Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers

Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers

Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers

Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers

Synopsis

In the southern Maya lowlands, rainfall provided the primary and, in some areas, the only source of water for people and crops. Classic Maya kings sponsored elaborate public rituals that affirmed their close ties to the supernatural world and their ability to intercede with deities and ancestors to ensure an adequate amount of rain, which was then stored to provide water during the four-to-five-month dry season. As long as the rains came, Maya kings supplied their subjects with water and exacted tribute in labor and goods in return. But when the rains failed at the end of the Classic period (AD 850-950), the Maya rulers lost both their claim to supernatural power and their temporal authority. Maya commoners continued to supplicate gods and ancestors for rain in household rituals, but they stopped paying tribute to rulers whom the gods had forsaken. In this paradigm-shifting book, Lisa Lucero investigates the central role of water and ritual in the rise, dominance, and fall of Classic Maya rulers. She documents commoner, elite, and royal ritual histories in the southern Maya lowlands from the Late Preclassic through the Terminal Classic periods to show how elites and rulers gained political power through the public replication and elaboration of household-level rituals. At the same time, Lucero demonstrates that political power rested equally on material conditions that the Maya rulers could only partially control. Offering a new, more nuanced understanding of these dual bases of power, Lucero makes a compelling case for spiritual and material factors intermingling in the development and demise of Maya political complexity.

Excerpt

In 1999 I published a paper (Lucero 1999b) on water systems and Maya rulership at Tikal and other comparable centers (large centers in areas without permanent water sources such as lakes and rivers). This paper, as well as questions from colleagues and students and a perusal of cross-cultural cases, made me wonder about the role of water at other centers in the southern Maya lowlands, particularly those located in areas with rivers and lakes. I realized that the level of reliance on and scale of reservoirs had a significant impact on the degree of rulers' political power. the more I delved into research on water issues and Maya rulership, however, the more I also realized that water management is inadequate in and of itself to explain completely the ability of a few to exact tribute from the majority. One only has to look around each Maya center to notice a missing piece of the puzzle—monumental public architecture and large plazas. These settings served as competitive arenas to integrate people through ceremonies and feasts, particularly during the dry season. They also served to highlight the fact that the average commoner was an active participant and had some say in the amount of tribute paid as well as to whom. Commoners were willing to contribute surplus because rulers offset problems that arose as a result of seasonal vagaries—not enough or too much water.

Annual water shortages in the tropical jungles of the southern Maya lowlands dramatically affected the livelihood of the Maya like no other natural resource shortage. Even in areas where water was plentiful, seasonal water issues impacted settlement decisions and agricultural practices. By about 1000 bc Maya had relocated to interior areas away from the major rivers and coastal areas. Pioneers found plentiful fertile agricultural land but not much permanent surface water. the first farmers had a definite advantage over succeeding generations of immigrating families who needed to farm to support themselves. the first settlers or founders—the earliest elites—did not offer the use of their land for free. in return for homestead privileges, they demanded, and were . . .

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