Maya Wealth Inequality Was Linked to Despotism, Claims Belize Study
A new study of hundreds of Maya habitations in Belize has revealed a massive wealth gap developed in the Classic Maya period. While it may not come as a surprise to discover that Maya society was authoritarian, through analysis of the remains of ancient houses, this research has concluded that societies with inequality of wealth were run by despotic governments. Those with more equal distribution of wealth, evidenced in similarly sized houses, were more egalitarian.
Analyzing Wealth Distribution in Maya Society
It is only with great innovation in the field of archaeology and research that an alternate history can be reconstructed, and precisely this has happened in the small Caribbean country of Belize, in Central America. From the excavation of houses at two different sites, a pronounced wealth inequality has been deduced in ancient Maya societies. According to Reuters, further hypothesis links this glaring disparity to despotic and authoritarian rule in the alleged Classic Maya period, from roughly 250 to 900 AD.
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Here archaeologist Amy Thompson can be seen during excavations at the ancient Maya site of Uxbenka, Belize. (Keith Prufer / PLoS One)
In the new study published in PLOS ONE, lead scholar and archaeologist Amy Thompson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Chicago Field Museum, sheds some light on the method of inquiry and analysis. The key thrust of this research was to understand the formation of inequality in Classic Maya society and its perpetuation from ancient societies, right up until modern society. One of the key finds was that wealth inequality was widespread and even away from the city center it was not uncommon to find larger houses surrounded by smaller houses.
Wealth Inequality and Egalitarianism in Ancient Societies
The study of human societies, ancient and modern, indicate that a lack of egalitarianism is not a natural precursor to society. In ancient Maya society too, an ever-decreasing number of wealthy individuals ruled at the behest of an ever-increasing number of poor people, an economic structure now known as the Pareto distribution. This was named after Italian sociologist and philosopher, Vilfredo Pareto, who at the turn of the 20 th century was the first modern thinker to mathematically describe the distribution of income, and the ensuing wealth inequality that was designed to emerge out of it.
Member of local community during archaeological excavations of houses at the ancient Maya site of Ix Kuku'il, Belize. (Amy Thompson / PLoS One)
Small kinship-based societies, without overt and well-defined power structures, have given us examples of egalitarianism. This is due to an emphasis on collectivized ownership of assets and resources, pooled knowledge and tradition (both written and oral), and a proclivity towards general feelings of hospitability and sharing. So deeply enmeshed is this attitude, that great care is taken to maintain this order, sometimes with the use of social sanction or violence when needed.
Ancient societies, across cultures, but particularly the Maya, have displayed a few generalized characteristics. The feature of extreme wealth inequality has existed precisely because of a rigidly defined hierarchical order. Social classes, rigidly defined, were hereditary in nature. Social mobility was limited and the existence of a middle-class was virtually non-existent. Classic Maya society featured a number of hereditarily ordained social groups, made up of the royals, the nobility, merchants and artisans, and huge swathes of farmers and laborers (the latter social groups were the ones on the margins, and almost always, excluded from the larger historical narratives).
Amy Thompson during excavations at Uxbenka in Belize. (Keith Prufer / PLoS One)
Despotism and Inequality: The Maya Excavations
The Uxbenka Archaeological Project was carried out at two sites in southern Belize, namely Uxbenka (180 homes) and Ix Kuku’il (93 homes), medium-sized and medium small-sized cities respectively. They were located in relatively close proximity to each other, flourishing with the massive strides that the Maya were making in the Classic period. Art, sculpture, painting, hieroglyphic writing, fine architectural wonders (like the pyramids) and great progress in the field of mathematics were synonymous with the rise of these two cities.
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The Maya were not always a highly stratified society. In fact, for any society to achieve complex levels of stratification, agriculture and irrigation had to be highly developed. Once agrarian surpluses were created, the control over this resource became a determinant in stratification. Differential access to the means of production and the lack of collective use, encouraged despot rule.
In the case of the Maya, the so-called Archaic Era (before 2600 BC) oversaw the development of agriculture and the arts. Contemporaneous societies located in the region of Central Mexico and Oaxaca, for example, have successfully managed to bring down the levels of wealth inequality and disparity, via communitarian access to public goods and services.
Independence and Power
Amy Thompson’s hypothesis postulates that autocrats stand to gain greater levels of power and control when they are less dependent on their immediate ‘subjects’ for economic support. This wealth inequality, in an agrarian surplus society, was measured by looking at “house-size as an appropriate proxy for household wealth”. The analysis and conclusions were cross-sectional, in the sense that monopolization and manipulation of resources increased inequalities at the regional, state and neighborhood scales.
Top image: Maya wealth has been linked to despotism in a new study. Source: frenta / Adobe Stock
By Rudra Bhushan
Strawinska-Zanko U., Liebovitch L.S., Watson A., Brown C.T. 2018. “Capital in the First Century: The Evolution of Inequality in Ancient Maya Society” in Strawinska-Zanko U., Liebovitch L. (eds) Mathematical Modeling of Social Relationships: What Mathematics Can Tell Us About People. Springer.
Dunham, W. 2021 “Maya ruins in Belize offer peak at ancient wealth inequality” in Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-maya/maya-ruins-in-belize-offer-peek-at-ancient-wealth-inequality-idINKBN2BG2V8
Thomson A., Fienman G., Prufer K. 2021. “Assessing Classic Maya multi-scalar household inequality in southern Belize” in PLoS One, Volume 16.