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Ancient Maya Commoners

Ancient Maya Commoners

This pathfinding book marshals a wide array of archaeological, ethnohistorical, and ethnographic evidence to offer the fullest understanding to date of the lifeways of ancient Maya commoners.

November 2004
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311 pages | 6 x 9 | 55 figures, 7 tables |

Much of what we currently know about the ancient Maya concerns the activities of the elites who ruled the societies and left records of their deeds carved on the monumental buildings and sculptures that remain as silent testimony to their power and status. But what do we know of the common folk who labored to build the temple complexes and palaces and grew the food that fed all of Maya society?

This pathfinding book marshals a wide array of archaeological, ethnohistorical, and ethnographic evidence to offer the fullest understanding to date of the lifeways of ancient Maya commoners. Senior and emerging scholars contribute case studies that examine such aspects of commoner life as settlement patterns, household organization, and subsistence practices. Their reports cover most of the Maya area and the entire time span from Preclassic to Postclassic. This broad range of data helps resolve Maya commoners from a faceless mass into individual actors who successfully adapted to their social environment and who also held primary responsibility for producing the food and many other goods on which the whole Maya society depended.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Examining Ancient Maya Commoners Anew (Jon C. Lohse and Fred Valdez, Jr.)
  • 2. Daily Life in a Highland Maya Community: Zinacantan in Mid-Twentieth Century (Evon Z. Vogt)
  • 3. The Role of Pottery and Food Consumption among Late Preclassic Maya Commoners at Lamanai, Belize (Terry G. Powis)
  • 4. Of Salt and Water: Ancient Commoners on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala (Bárbara Arroyo)
  • 5. Down on the Farm: Classic Maya "Homesteads" as "Farmsteads" (Nicholas Dunning)
  • 6. Intra-Site Settlement Signatures and Implications for Late Classic Maya Commoner Organization at Dos Hombres, Belize (Jon C. Lohse)
  • 7. Heterogeneous Hinterlands: The Social and Political Organization of Commoner Settlements near Xunantunich, Belize (Jason Yaeger and Cynthia Robin)
  • 8. The Spatial Mobility of Non-Elite Populations in Classic Maya Society and Its Political Implications (Takeshi Inomata)
  • 9. Commoners in Postclassic Maya Society: Social versus Economic Class Constructs (Marilyn A. Masson and Carlos Peraza Lope)
  • 10. Methods for Understanding Classic Maya Commoners: Structure Function, Energetics, and More (Nancy Gonlin)
  • 11. Maya Commoners: The Stereotype and the Reality (Joyce Marcus)
  • Contributors
  • Index

Jon C. Lohse, a Research Associate at the University of Texas at Austin, is Principal Investigator of the Blue Creek Regional Political Ecology Project in northwestern Belize. Fred Valdez, Jr., is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He coordinates multidisciplinary research in northwestern Belize as Director of the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project.


Studies of ancient complex societies are often charged with answering basic questions such as how such civilizations came about, how they adapted specialized strategies allowing them to contend with widely diverse environments, and why they ceased to exist. Archaeologists necessarily rely on theoretical models, sometimes using ethnographically or ethnohistorically based bridging arguments to provide humanistic explanations for these complex and dynamic processes. These accounts determine to a very large degree how social scientists and, ultimately, the general public come to understand ancient societies and the roles different people played in them.

An array of frameworks, approaches, and perspectives have been employed through the years to address questions such as these, particularly in the case of the prehistoric Maya of Central America, though the majority of these frameworks have tended to focus on the behavior of only a small segment of society. Highlighted individuals, many of whom are known to us by name thanks to advances in epigraphy, were community and polity leaders whose actions are perceived as influencing the course of culture history. Most people today are, quite understandably, comfortable with this picture; it accords well with the model of our own society. However, while the point that such individuals long ago played central roles seems beyond question, we suggest that much Maya scholarship traditionally has failed to account for the vast majority of historic and prehistoric populations.

It is our immediate goal to bring attention to the rich diversity that characterized social non-elites in Maya society. Looking into the future, we hope to encourage a thoughtful reconsideration of both the overt theoretical perspectives and implicit assumptions applied to the study of prehistoric elites and commoners alike. The most important theme underlying our approach, a theme that is reiterated throughout many of the chapters in this volume, involves examining commoners on their terms, according to the roles they did play in providing the economic base for the social, political, and ideological institutions in ancient Mesoamerica. This view is indispensable to the study of ancient civilizations such as the Maya, for, as has been noted by many, commoners "allowed the specialized division of labor that led to writing, metallurgy, monumental architecture, cities, and the great religious and artistic traditions we associate with civilization" (Peoples and Bailey 1997:146-147).

Seeing Ancient Maya Commoners

Even though individuals of non-elite status constituted anywhere between 80 and 98 percent of the population in pre-Columbian times, our perception and understanding of commoners are frequently based on comparisons with elites, in terms of both material well-being and behaviors undertaken in broader social contexts. Recently, Rosemary Joyce (1994:182) succinctly characterized some distinctions between commoners and elites: "Thus, the elite become those who use imported or elaborate goods, consume more of these goods in life (as seen in middens) and death (as seen in burials), draw on greater energy for the construction of their living sites, and have less evidence of malnutrition or poor health" (emphasis added). Focusing on what elites do (and by implication what commoners do not do), Arlen Chase and Diane Chase (1992:3) identify elites simply as "those who run society's institutions." Perspectives such as these, perfectly valid and with deep roots in Western anthropology, reflect something of an imbalance in the ways commoners of the past are approached, or not, in archaeology.

Qualities ascribed to the non-elite are often defined in reference to those displayed by paramount status holders in society. Archaeologists frequently see commoners as "small" (versus larger-than-life rulers often glorified on stone monuments), "impoverished" (when compared to elaborate palaces and grave offerings of the high and mighty), "unempowered" (in the face of elite decisions on most weighty social matters), and "anonymous" (in that none are known to us by name or individual deed). In her summary chapter to this volume, Joyce Marcus evaluates some additional stereotypes of commoners. Throughout the history of anthropology, commoners have been variously characterized as faceless, internally homogeneous, and relatively inert in terms of their impacts on cultural development and processes. Karl Marx (1971:230), for example, egregiously described the constituency of the nineteenth-century French countryside as "a smallholding, a peasant and his family; alongside them another smallholding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes." While acknowledging that both the perceived quality and quantity of archaeological remains often favor investigations of social elites, we argue that these material biases, together with the weight of theoretical perspectives that traditionally lend understanding to the strategies and rationales of society's rulers, have resulted in incomplete, unbalanced, and, frankly, inaccurate views of the past. To paraphrase Eric Wolf (1982), in most realms of Maya scholarship, commoners remain the people without history.

The challenge, simply put, is to view the actions of elites and non-elites alike through the same lens of understanding, and to recognize the ways common-status individuals and family groups might have participated in social institutions. In this effort, relying on any single theoretical perspective will not suffice; problems with "seeing" commoners in the past (cf. Dunning, this volume) crosscut all avenues of archaeological study: how we see them as initiating economic production or agricultural intensification, expressing individual agency, participating by different means in shared religious beliefs, and, collectively, affecting the course of historical change. Our point is that (and to paraphrase another eminent scholar) until archaeologists "see" ancient Maya commoners as people who at least sometimes had the ability and will to live their lives as they chose, they will remain "faceless blobs" (Tringham 1991:94) in our reconstructions of prehistory.

In charting an approach for investigating ancient Maya commoners, the authors of chapters in this volume ascribe two key components to the behavior of non-elites in complex societies. First, commoners are viewed as adapters to their social environments, responding to economic, political, and ideological pressures exerted on them by others. Second, they are seen as primarily responsible for engaging their surrounding biophysical environments for the production of food and many other goods. Several of the following chapters illustrate these themes, either singularly or in combination, while others highlight problems with archaeologists' ability to accurately distinguish between elites and commoners in the archaeological record, an important task when one begins ascribing social roles to one segment over another (Chase 1996:219). In sum, though, the studies presented herein offer a broad cross section of theoretical and methodological issues in the study of Maya commoners, and illustrate the potential contributions of commoner studies to our understanding of pre-Hispanic society.

Recognizing Ancient Maya Commoners

Several approaches lend themselves to recognizing and examining commoners in the archaeological record (Sharer 1993). These include the use of material remains recovered through archaeological investigations (Buttles 2002), ethnohistoric accounts of Contact period Maya (and Mesoamerican) society (see Marcus, this volume, for a detailed discussion of Maya terms used to refer to various social positions), and ethnographic explanations of the organization of modern communities (see Vogt, this volume). Many of the chapters in this collection discuss theoretical and procedural issues concerning the material record of ancient commoners.

Use of the archaeological record remains perhaps the most commonly used method for identifying ancient Maya socioeconomic units; indeed, Robert Sharer (1993:91) has argued that "the delineation of the social organization of the Classic Maya is fundamentally an archaeological problem." Many of the chapters in the important volume Mesoamerican Elites (D. Chase and A. Chase 1992) illustrate attempts to discern the "haves" from the "have nots" in the archaeological record by using evidence such as associated architecture, ritual paraphernalia, residential location, burial elaboration, and domestic material remains.

Although palace complexes found in site centers can easily be associated with elite occupation, and the "humble" mounds found by the scores in site peripheries suggest commoner abodes (Webster and Gonlin 1988), identifying the point in archaeological space where these two social units meet but do not overlap is no easy matter (see chapters by Masson and Peraza and Marcus, this volume). For example, as Terry Powis demonstrates for the Terminal Preclassic at Lamanai, local and regional trends in ceramic styles may vary geographically and through time. Moreover, domestic architecture found outside site centers varies widely in elaboration, supporting arguments for a "rural elite" (Adams and Smith 1981). Vagaries such as these have led some (Carmean 1991:163; Palka 1997:303) to suggest socioeconomic continuums on the basis of material remains. At the site of Caracol, tomb volume has been used to argue for the presence of a middle class (A. Chase 1992:40). Partial support for this argument is derived from the ethnohistoric term azmen uinic, which refers to "middle" or "medium men" (D. Chase 1992:121; cf. Roys 1943). Dialogue around the nature of class structure in ancient Maya society (A. Chase 1992:37; D. Chase 1992:121; Marcus 1983, 1992:221, this volume) holds implications for the study of ancient Maya commoners and for our ability to differentiate between high-status commoners and low-status elites.

We add to the arguments made by those such as Kenneth Hirth (1993:143), Michael Smith (1987:327), Barbara Stark and Barbara Hall (1993:252), and Marilyn Masson, Nancy Gonlin, and Joyce Marcus (this volume) in concluding that in instances where precise determinations between elite and commoner are unclear, multiple lines of material evidence must be used concurrently to assess differences between ancient Maya social strata. The value of this approach is not to compile some checklist of attributes that allows archaeologists to identify one segment over another, but to gain a more robust understanding of how social activities and behaviors were conditioned as a result of hereditary and institutionalized social inequality.

In truth, qualities of eliteness and non-eliteness were both forged and expressed in local, perhaps community settings that involved situationally negotiated expressions of wealth and power. It is unlikely, for example, that rulers at Tikal had any direct effect on most aspects of daily commoner life at Dos Hombres, Copán, or Sayil. These communities maintained their own unique systems of local economic production while also participating somewhat differently in regional trade and exchange systems, meaning that the specific material inventories available to people in the past for expressing their social standing varied from one end of the Maya world to the other. Further confounding the problem of recognizing commoners based on material means is that strategies for displaying or not displaying material standing and for expressing concepts of "value" and "importance" also are likely to have varied from one community and social context to another based on long-lived and deeply rooted local traditions and customs. These factors mean that in cases where it is difficult to separate out high-ranking commoners from low-ranking elites, distinctions must derive from case-by-case studies that allow archaeologists to recognize localized strategies employed for expressing social position, rather than rely on previously defined or generalized notions of "commoner" and "elite." This point makes community-focused research programs perhaps the key avenue for future studies of ancient Maya commoners (see Yaeger and Canuto 2000).

In addition to archaeology and ethnohistory, ethnographic studies have contributed significantly to the study of pre-Hispanic commoners in at least two key areas. First, descriptions of contemporary social structure offer another basis for modeling the Preclassic and Classic Maya. Work by scholars such as George Collier (1975), Charles Wisdom (1940), Sol Tax (1937), Robert Hill and John Monaghan (1987), Brian Hayden and Aubrey Cannon (1982), Evon Vogt (1969, this volume), and others has helped increase our awareness of multi-household corporate groups as focal units of social organization (see Dunning, this volume). These groups have been shown in agrarian societies to control access to important local resources; may have represented loci of intermediate political, economic, and religious administration (McAnany 1995); and perhaps even took precedence over class-endogamous socioeconomic distinctions as a basis for social differentiation in emergent complex societies (Joyce 1999).

Second, ethnographic accounts and ethnoarchaeology have proven extremely useful in elucidating many otherwise enigmatic aspects of ancient Maya lifeways. These have included the organization of both household (Hanks 1990; Vogt 1976, this volume) and community-wide (Cancian 1965) ritual behavior according to cosmological and calendric principles (Gossen 1986); recognizing the potential effects of economic, environmental, and ethnic factors on domestic architecture (M. Blake 1988; S. Blake 1988; Wilk 1983, 1988); and the use of an array of ritual paraphernalia, including pottery and household altars (Deal 1987, 1988, 1998).

Unfortunately for archaeologists, contemporary Maya society is far removed from that of pre-Hispanic times. The transformation from complex agrarian societies through the Spanish Conquest to modern nation-states has, without doubt, wrought tremendous change on nearly all facets of Maya culture. However, when used with caution, ethnographic accounts and perspectives can be particularly well suited to adding flesh to the bones of our archaeological understanding of ancient Maya commoners.

Approaches to the Study of Commoners

A number of archaeological approaches, some of which are discussed below and are highlighted in the following chapters (particularly those by Gonlin and Marcus), have been applied to the study of ancient Maya commoners. Taken individually, each of these approaches has the capacity to enhance our understanding of the local adaptations that constituted the economic foundation for pre-Columbian communities across the Maya region. However, our best view of Maya commoners and the social orders in which they were integral parts is likely to come about through research designs that simultaneously employ multiple perspectives.

Settlement Studies

Settlement pattern studies, which examine the "disposition of ancient remains across the landscape" (Ashmore and Willey 1981:3), represent perhaps the most frequently applied line of inquiry into Maya commoners. While such work (Bullard 1960, 1964; Eaton 1975; Haviland 1965; Kurjack 1974; Michels 1979; Puleston 1973; Sanders 1955; Smith 1962, 1972; Tourtellot 1988a; Vogt 1961; Willey et al. 1965; also see Marcus, this volume) had been conducted long before the publication of Lowland Maya Settlement Patterns (Ashmore 1981), that landmark volume firmly established settlement studies as an important focus of comprehensive research designs across the Maya area.

Influenced in part by work and ideas from outside the Maya area (Chang 1958, 1968; Phillips et al. 1951; Steward 1949, 1955; Trigger 1967; Willey 1953, 1956; and others), Maya settlement archaeology has and remains today focused principally on two issues. As Wendy Ashmore and Gordon Willey (1981:4) note, these include: "(1) those concerning people in their relationships to their natural ambience (ecological); and (2) those concerning people in their relationships to other people (social and political)." Such themes clearly are integral to our framework for the study of commoners, and they are highlighted in chapters by Nicholas Dunning, Jon Lohse, Jason Yaeger and Cynthia Robin, and Takeshi Inomata, which view the responses of commoners at both community and regional levels to differing conditions of available natural resources and political strategies for marshalling populations as bases of support.

Household Archaeology

Another line of inquiry well suited to the examination of commoners is household archaeology. While early accounts (Smith 1962; Thompson 1892; Wauchope 1934, 1940) described the arrangements of house mounds and their assemblages, the shift to an activity-based definition of household (Ashmore and Wilk 1988; Netting et al. 1984; Wilk and Rathje 1982) has allowed Mayanists to define, or at least hypothesize, discrete social units for comparative purposes (Inomata and Stiver 1999; Manzanilla and Barba 1990; Sheets et al. 1990; Webster and Gonlin 1988; Webster et al. 1997). These studies frequently involve commoner assemblages and have helped us examine different growth cycles of domestic groups (Haviland 1988; Tourtellot 1988b; Yaeger and Robin, this volume), compare status differences (Carmean 1991; Hendon 1991; Palka 1997; Smith 1987), and understand the use of space surrounding domestic units (Gonlin, this volume; Killion et al. 1989; Manzanilla 1987; Robin 2002).

Additional topics have been raised more recently pertaining to households that hold special promise to inform us about commoner behavior and organization. These include the symbolic meaning of domestic architecture (Johnston and Gonlin 1998:144-150; Robin 1999) and house-lots (Lohse 2000), and the effects of status and gender on power and the division of labor within households (Hendon 1996, 1997; Sweely 1999; Trachman 2003). The identification of the same cosmological principles expressed in commoner domestic caches, architecture, and house-lots (Lohse 2000; Mathews and Garber n.d.; Robin 1999) as found in monumental site plans (Ashmore 1986, 1991) and elite residences (Webster et al. 1998) may require us to reconsider our models explaining the accessibility to ritual knowledge by all socioeconomic segments of Maya society (DeMarrais et al. 1996; Earle 1997). And examining the intra-household tensions that revolve around status and gender roles might represent our best opportunity to penetrate the "black box" (Wilk 1989) of household decision-making processes.

Subsistence Economy

In addition to settlement and household studies, the broadly encompassing field of subsistence economy (Flannery 1982; Pohl 1985) also holds great potential for increasing our understanding of ancient Maya commoners. As the component of society that articulated directly with the natural environment, commoners were responsible for fulfilling many of the food requirements for themselves, full-time craft specialists, and the ruling elite. Accordingly, it may be argued that cultivation techniques and agricultural systems (Lohse, Dunning, this volume) as well as other food-procurement or -production strategies (Miksicek 1991; Powis et al. 1999; Wing and Scudder 1991) were largely, if not exclusively, in the domain of commoners (see Marcus, this volume, for more discussion on sociopolitical aspects of food production).

The environment of the Maya lowlands has been described as a patchwork "mosaic" of resources (Fedick 1996; Graham 1987). This means that agricultural variables such as water availability, soil type, and slope can vary drastically from region to region or within a region (Dunning 1992; Dunning et al. 1997; Fedick 1989). Dunning (1996), however, has warned against predicting agricultural technologies for one region based solely on its geomorphic similarities to another. That is to say, not all wetlands underwent ditching or saw the construction of raised planting platforms, and not all hilly environs were terraced. Furthermore, the demands for food changed through time as populations approached, exceeded, and then returned below regional carrying capacities for swidden agriculture from the Preclassic through the Postclassic periods (see papers in Culbert and Rice 1990). Intensifying food production (Boserup 1965; Turner 1974; Wilken 1971) would therefore have required adaptive responses within highly variable geographic, temporal, sociopolitical, and demographic parameters (see Lentz 2000). Successful strategies for producing and procuring food would most likely have been those that were flexible and that could be implemented at various levels of social organization, from the independent farming household upward (Dunning, this volume).

In addition to cultigen production, a range of other foodstuffs should be included when piecing together the ancient Maya subsistence base. David Lentz (1991), for example, reconstructed elements of the diet at Copán based on paleoethnobotanical remains, including evidence for arboriculture. Paul Healy et al. (1990) have demonstrated the importance of fresh-water mollusks in the Maya diet in the Belize River valley. Nancy Hamblin (1984) presented evidence for the exploitation of both terrestrial and aquatic animals by the pre-Hispanic Maya of Cozumel Island. These studies serve only as examples of the diversity of subsistence resources available to the ancient Maya; numerous others have been conducted but are not mentioned here. Each resource would necessarily have involved its own unique technology and ideal labor arrangement for exploitation, all greatly affecting the complexity of daily commoner life.

While exploitation of the natural environment represents one of the roles of ancient commoners, there is also evidence suggesting the important effects of status differences on subsistence practices. William Folan et al. (1979) documented the patterned occurrence of trees useful for fruit, fiber, bark, and resin at the site of Cobá. These patterns were positively correlated with vaulted architecture at that site, suggesting that social groups of higher status may have controlled access to at least some economically valuable species. Leslie Shaw (1991) examined access to different fauna as an indication of status during the Preclassic period at the site of Colha. Focusing on changes in social complexity during this time period allowed her to document "modifications in the social aspect of food procurement and distribution, including exchange relationships" (Shaw 1991:x), and to argue that households of higher status were increasingly able to procure food through indirect means such as exchange or tribute.

Reconstructing the wide array of ancient Maya subsistence practices remains crucial to understanding how population growth and increasing social complexity were sustained, as well as what were the potential causes for the collapse of cultural systems. Given that Maya populations comprised a high percentage of commoners, better understanding subsistence economies seems particularly important to achieving a clearer view of the roles of non-elites and how these varied across time and space in the pre-Columbian Maya world. However, as Willey (1978:334) predicted when he stated that "working the sequence out is going to be very difficult and something that will be with us for a long time," our advances in this field may be in excruciatingly small steps.

Remainder of the Volume

The chapters in this volume all reflect some aspect of the issues discussed above. Though our coverage of the Maya area (Figure 1.1) is incomplete for all time periods, with much of the data presented here coming from the southern lowlands, it is beyond our space limitations here to pursue the needed in-depth, region-specific examinations of the roles of commoners and of how these changed through time. With respect to the chapter by Evon Z. Vogt, we feel that although this study deals with daily Zinacanteco life of the mid-1900s rather than the archaeological past, the contributions of ethnographers, particularly those of the Harvard Chiapas Project, to archaeologists' understanding of the Maya (both past and present) cannot be underestimated. It is our hope that the inclusion of Vogt's chapter here will serve not only to encourage readers to question how such aspects of daily life as he reports might appear in the archaeological record, but also to acknowledge the importance and long-lasting contributions of those pioneering ethnographies to Maya studies.

Most of the chapters that follow focus primarily on presenting data cases from sites or regions of the Maya area. These include those by Terry Powis, Bárbara Arroyo, Nicholas Dunning, Takeshi Inomata, Jon Lohse, Marilyn Masson and Carlos Peraza, and Jason Yeager and Cynthia Robin. These authors pursue different tracks to understanding commoners that result in a more comprehensive presentation of potential issues archaeologists considering commoners elsewhere might face. It should be noted that not all the authors of this volume concur with positions adopted in other chapters. For example, both two- and three-class models for the organization of Maya society receive support in this volume, from Joyce Marcus and Marilyn Masson and Carlos Peraza, respectively. Masson and Peraza's chapter, in particular, places commoners in the Mesoamerican-wide mercantile system of the Postclassic and recognizes the opportunity for upwardly mobile traders and merchants to occupy the often-problematic middle stratum. Additionally, Inomata's chapter evaluates the residential mobility of commoners, but from the perspective of elite strategies for power building rather than from the archaeological record of commoners. However, we see these moderate divergences in approaches and viewpoints as one of the strengths of this volume, as they underscore the diversity of ancient Maya life and also highlight the multiplicity of perspectives capable of enhancing our understanding of social non-elites.

The final two chapters, by Nancy Gonlin and Joyce Marcus, complement each other well by discussing a host of issues to be considered as archaeologists undertake more systematic and comprehensive examinations of non-elites. Each chapter discusses relevant units of analysis, often blending ethnohistoric accounts with archaeological data from settlement and household studies in a manner that results in a more complete view of the past than can be compiled by either data set alone.

In summary, the chapters of this volume offer an array of approaches to the study of ancient Maya commoners, and together demonstrate the diversity of this important segment of society. It is clear that we can no longer neglect the inclusion of non-elites in our accounts of the past nor fail to integrate their roles and contributions into our frameworks for analyzing social complexity. The plea is often heard that the non-elite segment of society receives inadequate attention from archaeologists; the challenge from this point onward is to expand our perspectives beyond either top-down or bottom-up approaches to understanding the ancient Maya, and to undertake more complete and inclusive narratives that include the actions and behaviors of commoners and elite alike.



“This is a landmark volume that begins to fill a longstanding and critical gap in our understanding of the ancient Maya. . . . [It] will serve as an essential work for students and professional scholars alike to begin to correct the prevalent emphasis on the elite Maya.”
Robert J. Sharer, Shoemaker Professor of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania


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