Leaders with very hands-off manner

Ancient Maya
May 6, 2005

The popularity of Classic Maya civilisation in the media and in the public imagination has spawned many popular books dedicated to this ancient culture, yet the offerings are not repetitive in content. The relatively recent decipherment of the Mayan texts and the undertaking of extensive field projects has made an enormous amount of new information available.

Although Arthur Demarest's Ancient Maya contributes little new data, it is an interesting summary of much of the recent literature.

Demarest presents his interpretations of the data, in particular relating to the structure, development and demise of the Classic Maya civilisation.

He redefines the role of the Maya elite based on his analysis of recent epigraphic and archaeological data.

He acknowledges that "we still cannot describe with confidence the economic roles of rulers in the ancient Maya state". Demarest points out that the majority of the Classic-period sites had estimated populations of less than 20,000 and that the agricultural systems were, from necessity, decentralised - taking advantage of micro-environments by utilising a variety of agricultural strategies. He speculates that if these typical Classic-period sites were self-sufficient agriculturally, then elite control over the means of production would not only have been impractical but dysfunctional.

Demarest contends that the Maya elite played only a minor role in the exchange of utilitarian goods and undertook three main activities: the long-distance exchange in exotic goods; the execution of wars and raids; and performance of public rituals.

He points out that this model is a caricature of a far more complex social structure. For instance, there are ample examples of very large Maya sites where a centralised control of trade in foodstuffs would have been necessary to maintain the population. There are also examples of public works that would have needed centralised planning. Demarest argues that because the Maya elite were not in control of the infrastructure, they were unable to make adjustments in response to changing conditions. He says this was a major factor in the Maya collapse.

The argument is interesting, but this book has several troubling problems, the most serious of which are the discussions of Maya chronology and the Maya calendar. In his discussion of Maya astronomy, Demarest tells us that the Maya made meticulous observation of the Sun, the Moon, Venus and the stars and then used these observations to create calendars and tables with a high degree of accuracy.

In fact, the Maya calculations were rounded to the nearest day, they used ritual periods, not astronomical periods, and their calculations could not be used to predict the comings and goings of celestial bodies with any degree of accuracy.

Demarest also states that secure chronologies anchored by Maya Long Count dates are available for many Classic-period sites. He goes on to discuss Maya history using dates in the Gregorian calendar without telling us where these dates come from. In the case of Maya Long Count dates, they need to be converted to our calendar. The derivation of this number has been the centre of controversy among Mayanists since 1924, when the first solutions were published. Demarest seems unaware of this issue, its long history, the dearth of literature dedicated to it and the implications that this has for our interpretation of Maya history and astronomy.

The general public may find this book somewhat technical or too detailed, but it is still readable. Mayanists will find it useful because it summarises much of the recent data and because Demarest has a unique take on the Classic-period Maya.

Bryan Wells is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, Massachusetts, US.

Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilisation

Author - Arthur Demarest
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 373
Price - £45.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 521 59224 0 and 53390 2

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