Ancient Maya Social Evolution

Part I of III: From farmers to divine kings and villages to cities

One of the great wonders of Classic Maya civilization is how they developed and sustained a unified political structure and ideology that covered an enormous territory (Guatemala, Belize and Southeastern Mexico) for nearly a millennia. 

In *Ancient Maya Politics: A political anthropology of the Classic Period 150-900 CE, anthropologist Simon Martin suggests that ideological mechanisms instilled a “dynamic equilibrium” within the social body that prevented the Maya from developing states or empires. Stitching together his comprehensive analysis with items from my various databases, this is my attempt to imagine and generalize their evolutionary process. 

Architecture 18 ft. across at Cuello in Belize dates from 2600 BCE. This means the site was occupied much earlier. Let’s say you were born and raised there. Your family is one of several that had cleared an area of the jungle that stayed dry through the rainy seasons. Most of your time was spent on subsistence—hunting with spears, blowguns and traps, gathering fruit and nuts and farming maize, beans and squash. 

It was well known that your grandfather was a warrior, a protector. In his youth he fought bravely when the settlement was attacked. Years later, revered as a shaman who could communicate with the gods, he became the head man. Because of your grandfather’s demonstrated success in negotiating with the gods, everyone understood that his blood was special, derived from the sun god. When he died from a snakebite your father inherited his powers.

Emboldened by this recognition, in solemn ceremony your father received his father’s paper headband, gourd-rattle and baton—a stick with the menacing face of the lightning god carved into it. Raising it to the sky, he proclaimed himself “Chief of the Headband People,” a group that numbered close to a hundred. By that time, all the settlements within a day’s walk had an identifying name and were ruled by men who claimed blood inheritance from the sun god. As anointed ones, they all wore paper headbands and carried carved batons.      

As the settlements grew to become villages with far-reaching trading partners, the quantity and variety of goods increased. Offered to chiefs as tribute to win respect and favors, were the most prized items, among them resplendent quetzal feathers, spondylus shells, jade, jaguar pelts, cotton textiles, cacao beans and stingray spines. 

Significantly, these transactions included conversations about the gods and perceptions surrounding the legitimacy and power of other chiefs. Enjoying their prosperity and elevated status, some of them consolidated power to become rulers, officially having themselves raised in grand ceremonies to the status of  ajaw, “lord.”  

Accordingly, their costumes became more elaborate incorporating symbols that supported their legitimacy to rule on every item. Private indoor rituals expanded to become grand and dramatic outdoor performances that marked calendar stations, honored patron gods, made preparations for war and witnessed status changes within the royal family. Increasingly, they received emissaries and dignitaries from distant regions, trading even scribes and craft persons—all the while growing a family, initiating and overseeing building projects. 

To manage all this, it became necessary for the lords to establish a hierarchy of authority. Members of the royal family, friends and trusted others were elevated to responsible positions, all of which came with a title. 

In the beginning of the early Preclassic (700-300 BCE), villages grew quickly. Although Tikal was just getting settled, by the end of this period, nearby Nakbe already had well-defined administrative systems in place, and one building there exceeded 65 ft. in height. As a result of agricultural successes, the lowland jungle blossomed with hundreds of villages. A monument dating to 400 BCE at El Porton in southern Guatemala, was among the first to erect a paired stela and altar showing hieroglyphs and numerals. 

In the jungle lowlands, 250 to 100 BCE, Tikal began serious urban development. El Mirador was well underway toward becoming an immense city, raising towering temples (El Tigre was over 250 ft. tall) with huge colored god-masks plastered on their flanks. Hieroglyphic writing was well underway, and lords were establishing themselves as kings with a direct line to the founder and from him to K’inich Ajaw—symbolized by being wrapped in the sak huunal, the “holy headband.” Around 100 BCE, painted murals at San Bartolo depicted the maize god and the crowning of a king with the sacred headband—to showing that the divine right to rule came from the gods. At the same time, Kaminaljuyu, a sprawling city in the southern highlands and the dominant trading power in all directions, was erecting stelae depicting gods (not yet rulers). 

Approaching the new millennium, Nakbe was abandoned. Kaminaljuyu followed soon after, then El Mirador around 200 CE. Like dominos falling and for reasons not yet known, most major centers, including  Tikal and Cerros, a once vibrant trading center in Belize, were abandoned. 

A few centuries later, lowland culture returned with kings and “Long Count” calendar dates appearing on stelae in full fluorescence. 

Emerging from the social and demographic collapse that brought an end to the Late Preclassic Period (400 BCE—150 CE), this new tradition developed its distinctive character during the transitional Protoclassic Period (150-300 CE), before spreading outward from the central southern lowlands. 

             Simon Martin, Anthropologist 

Needing to legitimize their authority to rule over expanding territory and larger populations, the lords began to assume the title k’uhul ajaw, “holy lord.” Where the dynastic founders had carved the visages of gods on the sides of their temples and stone monuments, by 250 CE the holy lords were having images of themselves carved in stone with the founders hovering over them. By signaling their continuing access to the founders, the kings shifted their identity from mediator between worlds to god-like lords in their own right. 

To secure and broadcast their sacred status far and wide, the kings adopted what scholars refer to as “emblem glyphs” that have three elements that are read phonetically: k’uhul “divine,” signified by drops of blood, ajaw, “lord,” and a variable main sign, the name of a district or polity.  For instance, the emblem glyph at Tikal citing the founder of the dynasty reads: Yax Moch Xoc Mutul k’uhul ajaw, “Yax Moch Xoc, Holy Lord of Mutul. (Yax Moch Xoc (219-239 CE) founded the dynasty, and Mutul is the ancient name of Tikal. In this case, the sign for Mutul is the knot of a headband viewed from behind. The pattern and translation of emblem glyphs led anthropologist Peter Mathews to conclude that they were mostly assertions of political autonomy. Today, wherever these glyphs are found, researchers are learning the ancient names of kings and dynasties.

Returning to our question: How did the ancients develop a culture that maintained strictly hegemonic polities and a unified religion that covered an enormous territory for nearly a millennia—without developing states or empires? Considering the foregoing, one of the  contributing factors was the widespread and commonly held belief that blood—being red and the substance of life derived from the sun god—was operative from beginning to end. 

* As a scholarly text, it assumes familiarity with Ancient Maya sites, hieroglyphic writing, monuments and social structure.


Next week we’ll consider ideology. Stay tuned. 

(Meanwhile, check out my new blog: Love And Light Greetings, a treasury of science and spirituality, quick-read quotes, perspectives, poetry, anecdotes and good news feature the words of lovers, artists, scientists, social engineers, poets and philosophers. It will inspire, inform and encourage you to meet the challenges of the day with love, perhaps also to provide empowerment to play a part in the transformation of consciousness from separation and fear to unity and love.)

Excerpt from  Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya

(Fire-eyes Jaguar and his spiritual guide prepare for an initiation journey)

WHITE GRANDFATHER HAD AN ENCLOSED SHELTER IN THE central district, built next to his temple so he could receive visitors and pilgrims through the rainy season. Year-round they came, some from great distances, to seek his counsel, request healings of ch’ulel loss or perform divinations. Many just wanted to be blessed by a holy man who carried the blood of the maize god. To receive people he replaced his three-leaf headdress with another one called “Radiance of the Sun.” Lord K’in’s large square eyes, blunt nose, and shark’s tooth would have looked menacing atop his head, but in keeping with his vow to only wear white, he painted the mask white and used cormorant rather than quetzal feathers to show the radiance streaming out. When Hummingbird let the headdress down on a cord that hung from a roof beam and began tying the straps under his chin, he stood still and closed his eyes. When he opened them he turned to me. “Grandson,” he said. “Will you tell us your dream?”

      “With respect Grandfather,” I said approaching. “I would but I do not remember if I dreamed at all.”

      While Hummingbird fixed his feathers, he pointed to a bench and I sat. “The ancestors speak to us in dreams,” he said. “When you rest your head at night, ask them to give you the memory of your dreams. Every morning, upon rising, we will ask to hear them—so we can tell you what they mean. It will help you along your path.”

      Hummingbird had his ear ornaments ready, so he turned and she inserted the florets into his drooping earlobes. At the doorway, he took up his serpent staff and turned back to me. “We will begin your trials when the monkeys in your head become silent and when the butterflies in your heart stop fluttering. Meanwhile, go south and hunt the spotted wood-quail.”

      He knew I was good with a sling. “The one with the neck crest, red breast, and white spots?”

      “Listen for the rolly-rolly call. Say your apology and gratitude to the quail lord and take only one. Hummingbird will prepare it.”

      Beyond the doorway outside, White Grandfather’s devotee, a man called Follows The Jaguar, was waiting. Follows only had one hand. Seeing his master, he showed respect by bowing and pressing his stump to his shoulder as he passed. Follows always stayed six to ten paces behind White Grandfather. Whenever his master was going to be seen by commoners, Follows walked behind him holding up a plaque that carried the painted face of a jaguar on it. So it went for twelve mornings.

      Evenings, White Grandfather told me about the making of the fourth world—how the Makers and Modelers raised the sky from the dark sea and fashioned human beings from maize dough. On the morning of the thirteenth day, I found the courage to say the monkeys and butterflies had quieted and I was ready for his trials.

      Without looking up from the hearth he asked what I thought about having ancient—hot—blood. It was a trick. “Ancient blood is a great privilege,” I said. He nodded, went to the doorway, took up his staff and went his way with Follows.

      So it went for another three mornings. I kept changing my answer but it made no difference. On the next day, when his eyes were closed and Hummingbird stood in front of him presenting his headdress, I went outside and asked Follows what I was doing wrong. His only advice was that I speak the truth. I went back inside, and when I was asked about my blood again I said I thought the ancestors made a mistake. White Grandfather sat, so I continued. “My blood is Rabbit, grandfather. It may have been Macaw when I touched the earth, but I grew up a Rabbit. In my heart I know I will find my destiny at the men’s house, not the Lodge of Nobles.”

      White Grandfather nodded and got up. “We will need three birds,” he said. He turned to Hummingbird and told her that, because we would be going to Axehandle after dark, she should cook, cut and salt the meat as soon as I bring it in.

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