Conceptualizing Prehistoric Water Scarcity in the Central Maya Lowlands: The Influence of a Critical Resource on Settlement Patterns and Political Economy

By Zarger, Rebecca K. | Georgia Journal of Ecological Anthropology, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Conceptualizing Prehistoric Water Scarcity in the Central Maya Lowlands: The Influence of a Critical Resource on Settlement Patterns and Political Economy


Zarger, Rebecca K., Georgia Journal of Ecological Anthropology


The dispersed settlement pattern of the Ancient Maya may have evolved in part as a consequence of the limited amount of permanent water available on the Karstic landscape (Scarborough 1996, p. 314).

The Ecological Setting

Many years of research by archaeologists, geologists, and climatologists have resulted in a better understanding of the ecological setting of the Yucatan Peninsula, on which the central Maya lowlands rest. One aspect of the landscape that is now more fully understood is the availability of water in this tropical forest ecological zone. In fact, because of the characteristics of the landscape, water is virtually unavailable several months out of the year in interior regions, unless it has been conserved in some way on the surface.

The Yucatan Peninsula rests on limestone bedrock, and is characterized by naturally formed depressions, caves, and sinkholes (cenotes) which collect water. Rainfall in the central lowlands ranges from 2,000 mm to more than 3,000 mm annually, with pronounced wet and dry seasons (Rice et al. 1985: 91; Escoto 1964). The region is transected by a series of low ridges running in an east-west direction, with several lakes in the lowlying areas, and perennial rivers along the eastern and western perimeter of the lowlands (Ford 1996: 300). In the interior Petén region, north of lake Petén Itza, there are no permanent water sources. The area does have many large swampy catchment areas, but these dry up completely into hard-packed clay in the dry season, which lasts four to five months (Ford 1996).

Maya scholars have not reached a satisfactory explanation for why the largest, densest and seemingly, most complex and elaborate manifestations of human culture in the central lowlands arose in an area which was, and still is, the region's most difficult environment in which to live. This is the area to the north of lake Petén Itzá, in the northeastern corner of Guatemala and along the northwestern border of Belize. Some researchers, after gathering more detailed information about settlement patterns, paleoclimatology and limnology, along with other archaeological data, have proposed that control over a single critical resource-watershaped settlement patterns and may be one explanation for the development and dénouement of what is traditionally known as the "Classic Maya" civilization, dating from 250 AD to 900 AD (Ford 1986, 1996; Scarborough 1996; Matheny 1982).

Singling out water availability as a critical factor in the shaping of ancient Mayan culture and environment is due in part to a lack of attention to its importance in the past. It was most likely one factor involved in the formation of the complex "Classic Maya" socio-cultural system. However, for the purposes of this paper, water scarcity will be presented as an ultimate climatic and geographic variable which exerted influence on the development of a heterogeneous, locally-variable complex system of social, political, economic, and ecological components. Water is not the answer to all of the questions regarding this transformation. However, exploring the influence of its scarcity on the human ecosystem of the lowlands from the Early Classic to the Early Postclassic provides an opportunity to focus upon patterns of human-environment interactions across space and time.

Maps and Graphic Conceptualizations Settlement Patterns

In order to represent visually the impact of water scarcity on the Maya landscape, maps are utilized to depict the way that permanent water sources were related to settlement patterns throughout the Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic (1000 BC to 1150 AD), in a very broad and gestalt sense. Maps 1,2, and 3 illustrate this effort. Map 1 shows that settlements in the early portion of known human history in the area were located primarily on permanent sources of water, with the coastal areas among the first to be settled upon human occupation. By the Early Preclassic, the earliest agricultural villages were spread along riverine environments and lacustrine environments.

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