Ancient Maya Houses Show Wealth Inequality Tied to Despotic Governance

Departmental News

Posted:  Mar 25, 2021 - 10:00am

In a new study in PLOS ONE, University of New Mexico alumna Amy Thompson, who graduated with a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 2019, and UNM Anthropology department  professor Keith Prufer report on their findings after examining the remains of houses in ancient Maya cities and comparing them with other Mesoamerican societies. They found that the societies with the most wealth inequality were also the ones that had governments that concentrated power with a smaller number of people.

“Differences in house size are a reflection of wealth inequality,” said Thompson, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago’s Field Museum, new assistant professor at University of Texas at Austin, and corresponding author of the PLOS ONE study. “By looking at how house size varies within different neighborhoods within ancient cities, we can learn about wealth inequality in Classic Maya cities.”

There are millions of Maya people alive today, but the period that archaeologists refer to as the Classic Maya civilization dates to 250-900 CE. Classic Maya society stretched across what is now eastern Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, and western El Salvador and Honduras, and it was composed of a network of independent cities.

“Rather than being like the United States today where we have one central government overseeing all the states, Classic Maya civilization was a series of cities that each had its own independent ruler,” Thompson said.

Across Mesoamerica, these political systems varied ̶ some shared power more collectively, while others were more autocratic and concentrated power in a smaller group of individuals. Archaeologists use a variety of clues to infer how autocratic a state was.

“We look at the way they represented their leadership. In burials, are certain individuals treated completely differently from everyone else, or are the differences more muted?” said Keith Prufer, an author of the UNM study. “Another key is to look at palaces. When you have very centralized palace buildings or funerary temples dedicated to a ruling lineage, the government tends to be more autocratic. In societies that were less autocratic, it’s harder to determine where rulers lived or even who they were.” 

Read the full UNM News article

This article by the Field Museum

This article by the Courthouse News Service