Posted by: Johan Normark | August 26, 2009

Monumental constructions as potlatches

William Rathje is a Mayanist who became a garbologist. In the future I will post something on his interesting studies of contemporary garbage disposal and landfills. However, as a Mayanist he has had a great influence on the study of Maya political economy. In his utilitarian monopoly model from the 1970s, the Maya Lowlands were thought to be environmentally homogenous, and local exchange was not necessary. In the model a core emerged in demand of scarce resources which existed in the buffer zone. These resources (salt, obsidian, ground stone) were traded into the core in large volumes for production and distribution by elites which also controlled the export of local products. According to Rathje’s model, the core area spread the cultural influence to areas important for basic resources (the buffer zone). Indeed, there were architectural similarities between the Late Formative temples at for example El Mirador and Cerros. However, the proposed amount of salt was not needed and the quantities of imported obsidian were not large enough to support this model.

Anyway, Rathje wrote a short but interesting contribution in Ancient Maya Political Economies (edited by Masson and Freidel), a volume dedicated to him. He basically suggests that a nouveau elite competed with each other through potlatches, resulting in huge buildings. Potlatch means to give away and/or intentionally destroy valuable resources for the purpose of accumulating status. The word comes from the Kwakiutl on the Northwest Coast of USA.

Being a traditional processualist Rathje relies on the neo-evolutionary typology of a Big Man society that turns into a chiefdom, and later into a state. This is not my cup of tea but his model shows a possible way of understanding how hereditary social stratification emerges. It basically goes something like this: Big Man 1 holds a large public feast and during this event he gives Big Man 2 resources which have been accumulated by Big Man 1’s followers. Big Man 2 redistributes some of the resources to his followers. At a later feast Big Man 2 gives Big Man 1 twice as many resources. Each Big Man receives a greater status at this feast. If Big Man 2 cannot return much more resources he loses position and Big Man 1 is the only one receiving status and attracts some of the other Big Man’s followers. Of course, this model treats “followers” as a largely anonymous mass that seems to have little or no intention. Let us ignore that for the sake of simplicity.

Before the Europeans arrived the Kwakiutl did not destroy or destroyed very little of their resources during potlatches. Europeans spread diseases and 75% of the Kwakiutl population died. This meant that the available resources per person drastically increased and plenty of people could become a Big Man. In order to limit the ranks of Big Man, overabundance of resources were reduced by destruction of resources. Rathje, suggests that another option is not to destroy the resources but to turn them into social production and create monumental architecture, lavish burials or caches. These “Monstrous Visual Symbols” (MVS) have two effects: they remove labour and resources from competitors and they form a material focus for later community feasts and ceremonies.

Monstrous Visual Symbols at El Mirador

Monstrous Visual Symbols at El Mirador

With time, nouveau elites emerged that trapped social productions at fewer and fewer centres until one set of elites had taken control of most labour and resources. This elite turned into a hereditary aggrandizing elite that began to redirect labour and resources into infrastructures in order to remain in control. Thus, once this elite had been established it changed tactics and began to compete with other elites further away. The result would be fewer and smaller local MVSs. According to this model we would expect some of the largest buildings very early in the history of a “culture”. These would be preceded by several local developments where buildings increase in size, until a point when institutional power has been established and there is no longer a need to remove social production. Then buildings will decrease in size and numbers. These patterns are seen in for example Mesoamerica, Peru and Egypt. In the Mirador basin in Guatemala we find the largest structures ever built in the Maya area in the Late Formative period, several centuries before the Classic period.

Rathje’s model is as most processual models quite simplistic and reductive. Anyway, it points to potential causes behind the early emergence of monumental architecture in many societies that later fades away.

Rathje, William L. (2002) The nouveau elite potlatch: one scenario for the monumental rise of early civilizations. In Ancient Maya Political Economies, Marilyn A. Masson & David A. Freidel (eds), 31-40. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek.

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