Archaeology digs of numerous houses excavated at two sites in southern Belize is providing insight into gaping wealth inequality in ancient Maya cities – a disparity that researchers believe was closely linked to despotic leadership.
Archaeologists on Wednesday said they studied remains of 180 homes in the medium-sized city of Uxbenká and 93 homes in the smaller nearby city of Ix Kuku’il, which both flourished during the Classic Maya period from roughly 250 to 900 AD. Uxbenká is near Nin Li Punit, one of the Top Ten Maya Sites in Belize. Image above of Rio Blanco near Uxbenká by Bruno Kuppinger.
During this time, the Maya produced majestic pyramids and wondrous works of sculpture and painting, employed hieroglyphic writing and excelled at calendar-making and mathematics.
The researchers gauged wealth inequality based on the mix of large and smaller homes, along with the size and nature of the structures. “Wealth inequality was dispersed across the landscape, with larger houses surrounded by smaller houses in neighbourhoods far from the monumental core of the cities,” said archaeologist Amy Thompson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Field Museum in Chicago and lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The findings, the researchers said, help shed light on the phenomenon of wealth inequality in human societies from antiquity to the present day, with the ancient Maya holding no monopoly on such disparities. Researchers are trying to understand how inequality forms, manifests itself in ancient cities and is perpetuated, said University of New Mexico anthropology professor and study co-author Keith Prufer, director of the Uxbenká Archaeological Project.
“Wealth inequality is a hallmark of all ancient civilisations, and has its origins with the development of food production – agricultural surplus – that allowed certain individuals to control disproportionate shares of resources and to compel, through persuasion or coercion, others to provide labor and goods to increase wealth inequality,” Prufer said.
Generally the more despotic the system, the more wealth inequality exists, Prufer added.
“With despotic governance, the principals do not depend on their local populace for support. Hence, there is less concern with the well-being of those people or the efficiency of their production,” said study co-author Gary Feinman, the Field Museum’s MacArthur curator of anthropology.
The study note that “Nobles living in district seats and lower-level neighborhood heads reaped the benefits of patron-client-like relationships and the associated trickle down of goods acquired through exclusionary exchange networks. In hinterland neighborhoods exterior to districts, larger houses had access to prestige goods. For example, at Uxbenká, households in Neighborhoods 11 (0.55) and 15 (0.49) had Pachuca obsidian. These interpersonal ties linked principals at the polity level, to nobles at the district level, and to larger, founding households at the neighborhood level [cf. 17], resulting in a trickle-down effect of wealth inequality at nested scales.
“Classic Maya principals depended on transactional ties of alliance, exchange, and marriage to knit together socioeconomic networks. Situated at each network node, which were linked through both horizontal (relatively equivalent) and vertical (power differentiated) ties, were Maya rulers of different rank and clout in conjunction with their followers. Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il were linked to vast inland and coastal trade networks. In addition to non-perishable prestige goods, we suspect that cloth was imported into the region, as part of these exclusionary exchange networks. Historically, cloth products including mats and huipiles were traded to southern Belize by merchants and cacao was exported. For the Classic Maya, Baron points to southern Belize as an intensive cacao producing region, where networked principals hosted foreign merchants and exported cacao. Belize Cacao served both as a ritual beverage of symbolic value and as a currency throughout Mesoamerica. In southern Belize, export of cacao likely helped enrich certain households in these districts and returned valued goods from the Classic Maya heartland.
“For the rural polities in southern Belize, patterns and degrees of wealth inequality parallel those found at core polities such as Caracol, Tikal, and Uxul in the Maya heartland. At Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il, high degrees of wealth inequality were manifested at multiple, smaller, socio-spatial scales for each polity, although greater variability is present in the neighborhoods . Similar findings have been reported at Chunchucmil. There, Gini coefficients calculated for two of the settlement’s neighborhoods paralleled that for the polity as a whole]. Thus, in two peripheral domains in the Classic Maya world, northern Yucatán and southern Belize, high degrees of wealth inequality were maintained outside the Central Petén heartland. In conjunction, these case studies highlight a clear rationale to assess degrees of wealth inequality across multiple analytical scales to understand how inequities were reproduced and maintained.”
Inequality is ever-present and its manifestations markedly variable. To begin to understand this variation, we must build a wide, diverse set of cases, past and present. Here, we measured wealth inequality in the Rio Blanco Toledo Belize valley at the edges of the Classic Maya world. We recorded high degrees of wealth inequality that were not entirely expected given the peripheral setting. The levels of inequality measured parallel values that have been calculated for larger contemporaneous polities situated in the Classic Maya heartland. The high degree of wealth inequality encountered is grounded in how power was financed, mainly through external resources. More specifically, the monopolization of exclusionary exchange networks and the precious goods that were transported through them underpinned the wealth and power of Classic Maya principals, even at the peripheries. These political practices, and the parallel manifestations of high degrees of wealth inequality, provide a clear contrast with the levels of wealth inequality and the ways that governance and power were financed in other prehispanic Mesoamerican centres).
History does not repeat, but it often rhymes. In the Classic Maya world, wealth inequality emerged through the monopolization of resources and the manipulation of those resources through principal networks, which ramified those inequities at regional, polity, and neighborhood scales. Differential access to resources based on fiscal financing was a key variable in the high degrees of wealth inequality among the Classic Maya while increased collectivity and community access to public goods and services likely dampened the levels of wealth inequality among contemporaneous Central Mexico and Oaxaca communities. Understanding how variations in governance and financing fostered differential degrees of wealth inequality in the past elucidate how these same processes may manifest today and helps to guide policies and practices that can be implemented to lessen and prevent the further expansion of systemic inequalities in contemporary contexts.