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Tulane Maya Symposium Abstracts



Is “Collapse” a Useful Term in Understanding Pre-Columbian Maya History?
Jeremy A. Sabloff, Santa Fe Institute

The term “collapse” has, in recent years, become quite controversial, and there is good reason to question the utility of this loaded word going forward.  This keynote talk will focus on understandings of the late 8th and early 9th centuries CE cultural processes and environmental events in the Maya Lowlands that culminated in what has often been seen as a political collapse.  Moreover, the talk will examine whether such understanding can help illuminate comparable trends at other times in Maya history and in other complex societies in general.




Political Cycling, Resilience and Collapse during the Preclassic Period of Pacific Guatemala
Michael Love, California State University, Northridge
Julia E. Guernsey, University of Texas at Austin

Early complex societies are dynamic, but at the same time fragile, entities.  They are subject to cycles of integration and decomposition, which can be brought about by a number of causes. The Preclassic period of Pacific Guatemala and Chiapa is characterized by a series of political cycles in which periods of centralization alternated with episodes of decentralization.  Although the long term trajectory of social change in the Pacific coast is one of increasing complexity, climaxing in the development of a Late Preclassic network of early city-states, that development is by no means seamless.  Throughout the Preclassic period there were paroxysms of social and cultural change, witnessed by shifts in paramount settlement location, transformations of economic relations, and alterations in material culture.  In most cases these problems were overcome and new regional polities emerged that were seemingly larger, more differentiated, and perhaps better integrated.  At the end of the Preclassic epoch, however, the network of city-states collapsed.  Many settlements were abandoned and those that survived were much diminished.  This paper examines how the Late Preclassic collapse differed from earlier crises: what strategies were used to navigate the rapids of social change in the Early and Middle Preclassic and why didn’t they work in the Late Preclassic?


The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Chichen Itza
Geoffrey E. Braswell, University of California- San Diego

Scholarly understanding of the history of Maya Yucatan in the 8th through 12th centuries has been hindered by confusing terms, the use of a single ceramic chronology for the entire vast area, a relative dearth of absolute dates, and even modern political concerns within archaeology. Nonetheless, exciting projects have provided a wealth of data on this vibrant area and important time span. 

I present what we know about the rises and falls of Chichen Itza and how they relate to other events across the northern Maya lowlands. Chichen Itza was founded in the Preclassic but was a small neighbor of Yaxuna until the late 9th century when it replaced it as a regional capital.  This first cultural and political highpoint ended in the early 900s, shortly before or contemporary with the period when many great cities in the interior of Yucatan were abandoned and remaining populations moved to the coasts. But Chichen Itza was never abandoned and saw a second renaissance in the later 10th and (at least) early 11th centuries, a time when it was undoubtedly one of the most powerful cities in the peninsula. We cannot yet precisely date the end of the supremacy of Chichen Itza, but the 12th century was a dark age across the northern Maya lowlands, as it was in the south.


Ecosystem and Cultural Collapse
Mark Brenner, University of Florida

Many terms that are used to describe ecosystem condition and processes (e.g. succession, resistance, resilience, stability, stress, strain, flickering, alternative stable states, tipping points, collapse, hysteresis) can also be applied to cultural development and decline.  Natural and social systems are complex and are affected by internal and external forces that can trigger “state” change.  Paleolimnologists use multiple variables in lake sediment cores to explore past conditions in water bodies, for example to track historical shifts in water-column pH, trophic status, or dissolved color.  Great strides have been made in developing “proxy” sediment variables that can be used to infer past lakewater conditions, even quantitatively, but detailed understanding of the drivers and mechanisms of ecosystem change sometimes remain elusive – and hence are hotly debated. It can be difficult to identify the multiple stressors that caused a past shift in water quality, determine the rate of ecosystem change, or assess whether the aquatic system can be returned to a pre-disturbance (baseline) condition, even if mitigation or restoration efforts are undertaken. Similar challenges face archaeologists who try to determine whether past societal “collapse” in fact occurred, identify the factors that contributed to the cultural demise, pinpoint the timing of social disintegration, or evaluate why the system did not return to a previous state.  Earth scientists working in the Maya Lowlands have generated paleoecological and paleoclimate data that indicate late Holocene, human-mediated transformation of the landscape (deforestation and soil erosion), and periodic, severe and persistent droughts.  These findings raise the question of how such climate and environmental stressors affected Maya society.  The suggestion that drought played a role in Maya cultural transformations (collapse) relies largely on temporal correlation between past dry periods and changes in the archaeological record, both of which are dated with error, and until recently, relied on qualitative inferences for “relative dryness.”  New discoveries, however, are bringing us closer to assessing the impact of drought on the ancient Maya. Well-dated speleothems have provided higher-resolution records of past rainfall variation. Evidence from codical texts illustrates that the Precolumbian Maya were preoccupied with droughts, and dates on five dry events in the written record coincide well with droughts documented in lake sediments and stalagmites.  Lastly, new approaches have enabled reconstruction of the absolute decline in rainfall during past drought episodes (41-54%, and up to 70% at times), which will help agronomists investigate the implications for ancient crop production. I will discuss parallels between ecosystem and cultural collapse and explore ways in which we might better evaluate climate and environmental stressors on ancient Maya culture.           


Climate and Collapse? Developing High-Precision Chronologies to Bridge Disciplines
Julie A. Hoggarth, Baylor University
Claire E. Ebert, Northern Arizona University
Jaime J. Awe, Northern Arizona University

Increasing archaeological literature has focused on the impacts of severe drought at the end of the Classic period as one of several factors that contributed to the breakdown in Classic political institutions and large-scale depopulation across the region. Here we present on the evidence for drought within the paleoclimate and archaeological records and the major questions that remain regarding human impacts from and adaptations to climatic stress. We discuss our current research project developing high-precision chronologies, a topic relevant to both disciplines, and some preliminary results reconstructing demographic and political change in western Belize associated with the rise and fall of Classic Maya polities in the Belize River Valley


Late Classic Maya Political Disintegration: Insights from Aguateca and Ceibal
Daniela Triadan, University of Arizona

The rapid abandonment of Late Classic Aguateca around AD 810, caused by a violent attack of enemies, resulted in unparalleled in situ artifact assemblages in the houses of the elite neighborhood next to the royal palace. The data from these assemblages provide evidence that warfare was an important factor in the disintegration of the DosPilas/Aguateca polity. The fate of the Dos Pilas/Aguateca polity and the Ceibal polity were closely linked. Shortly after the downfall of Aguateca, Ceibal experienced a political re-florescence and was one of the last, large southern lowlands centers to be abandoned. Information from both of these sites provides a more nuanced story and suggests various factors involved in the political disintegration and permanent abandonments of the southern lowland centers at the end of the Late Classic/Terminal Classic.


The Classic Maya Collapse: Towards a Structural-Demographic Approach
Dimitri Baliaev, Russian State University for the Humanities

Collapse of complex societies always was one of the most contradictory problems in macrohistorical and evolutionary studies. While during the 70s and 80s a strong trend of constructing multicausal and multi-factor models was observed (e.g. Joseph Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies”), during two recent decades monocasual, mainly environmental, models again became widely popular (e.g. Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”).

Collapse of the Classic Maya states in the Southern Lowlands between 800 and 1000 AD that resulted in drastic political decline and great population loss is a matter of discussions since this concept was first formulated in the 1920s. Suggested explanations included diseases, earthquakes, draughts, anthropogenic and natural ecological crises, social conflicts, foreign invasions etc.

Structural-demographic theory was developed by Goldstone and others (Goldstone 1991, Turchin 2003 etc.) as a tool for understanding long-term social pressures that lead to revolutions, civil wars, and other major outbreaks of socio-political instability. The theory represents complex human societies as systems with three main compartments (the general population, the elites, and the state) interacting with each other and with socio-political instability via a web of nonlinear feedbacks. Although our data are still insufficient to create a thorough structural-demographic model of the Classic Maya collapse two important questions can be discussed. First, what traits of the Maya collapse could be explained within the framework of structural-demographic approach? Second, how the structural-demographic model elaborated for the European national states and agrarian empires could be applied in non-centralized complex agrarian society organized in small and medium-sized peer-polities?


And Then There Were None: The Terminal Classic Abandonment of the Puuc Region, Yucatan, Mexico
George J Bey III, Millsaps College
Tomas Gallareta Negron INAH-CRY

During the Late and Terminal Classic Periods (A.D. 700-1000), while other parts of the Maya world were undergoing the processes of transformation that led to the end of the Classic Period, the Puuc region of Yucatan experienced continued population growth and cultural florescence. Dozens of major centers flourished and thousands of towns and villages brought unprecedented prosperity. This success in the north, however, did not last and ultimately the entire Puuc region underwent wide-spread abandonment. This abandonment for the most part continues to the present with Puuc region population today only a small percentage of what it was at during the Terminal Classic. The evidence from research at the site of Kiuic and elsewhere in the region suggests the process of abandonment may have been rapid, though in some cases not total. Post-monumental occupations continued at some sites such as Uxmal and Huntichmul, but soon were to follow suit, leaving the region almost totally unoccupied except for occasional pilgrims. The high population density combined with extensive agriculture in an area dependent on rainfall for its survival has led to drought being considered by many archaeologists the primary cause for the abandonment of the Puuc population. The socio-political systems in operation throughout the region would have been fragile due to their success and a period of drought would have left them no alternative but to leave. Can this argument, however, fully explain what happened? Does it account for the fact that population density remained high in the lowlands immediately adjacent to the Puuc, despite similar abandonment of major Terminal Classic centers? And does it account for the fact the region remained largely unoccupied even after drought conditions subsided? If the Puuc was so attractive to the Maya since the early Middle Preclassic, why did they not return?


Cycles of Demographic Catastrophe and Recovery from the Terminal Classic through Postclassic Periods of the Northern Plains: New Settlement and Chronological Data from the Mayapan Vicinity
Marilyn A. Masson, The University at Albany SUNY
Carlos Peraza Lope, INAH
Timothy Hare, Morehead State University
Douglas J. Kennett, Pennsylvania State University
Stanley Serafin, Central Queensland University
Bradley W. Russell, College of St. Rose

Settlement in the Mayapan vicinity has been newly-documented from traditional and LiDAR-aided survey beyond the city walls of the urban Postclassic capital, with additional data provided by salvamento investigations of a long transect extended northward toward Mérida and southward toward Teabo. Postclassic Mayapan was the largest city of the Maya lowlands of its time by an order of magnitude. New research beyond the city walls doubles the original size estimates for its population, and also, a fourteenth century near-collapse from which the capital briefly recovered. In contrast to this Postclassic setting, the study area in the Terminal Classic was peopled by extensive houselots, all within sight of one another, and regularly distributed minor centers in what can only be described as a sleepy backwater of the northern Plains at least a day’s walk from the nearest Rank III town in the regional landscape. Despite Mayapan’s size and importance, and the large number of contemporary towns in northern Yucatan at this time, is clear that the Terminal Classic demographics exceeded Postclassic levels. The demographic collapse represented by the settlement disjunction dividing these two periods may rival some of the greatest documented in history. On the other hand, these data also reflect a tale of resilience and recovery, with new chronological evidence for lingering Terminal Classic rural households in the area through the eleventh century until a few decades before Mayapan’s emergence and the Postclassic resurgence.




New Archaeological, Epigraphic, and Linguistic Evidence on the Classic Period Collapse
Marc Zender, Tulane University
Marcello Canuto, Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University
Francisco Estrada-Belli, Tulane University


Emergence, Collapse, and Transformation in Mississippian Chiefdoms of the American South
Christopher B. Rodning, Tulane University

During the late first and early second millennium A.D., regional polities, often characterized as chiefdoms, developed at many points across the Native American cultural landscape of the American South and some parts of the Midwest.  Chiefdoms were centered at places where large pyramidal earthen mounds were built, normally in patterned arrangements around large earthen plazas.  Important examples of such Mississippian mound centers include Cahokia, Moundville, Etowah, Lake Jackson (Florida), Bottle Creek (Alabama), and several sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Savannah River Valley.  At the point of early encounters and entanglements between Native Americans and European explorers and colonists in the American South during the sixteenth century, chiefdoms still dotted the Mississippian cultural landscape, but they were different than those associated with Mississippian mound centers from preceding eras.  What changes in Mississippian chiefdoms took place between the eleventh century A.D. and the 1500s?  Did Mississippian chiefdoms collapse, and if they did, how did those developments shape the chiefdoms that were present when Spanish conquistadors traversed the Southeast in the 1500s?  Archaeologists have considered the development of different Mississippian chiefdoms in comparative perspective, and this talk concentrates instead on comparing and contrasting different cases of chiefdom collapse and cycling, and the long-term and short-term trends that formed the cultural landscape of the Mississippian Southeast at the point of European contact.


Animating Effigy Censers at Mayapán: Links to the Codices and Yucatec Ethnohistory
Susan Milbrath, Florida Museum of Natural History

This workshop explores Mayapán’s effigy censers in the context of ritual performance, documented extensively in Maya codices and Diego de Landa’s account (ca. 1566). At Mayapán, the last Maya capital in Mexico, the effigy censer cult seems to flourish at a time when stone stelae marking the Katun cycle were no longer carved, suggesting that censers could substitute as Katun markers in these calendar ceremonies. Some censers were made in pairs and possibly for use in ceremonies described by Landa performed at the midpoint and end of the Katun (20 Tuns or about 19.7 years). According to Landa, effigy censers also served as “idols” in a number of annual ceremonies, most notably the Uayeb, year-end rituals designed to reestablish the ordering principles of time-keeping and the rotation of yearbearers. Mayapán’s effigy censers represent specific deities known from Maya rituals shown in Maya codices, including the Uayeb ceremonies. There are also a surprising number of foreign deities in the Mayapán effigy censer complex, and virtually all of these can be related to yearbearer ceremonies in the Codex Borgia, suggesting links with Central Mexican year-end ceremonies and the intrusion of foreign ideas near the end of Mayapán’s occupation in the 15th century.


DIY Ceramic Analysis
Caroline Parris, Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University

Ceramic sherds are the most commonly excavated artifact type in the Maya area.  As such, their analysis can be a daunting task for any archaeologist.  This workshop will present strategies for analyzing and interpreting Maya ceramics while reviewing the basics methods of ceramic analysis. Utilizing ceramic type collections from the Middle American Research Institute's collection, attendees will gain hands-on experience with sherds from across the Maya area. Attendees will become familiar with the methods used to analyze ceramic artifacts, learn how to integrate ceramic analysis into a research project, and gain ideas for teaching the basics to intro-level students. This workshop is deliberately planned to accommodate enthusiasts and archaeologists of all levels.


Last Men Standing: Uaxactun Dynasty in the Terminal Classic
Dimitri Baliaev, Russian State University for the Humanities

Uaxactun was one of the most important Maya sites from the Middle Formative to the Early Classic. It lost the high status in the Late Classic but unexpectedly revived in the Terminal Classic. Stela 12 erected in 889 AD marked the end of monumental tradition in the Central Peten that was a heart of the Maya world for a thousand years.

The workshop will concentrate on the late Late Classic and Terminal Classic Uaxactun inscriptions reanalyzed by the author and Alexander Safronov as a part of the activities of Uaxactun Regional Project directed by Milan Kovač (Comenius University of Bratislava). We will discuss Uaxactun dynastic sequence and the evidence for macropolitical ties of Uaxactun rulers in the 9th century. 


Workshop TBA