This article primarily discusses the various characteristics of ancient Maya society, with a particular focus on the political structure. The text begins by establishing that an emphasis will be placed on referring to the Maya people prior to the influx of Europeans in the Americas. Continuing on, two questions are posed regarding the nature of politics among the ancient Maya. The first question seeks to determine how centralized or decentralized the political formation was. The second question inquires about the ultimate qualities of ancient Maya rulership.
Apparently, political relations were relatively decentralized for the most part, with variances attributed to certain time periods. Furthermore, it is mentioned that the Maya in the classic period were never entirely united in a political sense. The ancient Maya were not unified as an empire at any point, but rather formed many independent kingdoms. These numerous groups shared many cultural traits, but were distinct from one another. The article goes on to speak about the variations in Maya glyphs with regards to differing locations and time periods. The evaluation of these discrepancies highlights the specific characteristics of each respective political network among the Maya. Analysis of this also reveals the nature of relations between rulers and their subordinate officials, as well as between rulers and commoners.
Despite deviations in certain regional attributes, the elites from around the Maya world largely shared a cultural identity. These nobles spoke the same language, practiced the same rituals, used the same writing system, and worshipped the same deities. Ancient Maya politics revolved mostly around interpersonal relations between individuals in positions of leadership. As opposed to predominant correlations between rulers and territory, these more personal ties formed the basis of the ancient Maya political structure. The article subsequently affirms that there is not any prominent evidence which would suggest that Maya nobility were landowners.
Initially, scholars were of the opinion that the Maya during the classic period resided in notably vacant ceremonial centers, were ruled by benign priests, and that households were self-sufficient. Although there is some degree of truth to these notions, the simplicity of them is problematic, as there is much left to be discussed. Regarding warfare in particular, the previously held sentiment that the ancient Maya were somehow pacifistic and did not typically engage in such conflict is completely false. These misguided ideas were linked to the thought that the rainforest environment typical of the Maya region was not productive and incapable of supporting sizable populations. As a result of these inaccurate assumptions being invalidated, scholars have developed new perspectives of the ancient Maya, particularly involving the existence of vigorous and generally militaristic leaders. The text goes on to refer to the murals of Bonampak, which were produced through the utilization of a great amount of resources.
The purpose of their creation is questioned, as it initially appears strange that such artistic expression would be commissioned instead of more functional public works. However, because the paintings were never completed, and the fact that abandonment of cities and political instability characterized this era, an interesting social and political objective is revealed. As it appears, scholars now believe that the construction of the Bonampak murals was a political move intended to be viewed by a small group of elite observers. Eventual defacement of the art implies a sense of rejection to the intended message. Also, although ancient Maya kings claimed supreme and divine authority, certain technological disadvantages pertaining to communication and transportation limited their perceived power. The article additionally mentions the importance of corn to the Maya people, and how they have referred to themselves as the people of the corn. Corn was a staple crop for the ancient Maya, and that they heavily relied on it for the success of their society. Rulers inherently linked themselves to maize deities, which highlights the strategy of using religion to establish political control.
The ancient Maya kings increasingly developed a habit of self-aggrandization Additionally, there is discussion of the role of secondary ruling individuals, who ultimately did not serve in exclusively bureaucratic positions. These sentiments speak to the apparent dominance of individual leaders, but also to the swift destabilization of political structures. There is also brief mention of terracing and other techniques of agricultural intensification, which aided in maintaining a surplus, but were ultimately not the most desirable agricultural methods. The occurrence of these new farming strategies indicated the decline of the urban centers. As political turmoil ensued, the threat of elites to the supremacy of rulers increased drastically, as they acquired much more influence and control.
This led to internal power struggles within the political framework, which dismantled the existing hierarchical formation. This article corresponds greatly to the ideas presented in class. We particularly discussed how the Maya were distinct from other Mesoamerican cultures in the sense they were not unified politically but were rather a loosely connected group of people sharing cultural similarities. The ancient Maya comprised many small city-states rather than being formed into an empire or single political entity. Although there were common cultural affinities, there were also regionally-specific characteristics, which we discussed at length in class.
The interpersonal relations between leading figures also form a key component of the ancient Maya political system. These allowed for alliances, which we talked about during lectures, that were constructed through intermarriages. The notion mentioned in the article regarding the lack of a solid sense of land ownership and territoriality among Maya rulers relates to class discussion as well. We talked about how leaders in the realm of the ancient Maya were unable to hold onto land for extended periods of time and territorial expansion was not always enacted. The previously held sentiment that the Maya were peaceful and did not participate in warfare very much was also a topic of consideration. We learned about how that idea is not valid, and that the Maya were very much engaged in brutal ritual warfare.
Another thing we talked about in class was the subject of political propaganda within the ancient Maya world. Rulers would practice self-aggrandization to glorify themselves particularly in times of political unrest. They would do this through the construction of monumental architecture and lavish art in an attempt to portray themselves as more powerful than they were. The Maya kings did this because they were losing political influence, and had to do everything to maintain social control. A correlation of political propaganda can be made between the example in the article of the Bonampak murals and the example of Altar Q at Copan from the video we watched called ‘Lost King of the Maya.’ In both examples, propaganda was attempted to be used to display political dominance in the midst of a lack thereof. We also discussed the threats to political control that the ancient Maya kings had to deal with.
Not only did they have to face communication and transportation disadvantages but their supremacy was called into question due to certain climatic conditions. If the corn crops failed, the authority of Maya rulers would be called into question since they associated themselves with the deities representing corn fertility. We talked about the significance of the introduction of different kinds of agricultural practices, specifically with regards to this signaling the decline of the civilization. Another thing we discussed to a great extent during lectures was the concept of the deterioration of the political structure from within. This resulted from conflicts among elite lineages which caused infighting and the ultimate destruction of the existing political system.