Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

It Depends on How We Look at Things: New Perspectives on the Postclassic Period in the Northern Maya Lowlands1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

It Depends on How We Look at Things: New Perspectives on the Postclassic Period in the Northern Maya Lowlands1

Article excerpt

MORE THAN three decades ago, William L. Rathje and I argued that it was time for Maya scholars to reexamine the Postclassic period (AD 1000-1519).2 More specifically, we contended that the Postclassic was a time of growing econo-political complexity, not a period of decline and decadence. Furthermore, we posited that the rising growth of mercantile interests played a key role in these developments. In effect, we argued that spectacular buildings-temples, palaces, and ball courts-and sophisticated, monumental works of art were not a necessary measure of cultural complexity and that their presence in the Classic period and relative absence in the Postclassic did not mean that the latter was less complex, let alone decadent, as most Maya archaeologists had traditionally contended.3

While some of the details of our argument have not stood the test of time, the general thrust of our perspective has been refined and strengthened by a host of research projects in recent years. My goal in this paper is to examine some of these new scholarly understandings of the Postclassic period, with special attention to the Late Postclassic and the Northern Maya Lowlands (figure 1).


For much of the twentieth century, the major focus of attention in Maya archaeology was the Classic period (AD 300-1000) in time and the Southern Maya Lowlands in space. In particular, the principal focus was on the elite and their architecture, art, burials or tombs, ceramics, and exotic artifacts (such as jade).

Based on this limited focus, the prevailing view held that the Classic Maya developed peacefully in their jungle stronghold, generally isolated from their Mesoamerican neighbors. The Classic rulers lived in non-urban ceremonial centers surrounded by peasant farmers, who practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and raised maize, beans, and squashes in their shifting fields, providing the food and labor for the relatively small number of elite who lived in the huge palaces in the ceremonial centers and worshiped in the large temples. The specialists who worked for the rulers carved inscriptions on stone monuments that spoke of the gods and the sacred calendar. For reasons that remained unclear (or at least about which there was no agreement), Classic civilization rapidly collapsed in the ninth century AD. Following this collapse in the Southern Lowlands, remnant centers slowly declined for a half-dozen centuries until the arrival of the Spanish.

In the Northern Lowlands, there was a brief florescence first among the Puuc region sites, such as Uxmal, Labna, and Sayil, and then at Chichen Itza in the Early Postclassic (the latter stimulated in part by a takeover by the Toltecs of Central Mexico, it was then believed), followed by a decadent period in the Late Postclassic, which witnessed the rise and fall of the Mayapan Confederacy and its densely occupied capital city with more than twelve thousand inhabitants within its wall before the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century AD. But neither Chichen Itza nor Mayapan was able to reclaim the former material glories of the Classic period. The quality and later the size of monumental architecture in the Postclassic declined, as did the artistry of painted ceramics. The Postclassic Maya virtually ceased carving inscriptions on stone monuments, and many other material hallmarks of the Classic period faded away. As Tatiana Proskouriakoff famously stated about Mayapan, which flourished between about AD 1250 and 1450, "the fall of Mayapan appears as a dramatic culmination of a long process of cultural decay."4

As many scholars have argued,5 by the 1970s traditional Maya archaeology and its models of the development of Maya civilization began to change significantly. There were many reasons for these changes. Generally speaking, the number of field projects increased significantly; there were more rigorous research practices and thus better field data; and new methodologies and new field techniques were introduced, resulting in new kinds of data. …

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