Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Frequency of “Maya” warfare

Warfare has been of interest in Mayanist studies for a long time. Once thought to be a peaceful civilization, it was transformed into a hoard of blood-thirsty shaman-kings by Linda Schele, David Freidel and others. As a general rule in these studies on past warfare it is argued that warfare increased in scale, frequency, and “nature” over time to reach a peak at the Terminal Classic and/or Postclassic. What is the archaeological basis for this assumption?

When hierarchically social formations appeared at the end of the Middle Formative, new political positions, titles, and offices emerged which people are believed to have desired and competed for. These positions were few and new ones were not created although the population increased according to David Webster. However, there seems to be little physical traces of such competitions around this time.

The situation is different with Late Classic material which is argued to indicate increased warfare in relation to earlier periods. Evidence for increased warfare consists of fortifications in site centers (like the ones at Yo’okop, see photo), the location of centers in isolated areas, and massive moat-wall complexes. It is believed that several centuries of elite polygyny, intermarriage among certain groups, led to a complex and fragmented political world. Thus, there is another assumption that fragmentation automatically leads to warfare. Without direct glyphic evidence, it is argued that factions of people desired the possession of resources, titles, and labor of others or that they wanted to create new polities.

Fortification at Yo'okop

Fortification at Yo'okop

Multiple burials, at for example Tikal, may indicate mass sacrifices of enemies. Some massacres occurred at a few places in relation to site abandonment, such as at Cancúen. However, the occurance of these burials are not bountiful. They are also known from Late Formative contexts, even at small sites, such as Cuello in northern Belize. But mass burials, indicative of sacrifice, should not be common at any time since warfare is not something done on a regular basis.

Webster argues that the Late Classic wars occured on a high frequency because warfare never included large military infrastructures. Hassig has argued that only 600-1000 elite warriors may have existed at Tikal at the height of its power. However, the wars in earlier periods would also have lacked this infrastructure. It is assumed that an experienced force of elites probably could have mobilized a large commoner force in case of emergency. Still, this is based upon analogies, since no archaeological or textual evidence for mobilising commoners exist for the Classic period.

Evidence for increased warfare is usually attributed to glyphic expressions. For example, the earliest “star war” event is noted at Caracol. Thus, most textual evidence of warfare relate to the 6th century and later. This may reflect new needs among the royal elite. These texts basically contain formulaic texts. No details, apart from the date, the event, the defeated ruler and his site, were mentioned. Defeats and victories were recorded by a ruler’s scribes, but defeats were only mentioned in relation to later victories. Thus, from these later inscriptions we cannot say how often warfare occurred in the Early Classic or the Late Formative. Much of data related to these earlier periods are likely buried under Late Classic constructions. The Late Classic period rulers claimed continuity between their own battles and successes of earlier kings and it is basically from these sources we know about earlier battles.

It is from the Classic period we have some indications when during the year warfare was most frequent. It appears to have peaked during the dry season (January-April). Planting sesason was in May, and harvest was from mid-September to the end of October. The few conflicts that occured in the June-September rainy season were shorter than the ones during the dry season. This pattern could potentially support an idea that “commoners” participated in warfare, as they were not confined to work with agriculture. But it might just as well be argued that elite warriors attacked their enemies when the stores were full after harvest (although storage facilities are rare in the Maya area) or whenever roads or trails were passable.

Further, Aldana argues that the correlation issue between the Long Count calendar and the Gregorian calender still has not been solved. The resolution of the GMT correlation concern a matter of at least sixty days and if Aldana is right we may have to reconsider the astronomical data as well, and when the “star-wars” and other warrelated events occurred. The Star war events are perhaps not related to the planet Venus after all but to meteors.

It is further assumed, from archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic remains, that warfare involved even more people during the Terminal Classic and the Postclassic than in the Late Classic, at least in terms of percentage since there was a general decline in demography (apart from the Terminal Classic northern lowlands). The iconography from the northern lowlands during this time show many participants, both in wars and rituals. This has been suggested to represent an emerging warrior society or order. The general idea is therefore that warfare changed in the Terminal Classic, such as the burning and sacking of sites that can be seen in Chichén Itzá’s murals.

This is to me a awkward conclusion from iconography. Mural paintings covering whole walls can, of course, depict more people than a lintel or a stela. Since we do not have many surviving mural paintings from the Classic period, until the Late Classic (Bonampak) and the Terminal Classic (Chichén Itzá), these few examples tend to stand for the whole past corpus. The Late Formative murals at San Bartolo does not emphasize war, but we cannot make a general judgement of the whole Maya area and the whole period from this fragmented and scattered evidence.

It is still far from certain that warfare affected a larger population at any period except when sites have been abandoned as a result of warfare, such as at Dos Pilas, Aguateca, Cancúen, Chunchucmil, Copán, Piedras Negras and Caracol. For such cases, Demarest, Rice and Rice argue for refugees that may have involved large populations. From what is presently known, before the wars in the Petexbatun area there is no direct evidence that warfare affected a wider population. There are not many indicators that large armies clashed at any time. The hieroglyphically recorded violent events may only have concerned a few number of combattants even during the Late Classic.


  1. […] was the site abandoned then? There are no traces of hastily created fortifications like at Aguateca, Dos Pilas or Chunchucmil. Some spear points have been found in the central plaza […]

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