Posted by: Johan Normark | December 28, 2010

The ancient Maya and our capitalist consumption society

One of Sweden’s few internationally well known anthropologists is Alf Hornborg who also is professor in Human Ecology at Lund University. He has recently written a debate article in Göteborgsposten, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers. In the article it is argued that the technological development is not driven by the engineers’ good will to make life better for us but rather that the investments should be profitable. I agree with most of the contents of the article. However, in the text he makes an analogy between our own capitalist consumption society and the ancient Maya (he is not a Mayanist but he has frequently discussed Amazonian and Andean prehistory). I translate this paragraph for you:

“We let ourselves be doped by technology. But let us for a moment consider all this resource-consuming ‘gadget rage’ from the outside, as a cultural illusion just as misleading as the Maya temple pyramids. Like the pyramids, the machines have their winners and losers. One man’s toil is the other’s power. Just as inconceivable as that everyone gets their own pyramids is that our modern technology becomes available to all the inhabitants of the world.”

Of course, not all ancient Maya were buried in pyramids but these social formations were not democratic like the ideal Western society. These ancient “non-pyramid owning” people would probably never consider themselves as losers since they did not live in a capitalist world. I doubt that a farmer envied the tomb of a ruler. This is where I believe the so-called “lost-in-faith” models of the Maya collapse are wrong. They project too much of contemporary Western democratic and egalitarian ideals into a past non-democratic and hierarchical social formation. The Maya had a ritual-based economy quite different from the capitalist-based economy that drives our desires today. Here Hornborg’s analogy is misleading. There are two additional ways in which his analogy between the ancient Maya and our own over consumption is misleading.

First, the Mayanist/water management expert Vernon Scarborough proposes two pathways to social complexity: (1) technotasking and (2) labortasking. Technotasking is linked to rapid and exploitative resource use where a population of under-skilled labor is formed (the “loosers”). The Old world’s first states gave us technotasking and this is where we are today (this is Hornborg’s view). Labortasking is an investment in accretionally built enhancements and a long-term survival of a landscape. This is self-organizing and also leads to social complexity but at a slower rate of change. This is the Maya scenario that relates the construction of Maya monuments and water reservoirs to a different strategy to cope with environmental changes.

The third way in which Hornborg’s analogy partly misconstructs the ancient Maya is the hidden assumption concerning the labor investment in these Maya pyramids. Before Elliott Abrams classic study on energetics in Maya architecture (in 1994) it was believed that pyramids represented huge amounts of labor investment. The production of plaster for these structures was believed to be a primary cause for deforestation that led to the collapse in the Maya area. Abrams shows, from basic calculations of invested labor during several stages of the construction process, that the monumental architecture was constructed by considerably less input than earlier assumed. Hence, the Maya did not rely on huge labor pools to construct their pyramids. The “loosers” were considerably less than earlier believed.



  1. Very well put. It always annoys me when archaeologists make such offhand comparisons, even if indeed one can readily agree with his opinion about modern societies. Your brief on Vernon Scarborough was interesting. It reminds me of something Viveiros de Castro said about the differences in conceiving of production in Amazonian and Western thought. It’s in a 2004 article in Common Knowledge, where he contrasts Western fixations on production and creation with Amazonian conceptions that are somewhat different:

    “Where we find notions of creation at all – the fashioning of some prior substance into a new type of being – what is stressed is the imperfection of the end product. Amerindian demiurges always fail to deliver the goods. And just as nature is the result not of creation but of transformation, so culture is a product not of invention but of transference (and thus transmission, tradition). In Amerindian mythology, the origin of cultural implements or institutions is canonically explained as a borrowing – a transfer (violent or friendly, by stealing or by learning, as a trophy or as a gift) of prototypes already possessed by animals, spirits, or enemies.” (Viveiros de Castro, 2004: 237)

    We might start to rethink the Three Age model as a local rather than global concept. What are the implications of this?

  2. Indeed, the Three Age model is irrelevant to Mesoamerica. However, ´some people like to claim that the Maya was a “stone age” society only because they used chert and obsidian tools. Mesoamericanists do not use the Three Age model and I guess that also is a situation also relevant for South America. I suspect that the model is more relevant in the Old World where Eurasia and Africa were connected and potentially part of a greater world system.


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