treats Venus, Mars, and eclipse cycles, has glyphic and iconographic associations with eastern Yucatán, especially Chich'en Itza, and Sir J. Eric S. Thompson (1972) dated it to the early thirteenth century. More recent studies (e.g., Paxton 1986) note iconographic similarities to the western Terminal Classic Puuc site of Kabah and date the Dresden to the Late Postclassic. The surviving work may be the product of eight different scribes (Sharer 1994:603).

The Madrid Codex (Bricker and Vail 1997), the longest of the codices (6.7 m, 112 pp.), has been described as being "concerned with the ritual aspects of everyday life rather than cosmic themes" (Graff 1997:167n2). Thompson thought the codex originated in western Yucatán sometime between A.D. 1250 and 1450. Victoria Bricker's (1997a:25; 1997b:180) intensive studies suggest that some sections date to A.D. 925 but point to "the one-hundred-year span between A.D. 1350 and 1450 as the most likely period" of the codex's composition. Later studies have revived Thompson's (1972) earlier suggestion that it might have come from Tayasal, the Itza capital, and date as late as the seventeenth century because of incorporated fragments of European paper (Coe and Kerr 1998:181; Schuster 1999). Stylistically, the Madrid Codex is similar to the murals of eastern coastal sites such as Tulum and Tancah (see Miller 1982).

The Paris Codex, consisting of twenty-two pages, treats the k'atun, the important Maya calendrical interval of approximately twenty years. It also depicts the constellations, or zodiac. Bruce Love (1994:13) believes the document was produced at Mayapán in northern Yucatán in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, citing iconographic parallels to that site's stelae.

The fourth surviving codex, the Grolier (Coe 1973:150-154), consists of fragments of eleven pages including part of a Venus table. The Grolier's authenticity was originally debated: although the bark paper is pre-Columbian in date, its tables add little to what is available in the Dresden, and it is sometimes considered a forgery (Sharer 1994:604; Milbrath 2002).

Other important Postclassic native documents that inform Classic Maya political organization are the so-called prophetic histories, collectively known as the books of the chilam b'alams from northern Yucatán. These books are much-reworked compilations of oral and codical traditions originally delivered by the spokesman or speaker (chilan, chilam) of the jaguar priest (b'alam) who ruled over the k'atun. An analysis of these texts in the late nineteenth century indicated that they recorded astrological and prophetic matters, medical recipes and directions, postconquest history and Christian teachings, and ancient chronology and history (Morley 1917:196, citing Brinton [1885] 1969). With respect to the last of these subjects, the books can be deemed part origin myth and part reconfigured mythocyclical histories, referring to events of the Postclassic and Colonial periods and doubtless having Classic antecedents in the codices burned by Fray Landa (Morley and Brainerd 1956:255; Thompson 1972:27). Only approximately sixteen manuscripts of the chilam b'alams have survived to modern times; many remain untranslated. They are known today by the names of the towns in which the manuscripts—none originals but rather all later copies—were found, for example, the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, of Tizimin, of Mani, Kaua, Navula, Tusik. The extant versions of nearly all these books date between 1824 and 1837 (Edmonson 1979:9).

Great care is required in reading directly from these texts to the archaeological and historical records of Postclassic and especially Classic times. The contents were committed to writing during the Colonial period by educated Maya who had been trained to write their own (Yukatekan) language, using characters of the Spanish alphabet, as part of their religious instruction. There are two sets of k'atun prophecies in these books (Roys [1933] 1967:185): an earlier one, which has more symbolic language and few references to postconquest events, and a slightly later one, which includes references to Europeans and Christianity. In addition, the language of the books of the chilam b'alams is not prose but poetry, "a highly charged and allusive language that stresses the quality of time over its factual content" (Farriss 1987:577; emphasis added). Perhaps this is because some of these books are compilations of oral dramatic performances. At the same time, Edmonson (1979:12-13) believes the richly metaphorical language may have been intentionally obfuscating to ensure that Maya traditions would remain secret from the Spanish authorities.

More significantly, these books have heavy ethnocentric loading: they are ethnopoetic charters of ethnomythic history and identity, as well as ethnic propaganda tracts for the two major elite lineages of the Postclassic northern lowlands. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Roys [1933] 1967; Edmonson 1986a), for example, is a self-aggrandizing historical chronicle of the people known as the Tutul Xiw in western Yucatán and makes repeated reference to symbolically significant defeats of their rivals, the Itza/Kokom. Similarly, The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin (Edmonson 1982) is an idealized and mythologized reconstruction of Itza/Kokom Maya history, and as such presents an accounting favorable to the Itza.

It is readily evident, then, why in the intellectual annals of Maya scholarship the credibility of the books of the chilam b'alams for reconstructing Classic Maya history has waxed and waned. Some of the reported events appear to date to the Late Classic period, and Sylvanus G. Morley, one of the great pioneers in Maya archaeology, thought there was "in fact little doubt" that the temporal cycles presented in these documents were "literal translations of Maya historical codices" (Morley and Brainerd 1956:255). Morley (1915) was aware, however, of the peculiar problem posed by the occasional failure of the k'atuns to follow in proper numerical sequence in parallel texts of different books and concluded that some were omitted and others repeated. While this casts a shadow on the chronicles' reliability as event histories, he concluded that the texts "exhibit a similarity of detail which is little short of remarkable, and it is highly indicative of their reliability that . . . [over] a period of about eleven hundred years, there is always at least one of the chronicles which carries on the sequence of the katuns unbroken" (Morley 1915:199).

Modern researchers are more skeptical. Edmonson (1982:xvi) believes these books are "essentially mythological as they relate to the Classic period" but reasonably trustworthy from the tenth century onward. His perusal of these documents led him to pose a series of provocative questions concerning what they might tell us about the Classic period, including the suggestion that Classic Maya recognized certain cities as "seats" of the may, the thirteen-k'atun, or 256-year, calendrical interval (Edmonson 1979). My reconstruction of Classic political organization here is heavily based on the books of the chilam b'alams, particularly on Edmonson's interpretation of the may as elucidated from these texts.

Native Maya literature is also known from elsewhere in the lowlands, for example, the Paxbolon Papers from the Chontal region (Scholes and Roys 1968), and from the Maya highlands, for example, the Annals of the Cakchiquels (Brinton 1969; Recinos and Goetz 1953), a history of Kaqchikel Maya speakers in the central highlands of Guatemala. The Popol Vuh (lit. "Book of the Mat"; Marcus 1992a:85), or "Council Book" (Tedlock 1985:23; 1992), is a sixteenth-century account of the origins, history, and cosmogony of the K'iche' Maya in the western highlands. There is considerable evidence that these myths and beliefs were widely shared among highland and lowland Maya from Preclassic times onward. Preclassic stelae from the Pacific coast site of Izapa, in Chiapas, Mexico, near the border with Guatemala, display scenes that closely parallel events in the Popol Vuh (Smith 1984; Kerr 1992), as do polychrome plates from the Late Classic southern lowlands of Petén (Coe 1978, 1989).

Another potential source of inferences about territorial boundaries and organization are postconquest land treaties and rare native-drawn maps. Many if not most of these documents, in the Maya area as elsewhere in the Spanish Colonial world, were prepared as justifications for native claims to particular lands and jurisdictions on the basis of prior occupation (Farriss 1987:571). Two of the known Maya maps, one in The Chilam Balam of Chumayel and the other in the Land Treaty of Maní (Fig. 1.3), are circular, showing the main town in the center and west at the top, and are divided into four quadrants with subject towns in each. According to a 1600 document, the Yukatekan term for map is pepet dz'ibil 'circular painting, drawing' (Roys [1943] 1972:184; Mundy 1998:195, 210). These representations reveal Maya concepts relating to land and space—quadripartition and boundaries of realms (Marcus 1993:126-128; see also Restall 1997:200-203).

Spanish Colonial Documents

A third category of sources on Classic Maya political organization consists of ethnohistoric documents: records of various sorts kept by Colonial Spanish administrators and priests about their observations and experiences in the northern lowlands. The first European occupants of the Yucatán peninsula struggled to gain control over the area and the Maya by both military means and heavy-handed proselytizing. Instruction in the Catholic religion was carried out principally by the Franciscan order, which established a string of missions throughout the northern peninsula (Hanson 1995; Perry and Perry 1988) and left substantial records of their activities among the Maya.

Here again, one must be cautious in reconstructing Classic affairs from these documents, which often divulge little more than what the Spaniards thought the Maya were doing. Archaeologists in the late twentieth century have emphasized the dangers of uncritically generalizing from Spanish administrators' observations about the northern lowland Maya—who had suffered conquest, religious indoctrination, massive population losses and dislocations from disease and warfare, economic servitude, and worse, all at the hands of the Spaniards—and projecting them back eight centuries or more to the southern lowland Maya of the Classic period:

The early chroniclers were unfamiliar with the ways of the native inhabitants of the New World and, thus, frequently did not understand what they were witnessing. . . . Often, European-based [sociopolitical] models—specifically those pertaining to a society such as existed in [post-]medieval Europe of the time—were applied to New World societies and indigenous forms of organization were ignored or contorted to fit a Western mindframe. . . . Ethnohistoric accounts are also generally transcribed, translated, and published . . . [which] . . . can lead to nearly imperceptible changes—such as in wording—that nevertheless can greatly alter documentary interpretation. . . . [T]he descriptions of the lowland Maya in the early European documents tended to refer to the Yucatec Maya . . . [who may not be] representative of the various other parts of the Maya realm. Finally, . . . the degree to which historical accounts have embodied ideal as opposed to real distinctions in the social order can be questioned. (Chase 1992:118-119)

An example of these problems can be seen in the most detailed and frequently used of the ethnohistoric accounts for the Maya, the 1566 Relación de las cosas de Yucatan written by Fray Diego de Landa (see Tozzer 1941 for an annotated English translation). Landa, later the second bishop of Yucatán, recorded prodigious amounts of information abut the Maya, including their daily life, religion, and calendrics and a phonetic transliteration of the Spanish alphabet into Maya glyphs. Much of his material came from two informants who were members of politically powerful rival lineages, Gaspar Antonio Chi, a Xiw from Maní, and Juan Nachi Kokom, a Kokom from Sotuta. Landa compiled his observations after he was ordered before an ecclesiastical court in Spain in 1562 to justify his harsh treatment of the Maya. Thus he might have exaggerated certain aspects of Maya culture, such as "idolatry" and human sacrifice, which the Spaniards found abhorrent, in the hope of being accorded more sympathetic treatment (Thompson 1970:457). Moreover, he was known as a plagiarist (Tozzer 1941:vii).

Despite these disturbing biases, many archaeologists and anthropologists continue to find Colonial documents useful for suggesting what the past might have been like, with full recognition that the insights they provide do not necessarily represent historical fact.


Another category of evidence about political organization, one that overlaps ethnohistory and ethnography, comes from various Maya-Spanish and Maya-English dictionaries. Some of these vocabularies were compiled in the Colonial period, most notably the late-sixteenth-century Diccionario de Motul: Maya-Español (Martínez Hernández [1585] 1929), which gives a wealth of information on Yukatekan Maya. Others date from as late as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as the compilation of previous vocabularies in the Diccionario maya cordemex: Maya-español, español-maya (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980) and the Diccionario español-maya (Solís Alcalá 1949a). Most recently, the trilingual Itzaj Maya-Spanish-English Dictionary (Hofling and Tesucún 1998) records the language of the last speakers of Itzaj Maya in San José, Petén, Guatemala.

Dictionaries offer insights into native categorizations of polities through the presence, absence, quantities, varieties, and etymologies of words that denote territorial units and decision-making personnel. Generally, the richer the vocabulary for some phenomenon in a language, the more significant that phenomenon is for its speakers. Fortunately, the Maya had a rich but little analyzed vocabulary for their polities and authority structures. In principle, the most significant or valid of these terms, from the point of view of analogical reasoning, are those recorded during the Colonial period in dictionaries and later documents such as the Relaciones de Yucatán (1898-1900). Many words survived into modern times, and some can be traced back to titles recorded in Classic period hieroglyphic inscriptions (see Roys 1957, [1943] 1972; Marcus 1993:128-130; Restall 1997:24-29). However, study of these terms in Classic period inscriptions reveals that some titles were more common in certain sites or regions, and their roles and responsibilities might have varied as well (Houston 2000:175).

Modern Ethnography

Anthropological studies of Mesoamerican peoples began in the late nineteenth century and have continued with little interruption (see Vogt 1969 for a historical summary through the mid-twentieth century). During the first half of the twentieth century, anthropologists undertook considerable ethnographic research throughout the Maya area, lowlands and highlands, and their observations have greatly illuminated the social and political institutions, as well as the daily lives, of the Maya. Relating modern political organization to that of the pre-Hispanic past poses special challenges, however. Twentieth-century Maya are separated from their Classic and Postclassic forebears by some five hundred years of religious, linguistic, economic, political, demographic, agricultural, and other disruptions imposed by the Spanish conquerors and modern national administrative structures. Beginning with the 1552 ordenanzas (ordinances) issued by the Spanish governing authority in the region, the Real Audiencia de Guatemala, the Maya, like prehistoric peoples throughout the hemisphere, were subject to the Spanish Colonial administrative policy of resettlement known as reducción, congregación, or agrupación. This policy forced the Maya to leave their small, dispersed agricultural villages and settle in larger, nucleated towns, whereby the Spaniards could better tax, catechize, and indenture them while at the same time guard against apostasy. The legacy of this alien settlement pattern can still be seen in highlands and lowlands alike.

Relatively little information is available on the geographically closest analogue to the Classic Maya, the Lacandon, in the lowland forests of Chiapas, west of Petén (McGee 1990; Borremanse 1998). Descendants of refugee groups who fled both Spaniards and hostile Maya neighbors, the Lacandon Maya have lived in near-isolation for centuries, with the result that they are the least acculturated to the modern world. This suggests that, in principle, they would provide the most appropriate analogies to their ancestors. However, the Lacandon have dwindled to a handful of families in two groups, northern and southern, and anything resembling "political organization" is virtually nonexistent: "The northern group, scattered over a large territory, lost all political or religious organization and system of leadership so long ago that they cannot remember ever having had it. The Jatate and Cedro-Lacanha groups used to have leaders and priests, but their number is now so reduced that the system has collapsed" (Duby and Blom 1969:290).

In the early twentieth century, the primary sociopolitical unit of administration throughout much of Mesoamerica was the municipio. In the highlands of Guatemala, a municipio is something like the U.S. county, each having "its own religious and political organization, its patron saint, its distinctive costume. . . . The Indian municipio undoubtedly has considerable time depth and might be a continuation of the basic societal unit of preconquest society" (Wagley 1969:55; see also Tax and Hinshaw 1969:88). Wagley's statement is of dubious veracity, however, and might represent a tendency of early ethnographers to corroborate Thompson's views (see Chap. 2; see also Becker 1979).

Throughout Colonial Mesoamerica, the Catholic religion, with its multiplicity of saints and saints' days, was easily grasped by the indigenous inhabitants and readily integrated with native calendars, patron deities, and ritual practices (e.g., Nash 1958; Bricker 1989). An important politico-religious system of the Maya highlands is the cofradía, a brotherhood charged with caring for a patron saint and arranging ceremonies according to the religious calendar. Such systems might have had ancient roots in deity cults and their priests in Mesoamerican prehistory.


All five of these sources of information about Maya political organization provide, with varying emphases, combinations, and degrees of success, analogies to reconstructions of Classic lowland Maya political relations. As discussed in the next chapter, early-twentieth-century archaeologists and anthropologists relied on all but the first, because until the 1960s little was understood of the hieroglyphic writing system beyond calendrics. But while the past decades' accelerating decipherment of glyphic texts has made it increasingly possible to read Classic period history as the Maya themselves wrote it, one consequence has been the creation of a highly fragmented and particularized reconstruction of Classic period history based on details of a few individual lords and dynastic lines at a small number of sites. It may be true that "all politics is local," to use an old cliché, but in narrowly focusing on individual trees we have been "losing sight of the forest," to paraphrase another. An integrative synthesis of Classic lowland Maya political history is sorely needed.

Maya Cosmology and Worldview

Understanding Maya cosmology broadly is an important first step in producing a synthesis of Classic lowland Maya political history, because political organization, at least in the sense the term is used here, has a spatial and territorial component. How did the Classic Maya conceptualize their world? To those trained in occidental, "rational" scientific thought, the ancient Maya worldview and cosmology seem like a baffling stew of mysticism, astrology, geomancy, and numerology, with some fairy tales, feng shui, and puppy dogs' tails tossed in for good measure. For anthropologists, however, science, religion, cosmology, and politics are all examples of different but interrelated belief systems that "work" for those who partake of them. For example, the U.S. Constitution articulates the founding fathers' belief system that included a "separation of church and state." Such separation of religious belief and political policy tends to be the exception rather than the rule, however, especially in prehistory. And so it was with the ancient Maya: their political and territorial organization was deeply interwoven with their religion and cosmology.

Ancient Maya worldview and cosmology (see, e.g., León-Portilla 1988) have been retrodicted from the sources just reviewed, in addition to similar sources from central Mexico, all of which show a great deal of agreement. The Maya, like most Mesoamerican peoples, believed that there had been numerous episodes of cosmic creation, the present one being the fourth (or fifth). The Maya cosmos had three vertical domains with multiple levels: the heavens (thirteen levels), the natural earthly world, and the Underworld (nine levels). Each level or plane was the dwelling of a particular deity, hence thirteen benign celestial gods and nine malevolent gods of the Underworld.

In all levels, the Maya cosmos was, above all, divided horizontally into four parts. According to the Popol Vuh, the highland Maya book of creation, the first act by the gods was to "set up the kan xuk kan tzuk, 'four corners, four partitions'" (Schele and Mathews 1998:345n2):

. . . the Maker, Modeler, mother-father of life
to complete the emergence of all the sky-earth:
the four-fold siding, four-fold cornering,
measuring, four-fold staking, halving the cord,
stretching the cord
in the sky, on the earth,
the four sides, the four corners.

(Tedlock 1985:72)

This quadripartite cosmovision, roughly based on the four cardinal (or intercardinal) directions, was shared throughout Mesoamerica in ancient times and modern (Gossen and Leventhal 1993). The cardinal directions were simultaneously connected to the cosmic levels, and each had multiple associations (see the "Ritual of the Four World-Quarters" in The Chilam Balam of Chumayel; Roys [1933] 1967:63-66).

However, Maya quadripartite organization of horizontal space is not strictly based on the four fixed cardinal directions recognized in the modern world. Instead, the divisions seem to invoke the solstice-equinox positions and movements of the sun as it rises on the eastern horizon and sets on the western; there is also the element of personification of the sun or Sun God as it proceeds on its journey from east to west (Brotherston 1976; Gossen 1974; Bricker 1983; B. Tedlock 1992:173-178). Among the lowland Maya, this solar basis for naming directions is evident by incorporating k'in, 'sun', into the term. East (lak'in) was associated with sunrise, birth, and the color red (chak), while West (chik'in, ochk'in) was associated with sunset, death, and the color black (ek'). By contrast, xaman (North) was associated with "up" (as in the sun at zenith), the Sun God's "right" side on his journey, heavens, the number 13, the place of ancestors, and the color white (sak). Nojol (South) was associated with "down" or the sun's nadir, the sun's "left," the Underworld, the number 9, night ("death" of the sun and its Underworld journey back to the east), and the color yellow (k'an).

A fifth "direction" is center, an axis mundi extending through all levels; metaphorically, it is a ceiba tree (the Maya "World Tree"; Ceiba pentandra, kapok tree) growing from the center of the earth and reaching up into the heavens. Center is associated with the three hearthstones of creation and with the color blue-green-turquoise (ya'ax), which is also used to represent a variety of precious substances such as water, jade, and corn.

The quadripartition of the Mesoamerican world is a common feature of prehistoric cosmologies worldwide, and the earthly domain or built world typically mimics that four-part structure (Eliade 1954; Coe 1965; Marcus 1973; Marcus, Flannery, and Spores 1983:38-39; Carlson 1981; Tichy 1981). Mesoamerican cities, architectural complexes, and individual buildings are thus often cosmograms, earthly representations of the sacred cosmic domain (Coggins 1980; Guillemin 1968; Ashmore 1989), and thus constitute sacred landscapes. Eduardo Matos Moctezuma observed that the site for the founding of a city

is always "discovered" by humans through certain symbols laden with mystic meaning, among which frequently occurs the presence of some animal. . . . As Eliade (1979:335) says: "The foundation of the new city repeats the creation of the world; indeed, once the place has been ritually validated, a fence is erected in the form of a circle or a square broken by four doors which correspond to the four cardinal directions."


In Mesoamerica and among the Maya, buildings were arranged in the four directions around plazas and towns may have been divided physically and administratively into four quarters or wards. Further, as noted previously, the few surviving Maya maps show the landscape divided into four quarters.

In addition, many Mesoamerican gods, for example, the rain gods, had four aspects or existed in groups of four, each with an associated color, direction, and augury. Maya rain or lightning gods were known as Chaks: the eastern Chak brought "red" and good rains (prevailing trade winds in Mesoamerica typically bring rainy season storms from the east); the northern Chak, "white" good rains (usually winter rains from cold fronts moving south from North America); the western Chak, "black" poor rains; and the southern Chak, "yellow" poor rains (meteorologically, rain rarely moves into the lowlands from the west or south). Each directional god aspect also had an associated priest, tree, and other elements.

The following chapters explore these concepts and additional information relating to Maya cosmology and worldview in terms of their implications for understanding political organization and process.


By Prudence M. Rice

Prudence M. Rice is Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Director of the Office of Research Development and Administration at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

"Just when you thought you had heard every possible model of Maya political organization, along comes Rice's book. Unsatisfied by "foreign" models (Mediterranean city-states, African segmentary states, Aegean peer-polities, Thai galactic polities, and Bali theater states), Rice draws on ethnohistoric, epigraphic, and archaeological data to develop a native Maya model in which the rotation of political seats of power conformed to calendar cycles of 256 years. This ambitious book is sure to provoke comments from the notoriously contentious field of Maya scholars."

—Joyce Marcus, Elman R. Service Professor of Cultural Evolution, University of Michigan

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