Posted by: Johan Normark | January 26, 2011

The emergence of the capitalist socius in Yucatan and the Maya collapse

One of my main set of arguments against Richardson Gill’s “mega-drought” hypothesis for the “Maya collapse” concerns his use of uncritical analogies from the Colonial and Independent periods of the Yucatan peninsula. Put simply, the Spanish colonial system affected the Maya in many ways and droughts during this period affected a sociopolitical system very different from that of the Prehispanic periods. I have discussed this before on this blog.

In this post I will simply discuss the way capitalism affected the Yucatan peninsula during the late Colonial and early Independent periods. My reason for doing so is to show how capitalism is a social machine that affects settlement layout that is unrelated to droughts. The Prehispanic social machine(s) affected settlement layouts in different ways than the capitalist socius. Socius is the social body that takes credit for production and in capitalism this is the capital (Deleuze and Guattari 1983). During the Prehispanic period this social body was the body of the king and also the Earth itself. A capitalist system makes things more fluid than a system focusing on the Earth or the body of the king. Still, there is ample evidence that suggest that people were also quite fluid in Prehispanic times as well. Deleuze and Guattari’s three forms of socius are therefore always in a mixture, they are always found in concrete assemblages.

The emergence of capitalism and the beginning of the end of the colonial system in Yucatan began in the late 18th century with the Spanish Bourbon reforms. These loosened the laws that protected Maya lands that originally had been owned communally or by Maya families and individuals. Under the new law it was possible for Spanish Creoles or mestizos to purchase the lands from the Maya or they were declared terrenos baldios (unused lands) by the government who then sold it. Some individuals could therefore expand their estancias (small cattle-and-corn ranches) into larger holdings that eventually became haciendas or plantations. The early haciendas produced beef, corn, beans, henequen and other products for the urban markets. Maya villagers that had become dispossessed were housed on the haciendas and became an indentured labor force. Their health status drastically decreased and undoubtedly made them more vulnerable to the effects of droughts.

After the War of Independence (1810-1821) the rules that governed Maya land and labor rights continued to erode and the hacienda system grew. Labor intensive cotton and sugar plantations emerged at this time and these allowed an entrepreneurial class to emerge in Mérida, Campeche and Valladolid. There was very little mechanization in the production apart from sugar mills.

After the Caste War and its aftermath (1847-1901) the sugar and cotton plantation economy disappeared and a new plantation system focusing on henequen (agave or sisal fiber) emerged in the northwestern part of the peninsula. This system was driven by foreign demand for henequen cordage. Once again many Maya became trapped on the henequen haciendas.

When it comes to the linear correlation of droughts and settlement change in many palaeoclimatic studies one is less likely to see rivaling sociopolitical explanations for a site’s abandonment. The small port of Real de Salinas near Celestún on the north coast of Campeche shows how the capitalist machine affected the small port’s settlement system even though there were multiple droughts occurring during its history. There is no need to include drought related explanations at any time of its history.

Real de Salinas was a salt producing center and it was linked to inland haciendas and participated in the logwood and fine hardwood extractive industries. During the Caste War the saltworks of the Celestún region increased their production since most salinas (salt flats) on the northern and northeastern coast were abandoned. When the price of henequen went down hacienda owners moved their workers to the coast to extract salt, coconuts and logwood. The emergence of railroads in the 1870s and 1880s affected the coast since logwood, finer woods and mangrove wood for charcoal could now be shipped quicker and cheaper by land and this caused the coastal shipping to decline. The invention of artificial dyes at the end of the 19th century led to the demise of the logwood industry in the 1890s. When the saltworks of the northern coast began to be used again after the Caste War the Celestún saltworks lost its near monopoly. However, the abolishment of indentured labor in 1915 finally led to the demise of extractive industries of the Campeche coast and the final demise of Real de Salinas was soon a fact.

Unfortunately we will never be able to establish such a detailed historical documentation of the Prehispanic past. However, simply changes in elite networks and its associated political economy may be enough as an explanation for large scale settlement changes during the Terminal Classic period. There was no ultimate single cause for the “collapse” of these sociopolitical and economical systems. We simply need more complex answers but our available data make that impossible. Hence, we will continue to see reductionist models that always claim that they have found the key to unlock the “collapse mystery”. It is drought or any other climate related topic today. Who knows what the key will be tomorrow?

Andrews, Anthony P., Rafael Burgos Villanueva and Luis Millet Cámara (2006). The historic port of El Real de Salina in Campeche, and the role of coastal resources in the emergence of capitalism in Yucatán, México. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 10(2):179-205

Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.

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