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Unanticipated Politics: Ancient Chunchucmil and Exclusive Maya Collectivities

May 16, 2017

The concepts of collective governance and factionalism might need to be tweaked in unanticipated ways when applied to Chunchucmil.

In the 1990s, archaeologists brought fresh approaches to the study of ancient politics. Moving beyond a tendency to see polities as overly hierarchical and centralized, perpetuated by actor-less systems, authors like Elizabeth Brumfiel, Carol Crumley, and Richard Blanton wrote about dynamic factions, heterarchy, and collective governance. The concept of agency was gaining traction, and—rejoice!—this was no return to the great man theory of prehistory. The factional and collective approaches in particular are very much alive today in research on the ancient Americas. For example, in the March 17 issue of the journal Science, a feature titled “Unearthing Democracy’s Roots”1 uses the unusual layout of the Central Mexican ruin of Tlaxcallan to make the case that this city’s rulers shared power with ordinary people.

To be expected of stimulating topics, our understandings of factions and collectives have shifted in recent years. As scholars bring these ideas to novel contexts, they refine them in different ways. The concepts of collective governance and factionalism might need to be tweaked in unanticipated ways when applied to the Classic period Maya site of Chunchucmil, Yucatan, Mexico. The economy of this site and its surrounding region is the subject of a recent book published by the University Press of Colorado, yet the political organization of Chunchucmil, which I emphasize in this blog post, has received less attention.2 

UPC map


Collective governance refers to situations where people can constrain the unilateral exercise of power. Rule by council, confederacy, or democracy all involve collective governance, but monarchies can also be considered collective in those cases where authority derives from the masses. For example, if a king funds his regime by taxing the populace, he must supply something in return. Such mutual obligations allow the masses to make certain demands on the sovereign. If, on the other hand, a king’s revenue derives from exclusive control of a scarce resource, the masses have less leverage to make demands. Collective strategies therefore contrast with exclusionary strategies.3

When introducing the contrast in 1996, Blanton and colleagues noted that collective and exclusionary strategies could be employed at the same time, though the examples they discuss (Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya) were seen largely to exemplify one or the other. More recently, Chris Pool has suggested that corporate and exclusionary strategies were used at different scales within the same polity,4 while last year Barbara Stark suggested that within the same polity and at the same scale there could be a tug-of-war between royalty and collectively organized groups.5

Data from Chunchucmil suggest yet another arrangement. Unlike most Maya sites, Chunchucmil lacks a single royal architectural complex. Instead, we find about a dozen contemporaneous, large compounds—called quadrangles—in the site core, each with essentially the same spatial layout, dominated by a temple that hosted ancestor-based rituals. Each of these quadrangles represented the headquarters of a political and/or economic group at the site, probably a faction. Some groups were likely more powerful than others, but the overall impression is that of rulership by council or confederacy, anticipating later political forms in Yucatan. Vibrant marketing and long-distance trade in salt appear to have sustained these factions, and each faction probably controlled a salt flat along the nearby coast. Like spokes emanating from a hub, pathways radiate from the site core, linking quadrangles to dense residential zones.6 Excavations in residences show a high level of prosperity as well as prestige goods exchange. In summary, aspects of collective governance (market exchange, rule by council, dense settlement, good quality of life) and exclusionary governance (ancestral ritual, prestige goods exchange, radial site organization, exclusive control of key resources) coexist at every scale and appear to be integrated smoothly rather than opposed to each other as in a tug-of-war.

Chunchucmil may therefore represent an unanticipated configuration of the exclusionary/collective continuum, doubly unanticipated, in fact, since writers often underplay the collective aspects of Classic Maya polities. The Chunchucmil results may in fact be triply unanticipated given the relation between factionalism and collective governance. In some accounts of collective governance, factions are anathema to the collective spirit and the universalizing cosmologies promoted as representations of the polity as a whole. Chunchucmil’s quadrangles are very good examples of factions, yet they are key to the collective enterprise. Then again, some aspects of Chunchucmil’s factions stray from common understandings of factions.

Factions are normally defined as groups that compete with each other.7 They are composed of people from a range of different professions, kin groups, and other backgrounds. Because of this diverse membership, they are said to lack enduring common interests and lack strong lateral ties among members. Unity comes from ties between leaders and followers. Leaders themselves normally have similar backgrounds; they are usually from the wealthiest segments of society since leaders need abundant resources to recruit followers. Such leaders are therefore not invested in overturning the basic social structure. Rather, they and their factions seek merely to compete more successfully within an accepted set of rules.

At Chunchucmil, quadrangles competed with each other, but each was linked to the others by a set of raised stone causeways. These literal connections suggest a degree of harmony and shared interests across the site; a mutual desire (and need) to keep the trade routes and the market open. Where Chunchucmil’s factions differ from our common understanding of factions, however, is in the strength of lateral ties and the durability of the connection between leaders and followers. Each quadrangle was connected to a particular stone pathway in the residential area. The pathways, which are different from causeways, radiate out from the site core like spokes and give us a unique opportunity for identifying circulation patterns within a Maya city. People living on one spoke saw each other much more often than people living on other spokes. Thus, social ties between members of the same faction were rooted in shared space. Whereas lateral connections between members of the same faction are often seen as weak, place made them stronger at Chunchucmil, making factions stronger than what we normally expect.



The Chunchucmil site center highlighting eleven of the site's fifteen quadrangles.


Connections between leader and follower are also often seen as weak. The idea is that followers had a choice of which faction to support and could switch their allegiance in search of a better deal.8 The spoke-like pathways at Chunchucmil might have discouraged people from switching their factional allegiance; if you switched, you’d still be bumping into your ex-faction members on a daily basis. To get anywhere else in the site, you’d have to walk the entire spoke of your ex-faction and also pass by the quadrangle you once supported.

Chunchucmil collapsed earlier than all other comparably sized Classic Maya cities. Perhaps the unanticipated patterns in Chunchucmil’s political organization had something to do with this.


1 Lizzie Wade, "Unearthing Democracy's Roots," Science 355, no. 6330 (2017):1114–18. Return to text.
2 Bruce H. Dahlin and Traci Ardren, "Modes of Exchange and Regional Patterns: Chunchucmil, Yucatan, Mexico," in Ancient Maya Political Economies, edited by Marilyn Masson and David Freidel (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira, 2002), 249–84. Return to text.
3 Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Peter Peregrine, "A Dual-Processual Theory for the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilization," Current Anthropology 37 (1996):1–14. Return to text.
4 Christopher A. Pool, "Architectural Plans, Factionalism, and the Proto-Classic-Classic Transition at Tres Zapotes," Classic-Period Cultural Currents in Southern and Central Veracruz, edited by P. J. Arnold III and C. A. Pool (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2008), 121–57. Return to text.
5 Barbara Stark, "Central Precinct Plaza Replication and Corporate Groups in Mesoamerica," in Alternative Pathways to Complexity: A Collection of Essays on Architecture, Economics, Power, and Cross-Cultural Analysis, edited by L. F. Fargher and V. Y. H. Espinoza (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016), 105–30. Return to text.
6 Scott R. Hutson, Ancient Urban Maya: Neighborhoods, Inequality, and Built Form (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016). Return to text.
7 Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, "Factional Development and Political Competition in the New World: An Introduction," in Factional Competition and Political Development in the New World, edited by E. M. Brumfiel and J. W. Fox (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 3–13. Return to text.

8 Lisa J. Lucero, "Classic Maya Temples, Politics, and the Voice of the People," Latin American Antiquity 18, no. 4 (2007):407–28. Return to text.

Scott R. Hutson is associate professor in anthropology at the University of Kentucky and the editor of Ancient Maya Commerce: Multidisciplinary Research at Chunchucmil.

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