Mayan Societal Hierarchy:
From ancient times to the pre-colonial era
Mayan society is known for its artistic and mathematical accomplishments. From Chichen Itza to Tikal, Mayan shrines still inspire awe. Although the Mayans and their neighbors, the Aztecs, both practiced human sacrifice, the two societies are highly distinct. These distinctions came from differing religious perspectives and economic realities. The unique experiences of the Maya in carving a life out of the jungles gave rise to a unique societal structure.
To better understand this mysterious culture, archaeologists and historians must construct a new societal model. The Maya were, and are, unique among early Mesoamerican civilizations. In any society, there are exceptions to the accepted norm. These exceptions are what make any particular civilization unique. The Maya were more than just farmers and hereditary elites. In some cases, people worked across class lines. In others, they advanced from relatively humble beginnings to positions of respect within society.
The predominant view of Mayan society is that there were two social classes: elites and peasants – and that there was little or no crossover between the two. This may be too simplistic of a starting point for examining how Maya society functioned.
The original Mayan peoples were hunting and gathering tribes that inhabited Central America at least 10,000 years ago. These tribes were nomadic until the cultivation of Maize more than 5000 years later. As the production of Maize reached its peak, several Mayan cities began to emerge. A thousand years later, the cities were gone. It is from the ruins of those cities that most of what we know about the Maya has been learned.
Based on language groupings and historical settlement patterns, the Mayan society at its peak encompassed the eastern half of Mesoamerica. This would include what are now the nations of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and the Yucatan region of Mexico.
It is unknown when or why the Mayans settled these particular areas. The dense jungles of the region were particularly inhospitable for subsistence farming. The initial task of clearing the jungle vegetation was an immense effort in and of itself. The soil was often resistant to replanting, requiring farmers to move and start the process over again.
Despite the difficulties, the Mayans built a thriving culture that was noted for its artistic and mathematic achievements.
The Maya were not a centrally controlled empire like more modern nation-states. Instead, Maya society was a loose affiliation of settlements spread over a fairly large region. Local Lords called ajaws wielded a great deal of power over their respective territories. Local kingdoms gained or lost power through continual processes of warfare or political unification. It is likely that each local kingdom thought of itself as a separate, individual nation.
During the classic era of Mayan culture, city building reached its peak. Cities were essentially elaborate religious monuments. A pyramid was built at the center of each population center. Nearby, a temple and observatory served as the centers of religious activity. Courtyards and homes for the priestly class filled out the city center. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Mayan cities were abandoned by 900 a.d., well before the Spanish conquest.
Several of the Mayan cities grew quite large, though accurate population estimates are difficult to attain. Archaeological evidence shows that Tikal, the center of Mayan commerce may have had as many as 40,000 residents at its peak. Most of the population remained in smaller towns.
The vast majority of the population lived some distance away from the central pyramid. Typically, only the priests, the ruling elite and those serving them lived near the religious complex. In the surrounding regions, peasant farmers often combined into groups of 15-20 to more effectively work the land. It has been assumed that Mayan society was rigidly stratified. Much of the archaeological evidence confirms this phenomenon.
Some recent discoveries, however, have caused researchers to reconsider just how rigid the caste system really was. An excavation of an ancient Mayan city at Caracol, Belize revealed some contradictory results. For instance, interment sites that were once thought to contain only heads of households were found to contain multiple persons (Chase, 2004).
In Mayan society religion and authority were one and the same. The ornate temples and buildings were not only meant to please the gods; they also served the purpose of establishing in the minds of the larger population who the rulers are and why they are important. In the late classic period, there is evidence that the Maya engaged in ritual human sacrifice. Children were often used in these rituals. What seems incomprehensibly cruel by our standards was actually a benevolent act to the Maya. According to their religion, children were pure. Their sacrifice would be both pleasing to the gods and would ensure that the children would go to a good place in the afterlife.
By this time, the economic base of the society was rapidly eroding. At the same time, Maya in the northern regions were increasingly becoming assimilated with the Aztecs, Olmecs and eventually the Spanish. At the time of the conquest, the Spanish observed groups of residences clustered around a large religious complex. The cities were the “self-proclaimed centers and sources” of universal order (Authentic Maya, 2005). Outside the city, there were often several smaller towns that relied upon the city economically and religiously.
The larger Mayan cities, such as Tikal and Caracol, subjugated some of the smaller areas. What emerged was a political system reminiscent of ancient Greece. Josephy writes: “…the different centers can be likened, perhaps, to city-state capitals from which the elite castes of priests and nobles ruled the surrounding countryside in a feudal manner” (Josephy, 1997). Within that political structure, a stratified social hierarchy served the elite class. What is not known about Maya society is still more than what is known. The degree to which social stratification occurred and why are being re-examined.
The elite class of Mayan society can be divided into two subclasses. The upper elites were a very limited number of priests and hereditary rulers. The lower elites were functionaries that kept the system running smoothly. Both groups were instrumental in leading the Maya to an artistic, architectural and influential peak in the Classical era.
At the top of Maya society was a king who had regional authority and the ability to wage war on competing entities if necessary. Under the king were local lords who, in their own right, had as much power as kings. Local Lords were the unquestioned leaders of their communities and were not averse to flaunting that power. A traveling Lord created quite a spectacle and an obvious image of authority.
Moreover, when a Mayan Lord traveled outside his own domain,
he took with him a large retinue of retainers, partly for prestige
reasons and partly to carry the baggage.
The respect and awe for these local authorities can be seen in the artwork of the Maya. One recent find has been confirmed as a depiction of an actual classical-era ruler.
“The principal figure of the relief stood larger than life…he wore elaborate regalia, his sandaled feet resting on a band of symbols and star glyphs” (Stuart, 1997).The image of the local King as supreme was so ingrained in the Minds of the Maya, communities often did not survive when that leader died or was overthrown. A king who had a son could pass authority on to his son given certain conditions. The prospective king must have a captive taken in war. The captive would then be the unfortunate victim in the sacrificial rites that signify the beginning of a new king’s reign.
Lords and other palace staff and residents were not necessarily idle rulers. In some cases they participated in economic activity. At an archaeological dig in Caracol, Belize, researchers found evidence that palace residents “worked shell and bone and probably spun cloth” (Chase, 2004). Popular perceptions of a leisurely ruling class probably have been over done.
Priests also occupied the upper elite class of society. In a similar way to the early Israelites halfway around the globe, a portion of everything the Mayans produced was set aside so the priests would not have to work outside of their religious duties. The priests lived close to the center of the cities. Priests were responsible for carrying out sacrificial rituals. While assistants held the arms and legs of the person to be sacrificed, the priest would cut out the person’s heart.
The Mayan priests were also expected to ensure the ample production of maize. This crop was not only critical for survival it also was the driving force behind Maya religion and, ultimately, social hierarchy. Images of the maize god were common in Maya cities. People even took drastic steps to make them selves look like the maize god.
The lower elite were a less powerful, but indispensable tier of Maya society. They were essentially a professional class. The lower elite were scribes, architects and administrators. Some gained their positions through heredity, others based upon talent. The administrative class managed the cities and collected the taxes. A talented group of administrators was critical in a place not especially rich in natural resources or productive farmland. They had to make the most of what they had available.
Administrative intervention was probably necessary sometimes to
avoid the collapse of fragile economic systems in the event of
crop failure or problems with the supply of raw materials.
Another way of acquiring much needed resources was through warfare. The warrior class was an entirely separate class. Military leaders were of the noble class, but failure on the battlefield often resulted in their being sacrificed. The primary goal of the warrior class was to capture other warriors who would then be used as slaves.
In Aztec society, there is greater evidence of the labor specialization that creates a thriving middle class and increases interaction between the various classes. This is not to say that specialization did not exist in Maya society. Recent discoveries have proven otherwise. It may not have occurred to the same degree as in Aztec society, but it merits further study none the less. Without a better understanding of this phenomenon, the social picture of the Maya remains incomplete.
The Middle Class
Although the disparity in wealth between the elites and the rest of Mayan society was great, the social structure was not entirely inflexible. By the time of the European conquest the seeds of a more merit-based structure had been planted.
Economic specialization was most evident at the outer rings of the city. Here, craftsmen performed the multiple tasks necessary to support a city. Each individual residence within the city had its own specialization. Individual family clans focused on such tasks as bone, shell or stone tool production Chase, 2004). Most cities had a similar structure.
The excavation at Caracol revealed a slightly different structure. Craft workers lived in the outer reaches of the city but worked in clustered area closer to the center. For example, all woodworking activities would take place in one part of the city while all block makers would work in another. The necessity for these workers increased their societal standing, but only to a certain level. “If craft specialization typified the emergent “middle class” other specialist roles were the province of the upper levels of Maya society” (Henderson, 1997).
There is little evidence that these specialists had any increased access to the ruling dynasty. There were some limited means, though, in which a person could better his own situation. Some craftsmen were able to establish relationships with members of the dynastic class. Those who were particularly skilled were in high demand. These craftsmen probably bettered their financial situation but were never considered among the high elite.
The relative instability of a ruling class “guided by hereditary rulers often in conflict with each other” provided some opportunities for societal advancement (Bourbon, 2000). Someone with a proven track record of success in commercial activities or in the military could potentially increase his wealth and sphere of influence. By the same token, failure in either of these areas could mean death at the hands of a Maya priest.
Because it was the elites who primarily responsible for Mayan art, architecture and city-building; it is their perception of society that has dominated our thoughts for many decades. In recent years, however, research has given a slightly murkier picture of classic Mayan society. Archaeological evidence of specialization of labor and upward mobility has led an increasing number of scholars to believe that a modest middle class existed.
The Peasant Class
The vast majority of Mayans, even at the peak of the society, were peasant farmers. Wealth and influence was reserved to a few elites. “In Mayan society there were a large number of people who were exempt from taxation…in fact, only the peasant paid” (Whitlock, 1976). The peasant class was not completely devoid of societal benefits, however. For example, each farming family would be given a parcel of land to farm and to live on. Crop harvests were then collected and stored. After tributes were paid, some of the remaining harvest would be given to farmers who had suffered particularly unproductive growing seasons.
A typical household was a highly independent unit. Excavations have shown great differences in such things as diet and size of family. A household could contain from five to as many as forty members, all working as a cooperative economic unit (Chase, 2004). The Mayans practiced marriage rights. Each partner had two names, his own family name and that of his partner. A couple could marry as long as they did not already have one of the names of his or her spouse’s family. This did not mean relatives could not marry. In some cases, closely related individuals with different names were married. It was unlikely that marriages occurred between members of different social classes, although this possibility is still being explored.
Men and women of the peasant class had well defined roles. The men tended the fields and performed upkeep on the houses. Mayan homes of the classical era are not that different from those today. They were constructed from a frame of connected wooden poles with dried mud walls and thatched roofs. The one room homes were little more than sleeping quarters since all other activities, including cooking and washing, would be done outside. Women cooked for the family, made clothes, and performed other household duties.
For all classes of Mayan society religion was a primary driving force of life. The Maya had many Gods, each presiding over a different element of the universe. These gods were neither all good nor all evil. The gods covered different realms of the universe but were, in some cases, subservient to each other. The peasant class was continually reminded by the lords and priests that their ruling authority came directly from the gods.
The peasant class was given specific instructions by the priests for what they had to do in order to ensure a productive harvest. In return “…the peasants would feel that they had a right to expect cooperation from the Gods” (Whitlock, 1976). When famine struck it was usually the priests that bore the blame. Most of the dissent in ancient Mayan society was of this nature. In reality, there was little the peasant class could do to change the situation.
In the ninth century the Mayan city system disintegrated. It has been speculated that the cause was an economic decline. The productivity of local agriculture had run its course, despite the best efforts of the farmers and the ruling elite. “The ancient Maya priests surely must have foreseen what was impending and made many appeals to the Gods to send more abundant crops” (Stirling, 1965). It appears as though their prayers went unanswered.
The complete abandonment of the cities and their regal monuments points toward a more complex phenomenon than just crop failure. Warfare, both among the Maya themselves and against neighboring powers, had increased by the ninth century. If the Mayans had made greater strides toward economic specialization perhaps the cities could have survived. A social caste system that was never flexible enough may have led to a societal breakdown that no longer allowed the kingdom to function as an empire.
Analysis and Conclusion
Were the Mayans as socially stratified as it has always been assumed? The question is still open to debate and discovery. Interestingly enough, in such an elite-driven society, Maya religion did not reserve a place in heaven for these elites. In fact, the Maya concept of heaven is reserved to “those who had been hanged, sacrificed or died in childbirth. “Everyone else went to xibal, or hell” (Hooker, 2003).
The social structure, despite its inequalities, did make the most of what the Maya had. In an area that was never amenable to large-scale farming, the Maya thrived as a loosely affiliated empire for a thousand years. At the peak of the cities, the Maya were actually able to produce surplus food and trade it with their neighbors. Given the slash and burn farming style the Mayans knew, it was only a matter of time before the land had outlived its usefulness.
It is during this time that the stratification of the Mayan society became a detriment. A very small middle class had developed at the peak time of the Mayan cities. If this had been supported and exploited, a more diverse economy could have emerged. Tradable goods other than agriculture could have been produced. If this had occurred, it is likely that full urbanization of the cities would have occurred. The Maya, at that point, might have provided even more formidable resistance to the conquistadores. Ultimately, the diversification of the economy was too slow to save the cities once the fields went barren.
Despite lacking a government with strong centralized control, or perhaps because of it, the Maya survive today in relatively large numbers. In the Yucatan and surrounding areas as many as two million Maya still live. Ironically it was not the elite class that survived. For the thousands of Maya peasant farmers still working the lands of Central America, life has changed surprisingly little. Their dwellings and way of life are strikingly similar to their ancestors.
Even without their cities and strong religious guidance, the Maya resisted the conquering Spanish for many decades. Since they were used to living in a decentralized localities, the toppling of a leader did not doom the Mayans in the way it did for other Mesoamerican cultures. “In the Yucatan the Spaniards faced the difficult task of imposing centralized government on a divided and contentious people” (Burkholder, 1990). Uprisings continued well into the 1700’s.
The peak of Maya cities in the classical era coincided with the peak in religious power. Classical Maya society was, for the most part, stratified into two main classes with subdivisions within each. In each subdivision people had well-defined roles. Therefore, it is not surprising that Maya religion “understands its divinities in terms of such a stratified hierarchy” (DelCampo, 2003). Religion, in fact, was the most critical factor supporting social stratification. Del Campo continues; “Maya gods were principally associated with the elements of nature or, in the interests of nobility, with the divine legitimation of their ruling authority” (DelCampo, 2003).
A question researchers are now grappling with is whether the abandonment of the cities also signified a change in the Maya social structure. One way to find clues is to investigate the exceptions to the rule. As stratified as it was, societal tiers were not completely free of linkages. These linkages and exceptions merit further study as they may provide some evidence of the structure that emerged. According to Iannone, these “communities have been under explored when compared to the truly urban and genuinely rural poles” (Iannone, 2003).
The social structure that emerged after the classical era has allowed the Maya to survive frequent crop failure, warfare, conquistadores and the growing North American corporate influences.
Before forming ultimate conclusions about Maya social structure it should be noted that the kingship era, the time for which the vast majority of relics have been found, encompassed only about one thousand years of a culture at 15,000 years old.
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