Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans Research Paper

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The Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans are considered to have developed the most complex civilizations in Latin America during pre-Columbian times. They were not the only complex civilizations in this region, generally called Nuclear America (the area of most complex civilizationsin pre-Columbian America), nor were they the first.

Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans Research Paper

Nonetheless, the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans have been primary subjects of intense archaeological,ethnohistoric, ethnographic, and art historical research—and many controversial issues have surrounded each of them. These issues, for example, have ranged from the extent of Aztec human sacrifice, to the meaning of historical kingships among the Inca, to the causes of the ancient Mayan collapse. While some of these issues are unique to one group, others are shared; taken together, a look at all three of these civilizations highlights these commonalities. Common issues include matters such as their rise to statehood, their styles of political integration, the role of ethnicity, the role of ideology in political and social change, and the nature of writing in each civilization. Similarly, methodological issues have arisen in the investigation of all three groups, especially in terms of the integration of. archaeological, ethnohistorical, epigraphic, and ethnographic research.



The Aztecs were the last of the great civilizations to emerge in Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian times. Their precocious predecessors had developed intensive agricultural techniques, planned urban settlements, successful styles of statecraft, vast commercial networks, social hierarchies, warfare, and polytheistic religions with intense theatrical ceremonies. A hybrid culture, the Aztecs (or Mexica) were originally one of many nomadic groups that migrated south from the northern Mexican deserts from at least the 12th century CE; they settled in the Basin of Mexico and rapidly acquired the cultural attributes of the local peoples. In the year 1325 they established their city of Tenochtitlan, and by 1430 they had become sufficiently powerful to gain dominance within the Basin by forming an important military alliance with two neighboring citystates. They spent the next 90 years forging a conquest empire extending throughout much of central and into southern Mexico. Their political and military dominance abruptly terminated with the Spanish conquest in 1521.

Theoretical Issues

Complexity, City-States, and Urbanism

As victims of the theory of unilineal evolution, the Aztecs were denied the status of “civilization” until well into the 20th century. Lacking iron tools and alphabetic writing, they were considered “barbarians” at a tribal level of social complexity, and their empire was viewed as a confederacy of tribes. However, by the mid-20th century, scholars were well on the way to revising this view, recognizing that Aztec life was highly specialized, intensely hierarchical, politically centralized, and religiously complex (Bernal, 1980, pp. 143–144). This view has since been consistently reflected in a number of ethnographic-style studies of the Aztecs (e.g., Berdan, 2005; Clendinnen, 1991) as well as works with a greater emphasis on art history (e.g., Townsend, 2000) and archaeology (e.g., Smith, 2003).

However, this did not mean that the debates about Aztec social complexity were over; they simply became more refined and focused. As documentary evidence was amassed to support a caste-like view of Aztec social and political hierarchies (especially toward the end of the empire’s history), archaeological research cast a somewhat different light on the noble-commoner chasm. For instance, research in commoner settings in Morelos (just to the south of the Basin of Mexico) has revealed that commoners were perhaps not so desperately separated from their elite overlords. Indeed, remains of material goods (such as fine polychrome ceramics and bronze goods) previously thought to be restricted to nobles have been found in commoner dwellings (Smith, 2003, p. 136). Commoners’ access to a wide range of imported goods along with documentary evidence for extensive market activity suggests some material affluence and a strong commercial economy, balancing the view of a more politically controlled economy (D. Carrasco, 1999). Both perspectives are essential to an understanding of overall imperial dynamics, and—although it is clear that rulers and nobles set themselves visually and effectively above the remainder of the population—questions of the degree of the noble-commoner division, and the extent and potency of the political power of the Aztec elite, continue to be debated.

Decades of intense settlement pattern surveys have contributed to a better understanding of the spatial arrangements of Aztec communities (Sanders, Parsons, & Santley, 1979; Nichols, 2004). Historical sources clarify that there were a large number (50 or so) of city-states in the Basin of Mexico alone (Gibson, 1964; Lockhart, 1992). These were distinct territorial and political units consisting of a main settlement and surrounding related communities, often small hamlets. Each city-state boasted its own dynastic ruler, founding legend, patron deity, and market, and often an economic specialization and primary ethnicity. Unless conquered by some more powerful city-state, city-states were politically autonomous. Recognizing these city-states as the essential building blocks of Aztec political structures, a particularly important focus of research has been delineating the boundaries of these units and unraveling their internal and external relations (Hodge, 1994). One significant finding allows the linkage among settlements within a city-state as based more on social and political obligations than on strict geography—city-state boundaries were not always territorially neat, but were often based on historical relationships that superceded geographic contiguity.

The mid-1900s saw a shift in emphasis from questions about the formation of states, urbanism, and the development of social stratification to questions about the lives of Aztecs in rural settings. George Vaillant’s partial excavation of a noble palace was the extent of Aztec household excavations up until the groundbreaking Basin of Mexico regional settlement pattern survey (Sanders et al., 1979). More recently, excavations by Michael E. Smith (2003, 2008) in Morelos have tackled a range of lifestyles, from commoner houses to noble dwellings; these studies provide valuable insights into matters of social stratification, standards of living, and the effect of imperial conquest on provincial inhabitants.

Tenochtitlan, the Aztec (Mexica) imperial capital, has been long considered “urban” due to its inordinate size and overall monumentality. But can (or should) the other citystates in the Basin of Mexico be considered urban? The vast demographic divide between Tenochtitlan’s 200,000+ population and the estimated 10,000 to 25,000 population for the next largest settlements in the Basin have typically resulted in nonurban designations for these smaller communities. Smith (2008) recently argued convincingly for the “urban-ness” of these settlements based more on function than on strict population size. Yet arguments persist regarding the nature of these cities. Davíd Carrasco (1999) argues for the primacy of religious functions in these urban settings, while Smith (2008) proposes the supremacy of political over religious roles in defining the nature of these cities. Few such cities have been excavated in any representative fashion, since in almost all cases Spanish cities were built directly atop the Aztec ones.

The Nature of Empire and Empire Building

One persistent problem in understanding the nature and extent of the Aztec empire is its relative “invisibility” in the archaeological record. It has been often enough repeated that without an extensive ethnohistoric record documenting Aztec conquests and tribute, the idea of an Aztec empire would be unsupportable. Yet Aztec material remains are found in some abundance at a major fortress (Oztoma in the south) and administrative center (Quauhtochco in the east), and linguistic evidence suggests the presence of Nahuatl (Aztec)-speaking peoples scattered throughout the documented imperial domain.

Excavations at and around the Aztec Great Temple (Templo Mayor) in downtown Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) since 1978 have solidified the vision of the Aztecs as a powerful empire (Matos Moctezuma, 1988). Not only did the structures themselves require extraordinary control over massive amounts of labor and building materials, but also the nearly 140 offertory caches throughout that ceremonial precinct have yielded thousands of culturally revealing artifacts. Taken together, some 80% of the artifacts in these offerings originated from outside the Basin of Mexico, an indication of the extent of tributary control and/or commercial wealth of the Aztec polity (López Luján, 1994). They also represent the highly significant investment in religion made by the Aztec political rulers and the interconnectedness between politics and religion in Aztec life.

TheAztec empire might best be described as hegemonic—a loose arrangement of conquered city-states required to yield to Aztec rule and to pay tribute on a regular schedule. If submissive, local rulers were typically left in place. In effect, relatively little changed in the provinces beyond the presence of haughty tribute collectors, the siphoning off of local production as tribute, and the occasional imposition of an imperial governor or garrison. The usual approach to understanding the nature and workings of this empire has been a top-down approach: what were the imperial goals, what was the imperial income, how did the emperors wage war, and so on. Yet a more recent approach entails a more bottom-up approach: understanding the effects of imperial conquest on the subjugated city-states (Berdan et al., 1996). This approach has also yielded a more refined understanding of imperial politics and strategies. These were not random conquest pursuits, but rather well-considered strategies of empire formation involving distinctions between tributary provinces with predictable tribute payments and “strategic provinces” that protected hostile borderlands and secured crucial trade routes.

Additional approaches reveal the strategies used by conquered peoples to gain the best possible advantage in these asymmetrical political and military situations. In concept, this is not unlike recent trends in history and ethnohistory in understanding the roles and creative strategies used by native peoples in Mesoamerica under Spanish colonial rule (e.g., Berdan, 2007; Lockhart, 1992). These issues involve agency, and elevating decision-making processes to a more important role in imperial developments and changes.

The Extent of Human Sacrifice

Few issues sparked the Western imagination during the Age of Exploration more than the presence and idea of human sacrifice. The records of human sacrifice among the Aztecs derive primarily from ethnohistoric documents (pictorial and textual), but recent excavations have also revealed evidence for individuals sacrificed with their skulls strung on skull racks or their remains buried in offerings. The presence or absence of human sacrifice is no longer an issue, but its scale is.

Human sacrifice was deeply embedded in the Aztec way of life. It was supported by a complex mythology, and Aztec beliefs demanded that the people “pay their debts” to their gods with their most precious offering—human blood. Calendrical ceremonies (often using deity impersonators) and the almost constant autosacrifice by temple priests resulted in relatively low numbers of sacrificial deaths. However, it is the imperial sacrifices, following massive military campaigns, which are at issue here. Documentary sources suggest that thousands of captured enemy warriors were sacrificed in single ceremonies, one document recording a number of 80,400. These extraordinary figures are highly unlikely, but the numbers are not easily resolved, either historically or archaeologically.


In 1963, Ignace Gelb gave little credence to Aztec writing, describing it as a forerunner to actual writing. Since then, numerous ethnohistorians, art historians, and archaeologists have produced research that has revised this view and generated interesting arguments regarding the nature and use of “writing without words” (see especially Boone & Mignolo, 1994; Boone, 2000, 2007). This was not alphabetic writing, but rather a system meshing pictographic, ideographic, and phonetic symbols. A great many books were produced on native paper (amatl) treating economic, demographic, cartographic, historic, dynastic, and religious matters. Almost all of these, however, fell victim to the Spanish conquest and its attendant spiritual conquest.

Detailed studies of native and native-style codices such as the Matrícula de Tributos, the Codex Mendoza (Berdan & Anawalt, 1992), and the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Quiñones Keber, 1995) have stimulated arguments about the extent of phoneticism in Aztec glyphs, the application and use of symbols, and regional expressions of the writing system (Boone, 2000; Lacadena, 2008). These issues continue to be energetically debated.

Methodological Issues

Meshing Archaeological and Ethnohistoric Information

Ethnohistoric sources on the Aztecs are especially abundant and varied. They include native pictorial codices, indigenous narratives, accounts of Spanish conquerors, relations of Spanish friars and administrators, and everyday colonial records written in Nahuatl. These have become more and more available over the past half-century. A particularly significant milestone was the translation and publication, beginning in 1950, of the 12-volume Nahuatl “ethnographic” works of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1950–82). This was followed by facsimile reproductions of several codices as well as translations of a wide range of colonial Nahuatl documents (e.g., Anderson, Berdan, & Lockhart, 1976; Lockhart, Schroeder, & Namala, 2006).

This plethora of historical sources has illustrated that until recently, reconstructions of Aztec life have depended almost entirely on the documentary record. With the spectacular Templo Mayor discoveries and the general increase in Aztec archaeological research, the problem (or better, opportunity) arises of meshing these types of information into a more complete and accurate reconstruction of Aztec culture and society. This profitable research direction is exemplified by studies such as that of Guillem Olivier (2003), which links textual sources on religion with physical artifacts. Art history (e.g., Umberger, 1996) and ethnoarchaeology (e.g., Parsons, 2006) are also making complementary contributions to rounding out this picture.


Chronological issues involve (1) correlating ethnohistoric and archaeological dates and (2) developing chronologies with meaningful divisions, particularly a chronological scheme that delineates the Aztec imperial period. Regarding the first issue, ethnohistoric dates tend to be very specific while archaeological dates fall within a “range.” Thus, correlations between historical and archaeological dates are necessarily imprecise. Yet some significant insights have been gained by pursuing such chronological correlations. For instance, the year Two House (or 1325) records historically as the founding date for Tenochtitlan, the Mexica (Aztec) capital city, and the documents clarify that their new little island setting was uninhabited. But archaeological evidence indicates that the site was indeed inhabited. Concerning the second chronological issue, recent research questions focus on the impact of imperial power in conquered cities and regions. For instance, did imperial conquest affect the local standard of living? Did imperial conquest reroute established trading networks? Did imperial conquest upset the local political arrangements? Questions such as these require a chronological scheme that separates preconquest from postconquest times. Such a scheme has been developed by Michael Smith (2003, 2008) for some Aztec sites in Morelos, providing a valuable model for future research.


The central issue in understanding Aztec demography is, quite simply, how many people there were. This is largely a methodological issue, since an understanding of Aztec demography rests on incomplete and ambiguous information. Spanish conquerors offered highly variable population figures, and colonial censuses only became widespread later in the 16th century when the native population had already been decimated by epidemic diseases. Nonetheless, time-of-conquest population estimates have been made based on this historical information and on archaeological surveys. The resulting estimates range widely: from 920,000 to 2.96 million for the Basin of Mexico alone (Smith, 2003, pp. 57–59). While the lower estimates are most likely, this area of research remains problematical.

The Problem of Generalizing

There has been a tendency in Aztec studies to make broad generalizations from specific pieces of information. This has derived, at least in part, from the fragmentary nature of the documentary and archaeological databases. Ethnohistoric documents, for instance, derive from specific locales and describe the specific histories, social arrangements, royal successions, economies, or other matters as they pertain to the locale in question (Boone, 2000). To what extent is it valid to generalize from these specific cases? Put another way, how extensive was cultural and social variation within the Aztec domain? Tenochtitlan is a good case in point. Because only scattered and uneven information exists on other Aztec cities, there has been a tendency to describe these other centers in terms of Tenochtitlan. Yet Tenochtitlan was atypical in its extraordinary size and unique in several of its features (such as a walled ceremonial precinct and a gridlike layout [Smith, 2008, p. 68]). It does not serve as a good prototype for other Aztec-period cities. Other examples of variation abound in matters as diverse as rules of royal succession, calendrical designations, glyphic writing conventions, the presence and meaning of noble houses, and the layouts of rural settlements. This suggests caution in making broad generalizations, at least at this time.

Future Directions

New data continues to be uncovered on the Aztec civilization. This includes the ongoing excavations in Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor precinct, excavations at neighboring Tlatelolco, and several archaeological projects in “the provinces.” In addition, more documents continue to be translated, and more artifacts photographed and described by art historians and archaeologists alike. There seems to be an almost endless supply of data yet to be mined.

Scientific procedures providing compositional analyses and sourcing of materials are becoming more and more common, and should continue to be extremely useful in matters such as identifying trade networks and delineating political spheres of influence.

Based on these data and methods, more probing questions are being asked and more sophisticated interpretations have emerged. These include matters such as the nature of urbanism; the intertwining of specialization, trade, and tribute; the affect of Aztec conquest on the provinces; strategies used by conquered peoples; and the application of models such as world systems to the Aztec situation (e.g., Smith & Berdan, 2003). Also still on the table, since the beginning of Aztec studies, is the very definition of Aztec, which continues to be debated. In tackling these issues, the trend is toward more interdisciplinary research, especially blending the skills and approaches of archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and art historians, as well as potential contributions from ethnographic analogies.



The height of the Inca empire coincided roughly with that of the Aztec empire. Histories record that the empire began in 1438 with the ascendancy of the Inca Pachacuti, and ended with Francisco Pizarro’s Spanish conquest in 1532. In less than 100 years the Incas created the most extensive empire in the pre-Columbian Americas. The Inca empire encompassed six present-day countries, was approximately 4,000 kilometers long, traversed several of the world’s ecological zones, and contained scores of ethnic and language groups. It is estimated that Inca control extended over some 10 million subjects divided into 80 provinces.

They called it Tawantinsuyu, or “the four parts together.” Their universe was conceived as centered at their capital city of Cuzco, high in the Andes, and their imperial realm radiated out from Cuzco encompassing four directional domains. At Cuzco, the relatively small Inca lineage/ethnic group—estimated at 15,000 to 40,000 persons—achieved local, regional, and super-regional military dominance and held its diverse conquered peoples together through aggressive and sophisticated administrative strategies. They were remarkably successful in building an empire that involved the mobilization of enormous armies; required diverse strategies in confronting, dominating, and integrating a heterogeneous constellation of ethnic groups; and entailed the implementation of complex management policies to control and channel imperial labor and resources into elite Inca hands.

Evidence of their skills and artistry remain: their spectacular stonemasonry in extant buildings, their cunning artistry in fine crafts and weavings, and their engineering prowess in roads (totaling 30,000–40,000 kilometers) and records of woven suspension bridges and hanging baskets designed to traverse deep, wide watercourses. In addition, they produced complex knotted cords called quipu (khipu), which are still not fully understood by scholars, and may have served as a form of writing. This was a way of life with a rich mythology and exquisite artisanship, where royal mummies advised the current ruler who mounted ambitious military expeditions and conquests throughout most of western South America.

Theoretical Issues

Inca History

Ethnohistoric documentation of Inca dynastic history comes from the Spanish, native, and mestizo worlds. From the Spanish world come six eyewitness accounts, an array of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish chronicles (e.g., Cieza de León, 1959; see Rowe, 1946), and large numbers of 16th-century administrative and legal documents. From the indigenous and mestizo worlds come historical accounts from Inca descendants and those of mixed heritage but deeply embedded in native life. These include two especially important documents, an extensive commentary by Garcilaso de la Vega (1966) and a lengthy illustrated letter by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1987). These documents have been variously subjected to questions and critiques of authenticity, reliability, bias, special interests, and embellishments.

In general, these ethnohistoric accounts of Inca history paint a picture of named royal personages progressively expanding the Inca imperial domain. One approach to interpreting these histories (the historicist approach) concludes that the documents accurately represent a linear, sequential history of Inca dynastic rule (Rowe, 1944, 1946). While advocating this view, historicists also recognize that Inca rulers had a propensity to recast history and historical events in their personal favor. An alternative to the historicist viewpoint has been forwarded by others who propose that the Spanish chroniclers misunderstood the nature of Inca rulership and molded the Inca information to fit into their known Spanish categories, resulting in the presentation of a Spanish-style monarchy of sequential dynastic rulers. These scholars (e.g., Zuidema, 1990; Rostworowski, 1999) suggest a structural model where rulership mirrored Inca lineage structure, and a diarchy model where two royal Incas ruled simultaneously, one from Upper Cuzco and the other from Lower Cuzco (representing a moiety system). These positions continue to be debated.

The Integration of Empire

Early conceptions of the Inca portrayed them as an enormous, exquisitely organized monolithic empire—the state oversaw all aspects of daily life, the religion was a state religion, and the empire exercised intensive and pervasive control over its conquered subjects. Everything was very tightly controlled, all very neat and tidy. This view fostered “an image of uniform and ubiquitous control” that current scholarship no longer accepts (D’Altroy, 2003, p. 86). Instead, variation in Inca policies and local adaptations has emerged as a prominent, alternate theme.

The Inca brought a great many diverse ethnic groups under their imperial umbrella. It might be anticipated that they did not deal with all of these groups in the same manner, and this indeed appears to have been the case. However, the nature and extent of this variation is not fully understood and is still being explored. The two essential categories of information on the Inca, ethnohistoric and archaeological, are also inconclusive on this matter of the development and integration of the Inca empire. Ethnohistoric information is more complete for the northern extent of the empire, and weaker for the south; for whatever region, the documentary sources are singularly Cuzco-oriented and provide a topdown perspective on Inca-provincial relations.

Another perspective derives from the provinces, and asks questions of local responses and adaptations to Inca arrival, domination, and economic exploitation. Archaeological investigations have been especially productive in illuminating this bottom-up perspective. Particularly significant regional archaeological research (which also relies on historical sources) has been that conducted in the central highland Peruvian site of Huánaco Pampa (e.g., Morris & Thompson, 1985). Additional archaeological research has been conducted at other imperial sites, yielding an emerging picture of considerable variability in local histories and responses to Inca conquest, as well as the differential implementation of Inca imperial policies (see D’Altroy, 2003, pp. 249–262; articles by John Murra, Craig Morris, Franklin Pease, and others in Collier, Rosaldo, & Wirth, 1982).

Methodological Issues

Chronology and Archaeology

Large-scale chronological schemes for Andean prehistory began with the pioneering work of Max Uhle (1903), who provided the basis for subsequent sequential categories, especially the one devised by Rowe (1965). Under these chronological frameworks, the Inca empire falls within the final stage, or the Late Horizon (Inca-style phase to Uhle). This period, spanning the years 1438 to 1532, is useful in delineating the period of general Inca dominance, yet it is still too gross a category for scholars attempting to discern the effects of Inca subjugation on specific conquered regions and ethnic groups. This dating dilemma is not aided by methods of radiocarbon dating, which identify broader time spans than that experienced by the Inca empire.

Nonetheless, a great deal can be learned from archaeology. Scientific archaeological research among the Inca is still relatively young, dating from the 1930s and not intensifying until the mid-1900s. Archaeological investigations in provincial areas can be enlightening by identifying Inca architecture and/or ceramics. But questions surround the meanings of these Inca indicators: Were they actually built or brought by the Inca as conquerors? Were these Inca objects and symbols copied by a local elite seeking prestige? Did the ceramics and other portables travel through exchange? While there are many productive archaeologists pursuing these and other Inca-related questions (especially in the provinces; see D’Altroy, 2003, p. 23), a nagging problem continues to be the difficulty in “trying to match the material objects in the archaeological record with the peoples [ethnic groups] mentioned in the Inca histories” (McEwan, 2006, p. 199).

The Elusive Quipu

Scholars have long marveled that the Inca could create and administer so vast an empire without a writing system. It is clear that they did not have an alphabetic system in the European manner—but what about other visual communication devices? Coded messages woven into textiles and painted onto wooden boards have been suggested as such devices, but the most persistent candidate for a writing system is the quipu. The quipu was an arrangement of dyed, knotted cords whose configuration conveyed specific information or messages to those who knew how to decode (or read) them. Whatever the information embedded in the quipu, the quipu-reader required a considerable amount of memorized knowledge. Lacking that knowledge, modern scholars must rely on cunning and inevitably controversial interpretations to unravel the types and extent of information contained in the many extant quipu (estimated at 600).

As they are currently understood, the quipu were particularly well-suited to recording specific information such as censuses, tax receipts, land measurements, harvests, and herd counts. It has been proposed that they could also have been used for more abstract purposes such as recording myths, stories, histories, and poetry. Progress in decoding the quipu began in 1923 when Leland Locke recognized a decimal-based system in the quipu. Ascher and Ascher (1981) followed, suggesting a more complex system based on the hierarchical ordering of information. Since then, Gary Urton (2003) has proposed that some quipu may have been based on a binary system resulting in up to 1,500 possible symbol combinations. Despite the current high interest in the topic, the uses, contexts, variations, and translations of quipu continue to puzzle investigators.

Future Directions

Questions persist concerning the development and nature of Inca empire building. The Inca gained military and political control over a geographically vast and ethnically diverse world in an extraordinarily short period of time—less than 100 years. Did they draw on earlier models of statecraft?

There is a clear recognition of variation within the Inca empire, from both top-down and bottom-up perspectives. This involves variation in how the Inca approached and treated different provinces and ethnic groups, and how the different groups responded and adapted to the Inca presence. Archaeologically, the Inca imperial core, the region around Cuzco itself, has not yet been completely surveyed and therefore is imperfectly known (D’Altroy, 2003, p. 23). Farther afield, how can Inca conquests be recognized archaeologically? How can the impact of Inca conquest as well as the responses by the conquered peoples be measured in the archaeological record? Can effective chronologies be developed to date Inca conquests in particular areas, or indeed even the beginnings of the empire itself (McEwan, 2006, pp. 198–199; D’Altroy, 2003, p. 47)? Where possible, a meshing of ethnohistoric and archaeological (and to some extent ethnographic) sources of information can be particularly useful in reducing ambiguities in both types of sources and in unraveling the specifics of imperial dynamics and local ethnic variations.

Energetic debates continue on the nature and workings of the Inca state and empire. What was the nature of Inca kingship? How intense was the role of royal Inca mummies in imperial expansion—to what extent did their continuing control of resources serve as incentives for expansion and control of more and more external resources by each succeeding king (Conrad & Demarest, 1984; D’Altroy, 2003)? And how important was the role of ideology in serving the state and propelling the empire to such remarkable achievements?



Mesoamerican prehistory is traditionally divided into three periods: preclassic, classic, and postclassic. The Mayans of southern Mexico and northern Central America thrived during all these time frames. Of these periods, the classic is the most popularly known, most abundantly researched, and also the most enigmatic.

By the classic period, Mayans had developed extensive planned cities and other settlements, constructed massive masonry religious and political structures, erected impressive commemorative monuments, used a complex of calendars based on sophisticated astronomical knowledge, fashioned fine crafts using raw materials obtained through intricate trading networks, warred with their neighbors, maintained a strict social hierarchy, and supported kings who wielded great power locally and occasionally regionally. They accomplished all of this between approximately 250 CE and 900 CE in the rather unlikely rainforest setting of present-day southern Mexico, northern Guatemala, Belize, and adjacent areas. Comprising as many as 80 separate political entities, most of this rainforest civilization declined during the 9th century and generally collapsed by 900. Following that collapse, Mayan civilization continued and even resurged in highland Guatemala, Belize, and northern Yucatan where Spanish voyagers encountered major centers in the early 16th century.

Theoretical Issues

Supporting and Sustaining Mayan Civilization

Early Western scholars looking at the ancient Mayans faced an enigma. How could a complex civilization develop in a rainforest environment? Rainforests were considered to only allow a slash-and-burn style of agriculture, by its very nature extensive and resulting in low population densities. This, in turn, led to interpretations of classic Mayan sites (in the southern Mayan lowlands) as empty or vacant ceremonial centers with low population densities (see Thompson, 1970).

However, intensive archaeological research (especially settlement surveys) since the 1960s and 1970s produce a demographic picture that did not agree with these assumptions. Population estimates at major classic Mayan centers have yielded numbers of up to 100,000 (for Tikal and Calakmul), and a widely dispersed population with intersite densities of nearly 200 persons per square kilometer (Culbert & Rice, 1990). It thus became difficult to continue to consider these centers as “vacant ritual centers,” and they became elevated to urban status with large resident populations and centralized political, economic, social, and religious functions.

How, then, were these large cities and complex polities sustained and supported in their rainforest setting? The suggestion was that traditional slash-and-burn cultivation, as revealed in the ethnographic record, was insufficient to support such high population numbers and densities; this stimulated a search for more intensive agricultural methods and other food production strategies (see Harrison & Turner, 1978). Demarest (2004, pp. 127–146) suggests that the classic Maya mirrored their rainforest environment by building their agricultural systems and settlement patterns around themes of diversity and dispersal. Slash-and-burn systems were combined, variously at different sites, with household gardens, terraces, and raised fields and other hydraulic adaptations. The ancient Maya also made use of the considerable wild resources available in the rainforest. Combined, it appears that these food production activities were capable of sustaining the farming households as well as providing sufficient surpluses to support a demanding elite and other urban specialists.

Kingship, Politics, and Warfare

In 1841 John Lloyd Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (with Frederick Catherwood’s illustrations). This popular publication sparked further explorations into the ancient Mayan world—explorations that became more and more scientific in approach. These included, importantly, the explorations, detailed reports, and precise images of Alfred Maudslay (1899). Taken together, these and other investigations and reports spawned early romantic visions of the Maya as a peaceful, tranquil people (e.g., Thompson, 1970). This was reinforced by the fact that in these early days, only calendric-related glyphs had been confidently translated. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that additional hieroglyphs were translated, especially those documenting the great deeds of exalted divine kings of major Mayan cities (e.g., Proskouriakoff, 1960). These translations have progressed to the extent that now the major corpuses of hieroglyphs consist of historical texts, and entire dynasties have been reconstructed (Martin & Grube, 2000).

These advances in hieroglyphic translations have been coupled with major scientific archaeological research projects beginning in the 1920s. Two important examples are the Carnegie Institution of Washington research projects at Chichén Itzá, Uaxactun, and Copan (1920s–1950s), and the University of Pennsylvania projects at Tikal (1950s–1960s); these and other major projects have provided groundbreaking archaeological results and encourage a continuing avalanche of research, especially on the classic Maya.

These and subsequent projects along archaeological and epigraphic fronts have dramatically transformed scholarly understanding of the Maya. The Maya are no longer viewed as strictly star-gazing, peaceful intellectuals. They clearly were brilliant astronomers, engineers, and artisans, but they were also ambitious kings, powerful warriors, and everyday people sowing crops, making pots, and trading for profit. In short, current research characterizes the ancient Maya as organized into forceful state-level polities with hereditary divine kings. These cities engaged in warfare with their neighbors, resulting in occasional actual conquests. Some scholars suggest that superstates had developed, although this is still controversial. Scholars are in general agreement, however, in recognizing a wide range of variation among the Mayan polities—in size, in subsistence, in history, in internal and external relations, and in the reasons for their demise and collapse.

Not all scholars have agreed with this interpretation of Mayan civilization consisting of states and urban centers. A classic example is the proposal by William Sanders and Barbara Price (1968) that the Mayans represented a chiefdom level of political and social organization, and that any increase in complexity was due to contact with the central Mexican urban center of Teotihuacan. Today, however, this view has been put aside by most Mayan scholars.

Environment or Ideology

The magnificent architecture and sculpted monuments left behind by the classic Maya and recorded by early explorers and more recent scholars have led to a well-deserved appreciation of the artistic skills of the ancient Mayans. Lofty temples and sculptures impressed early investigators, much as they were surely intended to impress contemporary Mayans. These wonders of art and architecture have contributed to the notion of the Mayan elite as intellectual priests focused on matters of religion and cosmology. On the other hand, archaeological investigations have tended to lend primacy to ecological factors in the development and dynamics of the ancient Mayan civilization. These latter concepts consider religion epiphenomenal in Mayan culture change. Current views do not demand an “either-or” position on these ideas (see Demarest, 2004). Rather, these were societies where religion, economics, and politics were intricately intertwined, and much of the hieroglyphic and archaeological records reveal these complex interweavings: Kings were holy lords, legitimized by religious symbols and drawing on complex ecological adaptations to support their dynasties and cities.

The Classic Mayan Collapse

The collapse of the classic Mayan civilization by 900 CE is one of the great mysteries of antiquity. This cultural collapse extended over almost the entire southern Mayan lowlands, affecting hundreds of cities and smaller centers. It was, first and foremost, a demise of the elite. Commemorative monuments ceased to be sculpted and erected, large temples and palaces were no longer constructed or repaired, large cities fell into disuse, and the luxurious paraphernalia of kings and lords disappeared. The kings and their noble cadres clearly no longer ruled, or seemingly even lived in these once-magnificent cities.

It was also a demographic collapse, the elite debacle accompanied by a dramatic decline in overall population generally leaving scattered populations of farmers. Nonetheless, on the fringes of the southern Mayan lowlands, some centers (such as Lamanai in Belize) continued to thrive through the postclassic period. Indeed, cities to the north and south of this classic fluorescence grew and expanded throughout the postclassic.

What happened? A great many hypotheses have been forwarded to explain this regionwide collapse. Proposed explanations have included natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and epidemics; environmental problems such as drought and ecological overkill; sociopolitical matters such as excessive elite demands on a stressed peasantry, revolts by a suppressed peasantry, and internecine warfare; and external factors such as invasions by foreigners. Investigations of these questions have led to some interesting insights. For instance, it is clear that there was considerable variation in the collapse among different classic Mayan centers. In some areas it was in effect as early as 750 CE; in others, it was 150 years later. In some areas it happened quickly; in others it involved a gradual decline. And perhaps most important, in some cities certain factors took center stage while in others those same factors were minor players and still others appear as the primary causes of decline and collapse. For instance, warfare was devastating to the social order of the Petexbatun region; drought would have had a significant impact at Tikal and Calakmul;Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras may have been conquered; and overpopulation and ecological stress played a significant role generally throughout the region (Webster, 2002; Sharer & Traxler, 2006, pp. 505–520). At this point it is clear that there was no single cause of this widespread decline and demise; quite to the contrary, it involved a complex intertwining of many stressgenerating factors, those factors expressed with differential force at individual Mayan centers.

Methodological Issues


Chronologies of Mayan periods and events derive from two sources: hieroglyphic texts and archaeology. Histories of individual Mayan cities are becoming well-known through their hieroglyphic inscriptions. Alongside these histories, general periods in the overall cultural sequences in the Mayan area have been established archaeologically, although specifics (such as the early classic-late classic “hiatus”) continue to be debated. Disagreements over chronologies often stem from the variability of individual polities’ histories. On another chronological front, many characteristics typically associated with the classic Maya have been shown to have emerged earlier, in the late preclassic, calling into question the time period designations for the current late preclassic-classic division.


Demographic studies in the Mayan area (especially the southern Mayan lowlands) confront particular challenges. The most immediate of these is the extremely dense vegetation of the environment itself, making survey archaeology, especially difficult. Population estimates are typically determined by counting house mounds and multiplying by a standard figure (usually 5.6, based on ethnographic analogy). But was a given mound actually residential? Was it occupied concurrently with other house mounds in the survey area? Was it occupied continuously, generation after generation? Is the average residential figure of 5.6 sound and stable, or did it vary over time and space, and with a family’s social and economic status? Were some household structures not raised on mounds, and hence not included in the surveys at all? With the highly dispersed, continuous settlements in the Mayan lowlands, where did one city or polity end and the next one begin? These and other questions continue to challenge archaeologists in determining the demographic characteristics of the Mayan population throughout its long history (see McKillop, 2004, pp. 162–170).

Hieroglyphic Writing

The decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphic writing has undergone several transformations over the past century. First seen as a documentation of calendric and cosmological matters, by the mid-20th century it became clear that large bodies of hieroglyphic texts dealt with kings and their extraordinary deeds. But actually translating the texts required more. Beginning with the realization by Yuri Knorozov that Diego de Landa’s “alphabet” (as cited in Tozzer, 1941) represented a syllabary, subsequent epigraphers have decoded the hieroglyphic writing to the extent that the majority of the 800 signs can now be read (Grube, 2006, p. 122). However, a full understanding of the hieroglyphic writing system, and especially its use by the ancient Maya, continues to offer challenges to epigraphers.

Future Directions

The theoretical and methodological issues discussed in this section continue to stimulate research endeavors. For the classic Maya, the manner in which sufficient surpluses were produced to sustain dense Mayan populations and urban centers continues to be studied and debated. There is a continuing emphasis on commoner populations, and a focus on middle-range persons such as artisans contributes to a well-rounded understanding of the ancient Mayan social order. Emphases on either ecology or religion as driving forces in Mayan life are giving way to more integrated views of Mayan culture and society: An important case in point is a recent volume meshing dimensions of ritual and economy (Wells & Davis-Salazar, 2007). The nature and extent of external influences and relations (especially from Teotihuacan) is a long-standing issue, and Teotihuacan’s impact on the Mayans continues to be debated. Similarly, arguments over the relations between postclassic Chichén Itzá and highland Tula have not been satisfactorily resolved. Variation in the development, composition, and collapse of individual cities and polities has emerged as a dominant theme in Mayan research for all periods. It serves as a necessary point of departure to increase scholarly knowledge of Mayan demography, urbanism, relations among kingdoms, and the classic Mayan collapse. Further advances in hieroglyphic translations and settlement survey projects will contribute immeasurably to ongoing debates and a more refined understanding of Mayan culture, history, and society.


Together, these three civilizations are of paramount theoretical and methodological interest and provide a valuable comparative backdrop for the study of ancient civilizations generally. The Aztec, Inca, and Mayan civilizations arose in contrasting environments, yet all three developed complex state-level institutions, two of them becoming expansionist empires. Some persistent theoretical and methodological issues are shared by these civilizations, in different combinations. These entail issues of demography; urbanism; the nature of kingship; empire building; chronological control; and the nature, reliability, and translations of highly variable writing systems. Current trends in approaching these intriguing questions involve wellformulated interdisciplinary pursuits and the meshing of ethnohistorical and other written sources with a growing body of archaeological data.


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