Posted by: Johan Normark | July 23, 2009

Warfare modelling in Mayanist research

One of my interests in Maya archaeology is the issue of warfare. As mentioned in an earlier post, most Mayanists see warfare as part of the State’s machinery. Top to bottom (elite to commoner), and a macro to micro approaches dominates. It is likely that the royal symbolism made use of broadly held beliefs (Houston and Cummins 1998), but the monumental art, that often is used in warfare studies, creates a skewed picture of a plurality of human agents since our knowledge of “commoners” is scarce, despite attempts to emphasize their role (Lohse and Valdez 2004).

Warfare or other forms of competition is often seen as the prime reason for social and ideological change, because in macro-level models there tend to be an ideal structure that people follow. People are trapped in structures they share and cannot change. To be able to break it, something drastic must take place, preferably from the outside, since an ideology or a social formation seldom changes itself in drastic ways. More drastic than internal or external conflicts that escalates to warfare is hard to find. Mayanists have therefore focused on a macroperspective of ideology and warfare since they often emphasize the social whole rather than its assumed parts. For example, some earlier models on the origin of states (a macro-entity) in the Maya area singled out population pressure and warfare as crucial for the emergence of states. Ball (1977) and Webster (1977) assumed that the elite took control over land and other crucial resources and legitimized themselves through war. The rest of the population had to submit to an elite with military superiority.

Factional competition models that largely follow in a similar vein focuses on conflicts within classes and on alliances between classes. It is assumed that intra-elite competition limited exploitation and the ruling stratum needed to finance its lifestyle through war with neighbours (Brumfiel 1994:3-10; Clark and Blake 1994:17-21). Other models have combined factional competition with centralizing tendencies that is seen at some larger sites. These models emphasize a fluctuation between centralization and decentralization of political power, often as effects from tensions between kingship and kinship (Blanton, et al. 1996; Iannone 2002; Marcus 1993; McAnany 1995). Here the emphasis is more on how to resolve internal conflicts through ideology. Ideology in these models tend to focus less on cosmology.

Like many other proponents for ideological models, Demarest argues that no state-directed subsistence system was needed in the Lowlands. Control over labour would have been more important than control over territory since the state would have had little control over the local economy. The power which was based on ritual, marriage alliances, and warfare, would have gone through fluctuating phases. Demarest argues for a theatre state where rituals and ideology were used to gain and maintain power. Since the state was dependent on ideology, it was vulnerable to ecological crisis and military defeats from inter-elite status rivalry (Demarest 2000:289-291; 2004:109).

In reaction to earlier ideological models based on “foreign” analogies, Prudence Rice (2004) has revived and expanded ideas of Edmonson (1979) and Puleston (1979). Her model is based on direct historical analogy and by this she obviously assume that the “Maya culture” in the Southern Maya Lowlands was a difference of degree to the one in the north. She argues that the Classic period people in the Southern Maya Lowlands had the same calendar-based political organization that existed in the north during the Postclassic. This is the 13 k’atun cycle, also known as the may-cycle. The cycle was seated in a city that became the cycle seat (may k’u) for 256 years with an additional 128 years as the guest of another centre. Other towns in the city’s realm fought to seat one of the 13 k’atuns in the cycle, something that gave political powers for almost 20 years (Rice and Rice 2004:134). What has earlier been seen as “status-rivalry”, factional competition, or centralization of political power is, according to Rice, the effect of either ritual competition or warfare between sites in order to seat a k’atun. These k’atun seats held secular powers and was in control of tribute rights, land titles, and public office. Since these changed every 20 years, warfare would have been fairly continuous, at least in archaeological time (Demarest, et al. 2004:566).

It has almost become the mantra of this blog, but I need to point out once again that Mayanist model building too often relies on ethnographic analogies (either direct or general), a generalized culture-history, cultural evolution, and a rudimentary ideological concept (in terms of its psychological connection). This is because the macro-perspective dominates. Such perspectives offer fairly easy “package” solutions, a way to fit different aspects together that maybe should not be put together. It is assumed that warfare and the State are part of the same machinery. From a Deleuzian perspective this is not the case as indicated in my earlier post mentioned in the beginning.



  1. When I was reading about the sacbe radiating out from one of the Maya cities, I wondered how they could have made trade safe. If there were roads from one city to another that would mean trade and movement of goods. That would lead to robbery along the roads.
    To quell roberies, maybe the cities needed fear of reprisal. To get fear of reprisal, maybe the cities needed to be seen by common people as frightening. How else could groups travel without being wiped out and robbed?

  2. We have no idea of how risky it was to travel on sacbes, roads or trails. Most people probably had little to fear in the case of being robbed (being raped was perhaps a greater risk), basically because farmers had little of values. As for more valuables, traders, etc. we have to speculate. I know at least that the Aztecs punished thieves.

    Probably in times of war, drought, famine, or other kinds of stress led to increased robberies, particularly on narrow trails, perhaps not on wide causeways. I doubt there were gangs like Robin Hood in the forest, but who knows? But I am sure there were always the threat of being punished that kept some people from robbing others, but as always, no matter how fierce the penalties are people in need will do what it takes.


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