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Tulane Maya Symposium Abstracts


Mapping Inequality: Lessons from Central Mexico
Barbara E. Mundy, Robertson Chair in Latin American Art, Tulane University

Painted manuscripts of Central Mexico often present images of historic migrations, led by elites, and genealogies of ruling families, set against a backdrop of territory. Cartography, then, offers a visual record of the inequality implicit in social hierarchies. At the same time, as physical objects that had to be created and cared for, maps depended upon the involvement of a range of social actors and were shaped over time by evolving practices. In this talk, I turn to a selection of maps from Central Mexico to show levels of social complexity implicated in objects that seem, on their surfaces, to offer direct records of inequality.


Preclassic Maya Societies and the Question of Inequality
Felix Kupprat, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Kathryn Reese-Taylor, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary
Debra Walker, Florida Museum of Natural History

For the Maya area, the Middle Preclassic period (c. 1100–400 BCE) has been characterized as a time of rapid cultural change in which pre-ceramic foragers adopted a sedentary lifestyle, intensive agricultural practices, ceramic technology, and public monumentality. Presumably, societies became complex, i.e. hierarchically stratified, and by the beginning of the Late Preclassic (400 BCE–200 CE) sufficient cultural institutions had arisen to speak of states or state-like formations in major Preclassic sites. However, the evidence for marked economic and political distinction is particularly sparse until the very end of the Preclassic. In this talk we review the models and the actual evidence for the rise of institutions, economic systems, and personal wealth over the course of the Preclassic period. We also contrast the social constructions of wealth and status differentiation with those of the Classic period in the Maya lowlands, as well as offer comparisons to other societies.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Political Consolidation and Collapse in the Southeastern Maya Lowlands
Nicholas Carter, Department of Anthropology, Texas State University

This paper presents new epigraphic evidence about the formation and dissolution of patron-vassal relationships in the southeastern Maya lowlands, especially the area of the western Maya Mountains, during the Late and Terminal Classic period. Hieroglyphic inscriptions reveal how kingdoms in the area were incorporated into the Kaanul alliance network, and how they contended for regional dominance as that network broke up under pressure from Tikal. A hitherto unreadable monument, now legible in a photogrammetric model, contributes new data to our understanding of these processes and of the nature of ancient Maya war.

Inequality of What? Multiple Paths to the Good life
Scott Hutson, Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky

Inequality is value’s shadow. For every standard of value, some people have more, others have less. Though inequality takes many forms, several researchers, particularly those taking a capabilities approach, have noted that disparities in wealth or income are often not the best indicators of inequality. While archaeologists who take heterarchical approaches to the past often embrace multifaceted views of inequality, recent trends such as settlement scaling and Gini analysis sometimes reduce inequality to a single variable. A view of ancient societies as fractured and heterogeneous anticipates a variety of goals, tastes, and desires, and therefore a variety of discordant and disorderly inequalities. This paper uses case studies from Ceren, Uci, and Chunchcumil to suggest that what might look like inequality from certain metrics should instead by understood as different paths to the good life.

Quality of Life and Political Change in the Western Maya Lowlands: Classic Period Transitions at Altar de Sacrificios
Jessica L. Munson, Department of Anthropology/Sociology and Archaeology, Lycoming College

Archaeological studies of inequality commonly privilege economic indicators of wealth due to widely available material evidence. While these approaches facilitate comparative analyses across broad regions and over long periods of time, such methods are limited in their ability to capture the more richly textured social lives and overall wellbeing of people in the past. To develop more holistic and inclusive studies of ancient inequality, this paper proposes quality of life as a new framework for archaeological analysis of socioeconomic disparity. Emphasizing the material, social, and somatic means by which people could have achieved “a good life” also requires attention to the macro-level structures of society. At the intersection of these domains, we can examine how quality of life is mutually shaped by relations of power, social inequality, and broader political dynamics. Recent investigations at Altar de Sacrificios combined with multiproxy data from legacy projects allow us to examine quality of life among the Classic Maya to address questions about lived experience in a precarious and changing political world (ca. 250-950 CE). Tracing the disparities in material wealth, social well-being, and health through time enables a more detailed analysis of the specific contexts and historical processes that gave rise to varying degrees of inequality in the past.

2000 years of Wealth Inequality in the Maya Lowlands: House Size, Settlement Patterns, and Social Organization through Time
Amy Thompson, Department of Geography & the Environment, The University of Texas at Austin

Inequality is present in all human societies, but varies greatly across space and time. One metric to measure inequality is variations in house size; in pre-industrial societies, house size is often a reflection of wealth. Drawing on legacy data from pedestrian surveys and more recent remote sensing technology such as satellite images and lidar, robust settlement data from the Maya region was used to assess variations in house size. House size was calculated among ancient and modern Maya communities alike. These house size metrics are used to calculate a Gini coefficient, which is a measure of unevenness within a given dataset, in this case, house size, and has recently been used to evaluate inequality. In a doing so, a Gini of 0 represents perfect equality in the dataset, and a Gini of 1 represents perfect inequality. Here, Maya centers with higher Gini coefficients indicate greater distributions in house size, which I interpret as greater degrees of inequality, while Maya centers with lower Gini coefficients indicate more similar distributions in house size, alluding to lesser degrees of inequality. Data from more than 40 ancient Maya centers spanning from the Middle Preclassic (800-400 BCE) to the Late Postclassic (1200-1500 CE) informs our understanding of the heterogeneity of inequality among these ancient Maya cities across both space and time. Digging into a case study from southern Belize, the degree of inequality based on house size among six modern Mopan and Q’eqchi’ communities is evaluated using satellite imagery and GIS. These findings are compared to nine Classic (300-900 CE) Maya cities, providing insights into spatial inequities in modern and ancient Maya communities residing on the same landscape 2000 years apart from one another through an analysis of house size, at multiple nested scales such as cities and neighborhoods. This study provides an in-depth analysis of how a single proxy, house size, can be used to assess wealth inequality. It complements other studies drawing on additional measures of wealth or multi-proxies for assessing inequality among the ancient Maya, building towards a more holistic understanding of past human behaviors.

Human Plunder: The Role of Maya Slavery and Inequality in Postclassic and Early Conquest Era Yucatan, 1450-1550
John F. Chuchiak IV, History Department, Missouri State University

Upon initial contact with the lowland Yucatec Maya, the Europeans discovered that a significant number of Maya slaves existed within the Maya communities that they encountered. War captives, orphans, and forced and enslaved sexual servants from the lower classes, Maya slaves and their possession became by the late Postclassic and early colonial period a major source of wealth and power of the traditional Maya Nobility. By the contact period, Maya slaves and forced servitude became transformed into the most important system of patrimonial wealth and power. This presentation examines the political economy of Postclassic Maya slavery, its scale, nature, and cultural practices to understand the political and economic impact of indigenous slavery, and the continued role that Maya slaves and slavery played in the early development of the conquest credit system that led to the financing of the expeditions of conquest organized by the conqueror Francisco de Montejo and his family and associates in the conquest of Yucatan (1527-1546).

Inequality and Suppression: Tracing Ritual Demise among the Ch’orti’ Maya
Kerry Hull, Department of Religion, Brigham Young University

The Ch’orti’ Maya of southern Guatemala have endured repression by governmental bodies regarding human rights, land restrictions, and educational neglect. Many important aspects of Ch’orti’ ritual practice have been simultaneously suppressed, sometimes through direct government action, but even destructively through pressures by outside religious groups. In this presentation, I track the systematic stifling of native religious practices by first describing what we know about earlier ceremonialism and then discussing the myriad of ways much of Ch’orti’ traditional ritual has been coerced into disuse. Centuries of continual discrimination against ethnic Ch’orti’ has facilitated the decline in ceremonialism through the devaluation of the Ch’orti’ worldview. Finally, I assess recent grassroots efforts to revitalize ceremonial practice among the Ch’orti’—a laudable and yet problematic enterprise—as a means of resistance and cultural redefinition.

Otra Justicia: Maya Survivors' Struggle for Justice After the Acteal Massacre
Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

The 1997 Acteal Massacre, one of the most emblematic cases of state-sponsored violence against Indigenous peoples in Mexico, is marked by impunity for its perpetrators. Behind this counterinsurgency strategy exists an ongoing logic of elimination that has not been limited to effacing dissident Indigenous bodies. At the core of this strategy is the aim of obliterating survivors’ testimonies and erasing the state’s responsibility in the massacre. Ironically, the most remarkable mechanism of impunity has taken place where injustice was supposed to reach an end: the judiciary. Its mechanism is the manufacture of legal truths.

In this talk, I analyze the process through which the legal truth about the Acteal case has been produced and propose the concept of judicial limpieza to theorize the juridical technologies of erasure of Indigenous survivors’ voices and epistemologies. I argue that the state has found an undemocratic and yet legitimized space in the judiciary where it can rewrite history and suspend the rights of dissident Indigenous peoples while they are striving to invoke these very rights in the courts. I contend this process has produced a rights-based racialization, one that is opposed by radical responses from Maya survivors who are struggling to devise an autonomous kind of justice.


Reconsidering Classic Maya Captivity
Marc Zender, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

The topic of inequality—and of captivity, slavery, forced labor, and similar extreme asymmetrical dependencies—among the Maya of Precolumbian Mexico and Guatemala is an especially timely one. It is sometimes claimed that there were no such dependencies, or at least that they were relatively ephemeral, particularly as compared with the Mexica/Aztec and other Late Postclassic cultures of Central Mexico. And yet, the late historical linguist Terrence Kaufman long ago reconstructed *muun as the Proto-Mayan word for ‘slave’ (see, e.g., Kaufman 1972:111; Kaufman and Norman 1984:126; Kaufman and Justeson 2003:60-61), suggesting a time-depth of at least several thousand years for this cultural practice. Additionally, the word p’entak ‘slave’ is widely but somewhat unevenly spread in the lowland languages, suggesting a Late Postclassic diffusion alongside the continuing practice of slavery. Taking these predominantly linguistic observations as our point of departure, we can begin to reconsider the larger significance of the numerous Classic Mayan titles related to captivity (e.g., b’aak ‘captive’, ajb’aak ‘captive-taker’, chan[ul] ‘captor, guardian’, etc). Equally significant are the many captive-taking and captive-gifting events known from Classic Maya historical texts: some so-called ‘captives,’ we now know, were held and/or exchanged for years, and this forces us to reconsider what have long been seen as a temporary condition in the immediate wake of warfare. Still other ‘captives’ continue to have somewhat unclear relationships with former captors, even long after their apparent release from bondage, once again suggesting somewhat more permanent asymmetrical relationships than previously considered.

Middle Preclassic Interactions in the Middle Usumacinta Region: A View from Aguada Fénix
Verónica Amellali Vázquez López, Middle American Research Institute/Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University

The recent discovery and exploration of Aguada Fénix (Tabasco, Mexico), by the Middle Usumacinta Archaeological Project, forces us to rethink the social and cultural relationships of the Preclassic inhabitants of this region during ca. 1200—700 BCE, particularly with respect to their neighbors on the Gulf Coast and in the Maya Lowlands. The site stands out due to its monumental earthen architecture that includes a massive rectangular platform delimited by low structures. An E group is in the platform’s center, associated with ritual deposits similar to traditions identified at sites in the Grijalva River region, the Gulf Coast, and the Maya Lowlands, which suggests significant interaction among these regions.

The spatial arrangement of the site embodies significant symbolic meaning, which is reinforced by the frequent presence of partial offerings in the construction fills and more complex offerings in the E group. The horizontal monumentality of the platform points to a considerable community effort that required a substantial mobilization of labor. The absence of indicators for a pronounced social hierarchy suggests that the construction of monumental architecture did not depend exclusively on a centralized authority. In this talk we present some results of the explorations in Aguada Fénix to characterize the local population in terms of material culture and to reflect on the processes that gave rise to this type of communal project.

Reawakening Tunica: a Recently ‘Sleeping’ Language of Louisiana
Judith Maxwell, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

The Tunica belong to the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, an amalgam of four ethnic groups: the Tunica, Biloxi, Avoyelle and Ofo. The last native speaker of Tunica, Sesostrie Youchigant, died in 1948. Since 2010, Tulane has been working with the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe to re-awaken the Tunica language. In this workshop we will go over a brief history of the tribe and the language revitalization efforts. After a few short lessons introducing the sounds, writing system, and basic grammar of the language, we will look at short texts in the language. We will compare a slightly re-worked archival text collected from Youchigant by Dr. Mary Haas in the 1930s with three modern texts being used to promote Tunica literacy.

Modeling Land and Water with Lidar-Derived Terrain Models
Luke Auld-Thomas, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

Natural resources and their spatial distribution play a powerful but complex role in shaping economic inequality. To understand these relationships, we need good models of resource distribution that we can relate to archaeological data. Lidar is a powerful tool for doing just this. In this workshop, we will develop models of resource distribution--specifically arable land and drinking water--and explore their relationship to archaeological settlement, using examples from the northern Yucatan Peninsula and the Peten. No prior GIS or remote sensing experience is necessary or assumed.

Introduction to the Ch’orti’ Maya Language
Kerry Hull, Department of Religion, Brigham Young University

Introduction to the Ch’orti’ Maya language, describing its sounds, the structure of words, and the structure of sentences. The approach will be grammatical, but no prior knowledge of linguistics or of Maya languages will be assumed.

Assessing Architecture and Inequality through Lidar in the Southern Maya Lowlands
Laura Gilabert Sansalvador, Universitat Politècnica de València
Francisco Estrada-Belli, Department of Anthropology, Tulane University

In this tandem presentation we explore the architectural and material requirements of Maya masonry architecture, specifically, vaulted building to assess its value as a proxy for wealth and status inequality in maya society. Through a detailed study we derive specific structural characteristics of Maya vaulted architecture, as well. We then test a method by which these characteristics can be used to identify vaulted structures among residential mounded architecture visible on lidar-derived image maps.