Posted by: Johan Normark | September 12, 2011

Heterarchy and hierarchy in the Maya collapse

I am going through some texts that piled up on my floor during the spring. Hopefully these are the last of my “climate and cave” related texts that I need to consider for now as I am focusing my attention on water for the moment. In one of the texts, written by Carole Crumley, I found this quote about the Maya collapse.

“While the Maya political system was organized vertically, the economy appears to have been shaped by environmental constraints and characterized by fluidly networked interregional exchange. As water resources, forests, and soil fertility diminished, corporate groups creatively managed food production. Despite the success of such [heterarchical] community structures in the countryside, the huge centres of population were apparently ignorant of the corporate role in the conservation of environmental resources. Ultimately, an uninformed attempt at hierarchical management of resources, combined with the insensitivity of urban elites to the fragility of the environment and to the importance of the rural corporate infrastructure, may have crashed the system” (Crumley 2005:47, emphasis original).

I am skeptical to this conclusion since there are not that many clear examples of centralization or hierarchization of management in the Maya lowlands (the terraces at Caracol are one of the few examples). Crumley refers to Scarborough’s water management studies but I suspect that these water resources were less controlled than his model assumes. The hinterlands, where most people lived, do usually include smaller water sources that appear not to have been controlled by an elite. Crumley assumes that the urban elites were insensitive to the environment. It is always a problem to draw an absolute border between urban and rural area in the Maya lowlands. I think the distinction is irrelevant for the Prehispanic period. In fact, the site centers were also farmed (“urban farming” do also appear in modern cities). It is highly unlikely that elite managers were unaware of problems.

Crumley, Carole L. (2005). Remember how to organize: heterarchy across disciplines. In: Beekman, C. S. & Baden, W. W. (eds.), Nonlinear Models for Archaeology and Anthropology: Continuing the Revolution. Ashgate: Aldershot, pp. 35-50


  1. Somewhat off topic, but have you seen this:

  2. Yes I have. Everything looks very tidy and ordered. Few people and almos no houses apart from the monumental stuff.


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