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The Maya of Southern Belize lived in a society based on inequality, says a recent archaeological study

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2021. 12:47 pm CST.

By Rubén Morales Iglesias: A study on the Mayan civilization in Southern Belize published recently in Plos One says what we knew all the time, that for the Maya to have built such big temples and pyramids, they had to have a had a few very strong leaders who were more than likely autocratic and who controlled the rest of their cities and communities.

Who do you think built the pyramids, the temples spread out across Latin America from Mexico to Perú?

Even today, we don’t see world leaders like presidents, prime ministers and ministers of government personally constructing the big buildings in all of our countries. They order and delegate and depending on their style of government, they have different ways of leading and/or controlling the masses. In the case of the Maya Civilization, it was no different. While some of their societies were autocratic, others were egalitarian.

The question is how they did it, and the study by archaeologists Amy Thompson, Gary Feinman, and Keith Prufer sheds more light on how it all happened. Through excavation and the use of scientific data, the archaeologists who have been working in former Mayan communities of Ix Kuku’il and Uxbenká to the east of Lubantuum in Southern Belize found out that the few leaders lived in bigger houses and controlled the poorer class in an autocratic manner.

“Inequality is universal in human societies but its degree and the ways it manifests vary across time, space, and the scale of interpersonal networks and institutions. Even in single regional and societal settings, degrees of inequity are highly variable with changing circumstances and contexts,” says the study.

The study says that the degrees of wealth inequality at Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il, referred to as ‘two Classic Maya centers in the southeastern periphery of the Classic Maya (250–900 CE) region” were comparable to those in the Classic Maya heartland.

It shows that the elite held the wealth and power, controlling access to trade, and therefore the modes of governance. It goes on to says that the control of trade fostered the maintenance of power by autocratic means. The study reveals that this mode of inequality differed from the “degrees of wealth inequality and governance documented in the highlands of prehispanic Mesoamerica during the Classic period, including Central Mexico and Oaxaca, where governance was more collective and financed to a greater degree from local sources.”

The study shows that despite the fact that the Rio Blanco valley, in which the neighbouring Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il, being rural communities in the Rio Blanco watershed of Southern Belize, were at a distance from larger and more populated cities such as Tikal, Calakmul, and Caracol, in the heartland of the Maya region but carried on trade with Tikal and El Perú in the Central Petén, Cahal Pech in western Belize, and Copan in Honduras and Quirigua in Guatemala.

The study looked at the structures of the households giving consideration to the size of construction, types of materials, and architectural elaborations in the different neighbourhoods of the Maya living in Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il during the Classic period and was able to differentiate what the richer folks had over the poorer class and the trade routes they held with faraway cities.

The researchers noted in their study that: “This research would not have been possible without the support and collaboration of the people and leadership of the Mopan Maya communities of Santa Cruz (Uxbenká) and San Jose (Ix Kuku’il), and respectively the Uxbenká Kin Ajaw Association (UKAA) and the Green Creek Farmer’s Cooperative.”


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