Posted by: Johan Normark | May 19, 2009

Mayanist quote of the day: on migration as explanatory tool in archaeology

“Some of the Maya who migrated went north, attracted by a new religion revolving around Kukulcan and trade centered at Chichén Itzá…” (Lucero 2006:192)

Migration has always been popular in explaining social processes in archaeology. In the Maya area, the southern or central lowland is usually the core area from where everything else is interpreted. The northern lowland is therefore seen to reflect processes going on further south. Santley and others once proposed an outmigration from Yucatan during the late Late Formative due to a drier climate. Therefore they argue that there were no settlement increases in the Yucatan until Late and Terminal Classic, and this increase is explained by people from the south moving back to the north again. Some areas may of course have experienced population increase or decrease due to migration but this is not strongly supported by ceramics.

I am sceptical to such long-distance migration models but I think that local dispersion and congregation of settlement did occur. Ichmul and Yo’okop had substantial settlements during the Classic period whereas the smaller sites in the Cochuah region had no or little occupation during the same period. I therefore have problems with Lucero’s statement. I do not believe that people migrated in large groups because they desired to be part of the “Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl” cult (which Ringle and others state is a royal ideology and had less impact on the majority of emigrants). This feels like a comparative analogy with missionary religions in the Old World (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism). Neither was the trade something they could live on. If there was a migration to the north (and there is not much evidence for this) they probably had something else in mind than trade and religion. Maybe they just needed new lands. Or, as I believe, there were no great migrations by large groups.

Lisa Lucero (2006) Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers. University of Texas Press: Austin.


  1. One probelm with migration debates is that it usually becomes a very black-and-white question. Either giant congregations of people marching across the landscape – or no movement whatsoever.

    As you say, there are gradual versions where small segments, various individuals and certain kinship groups pick up and resettle. This is probably something than happens even if we don’t always see it in the material.

    We need better tools to examine these theories than pots and temples.

    • There is possible evidence for small scale migrations during certain periods, but the large scale migrations do not just fit the majority of ceramic and architectural evidence. We know of later migrations from ethnohistorical sources that appear to be accurate (for example people from the northern Yucatan migrating south to the Peten lakes in the late Postclassic). This is also supported by architectural similarities. But how many people that actually migrated is still unknown. Apart from genetic data I do not know what data could proof large scale migrations (during short periods, not long-term advances, that is a completely different process).


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