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8-10-2015, 07:07

Political Organization and Maya Royal Courts in the Ethnohistorical Record

To better understand Classic political organization, Maya archaeologists have turned to the testimonies and accounts of the Contact and Conquest periods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the last indigenous Maya states were still functioning in northern Yucatan, in the Guatemalan highlands, and in the Central Peten Lakes region. The best analogies for Classic Maya polities are drawn from the same cultural tradition, the polities of the Postclassic period that the Spanish conquistadores, friars, and colonists encountered and described from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries (for excellent summaries of ethnistorical studies, see Marcus 1993 and Rice 2004). Although I present here how these ethnohis-tories saw the political macro scale, I will also include some details about internal matters in sixteenth-century politics so that later chapters can be devoted more fully to the archaeological record.

Northern Yucatan

Spanish conquistadores, friars, and settlers described the political geography of Yucatan at the time of the conquest as consisting of multiple polities

Table 4.1. Titles associated with administrative positions from Postclassic-Contact period Yucatan, seventeenth-century Peten Itza and possible equivalencies from the Classic period

Postclassic Yucatan

Seventeenth-Century Peten Itza

Classic Period


Kaloomte’ (king of kings) (see Figure 5.1)

Top tier

Halach uinic, ahau (regional ruler)

Ajaw (top ruler)

K’uhul ajaw (divine ruler)

Aj k’in (top priest)

Second tier

Batab (cah ruler)

Ajaw b’atab’, ajaw noj tz’o kan, or kit kan (senior provincial governor)

Sajal (governor of secondary center)

B’atab’ (junior provincial governor)

Ti’sakhuun (king’s speaker, prophet, oracle)

Ajk’uhuun (high priest, scribe, court chaplain)

Lower tiers

Ah kulel, ah can (deputy, council member, “he who speaks”)

Ach kat (representative of conquered town; council member)

Yajawk'ahk' (fire’s vassal, warrior, fire priest?)

Nacom (special warlord and/or priest in charge of sacrifices?)

Lakam (ward representative?)

Ah cuch cab, holcan, chunthan (council member, ward representative, “chief speaker”)

Holpop (“head of the mat,” council member in charge of festivals, lineage head)

Of variable extent and structure (Roys 1943, 1957; Marcus 1993; Rice 2004; Restall 1997, 2001). Roys’s work (1943, 1957) is still the foundation for reconstructions of the political geography of Yucatan in the Contact period, although several scholars (Restall 1997, 2001; Quezada 1993; Williams-Beck, Liljefors Persson, and Anaya Hernadez in press) have critiqued some of his interpretations.

Roys (1957) identified 16 “native states” (which the Spanish called provin-cias but the Yucatec Maya called cuchcabals) in northern Yucatan.23 Roys recognized three types of political organization among these 16 provincias. The most centralized states were ruled by a lord called halach uinic who resided in the major regional center and capital of the cuchcabal. He was still called the ahau (or lord) of that native state, just as the Maya nobles were called during the Classic period (Table 4.1). The halach uinic dominated a network of dependent communities, called batabil, each ruled by a batab, or local ruler-governor.24 A second type of state, less centralized, had no halach uinic but was organized as a confederacy of communities ruled by related batabs who belonged to the same lineage (or patronym group, chibal, following Restall 1997).25 A third type of provincia was much looser and smaller in scale, consisting of a few towns or settlements allied together (each ruled by a distinct batab of different lineages). These were usually found on the edges of the more centralized states.

Quezada’s and Restall’s critiques of Roys’s three polity types go in separate directions. Quezada (1993) argues that there was only one type of state in sixteenth-century Yucatan: the first of Roys’s types, the regional polity headed by a halach uinic. However, he recognizes some variation in the political organization of these regional states. In some cuchcabals, the halach uinic filled the top political, religious, judicial, and military positions, but in others, separate officials from the halach uinic performed the top religious and military functions.

In contrast, Restall argues that only the third and smallest type of Roys’s typology existed, the basic community (or town) that he calls the cah, ruled by a batab. For Restall (2001), the halach uinic, or regional overlord, was mostly a honorific title with little real political power: “Pre-Conquest polities [were] . . . loosely organized, with subject communities governed neither directly from the center nor by representatives sent from the center but surviving as self-governing entities [the cah] whose subordination was expressed through tribute relations. There were multiple layers of subordination, and all were potentially open to negotiation” (349).26 This assessment of Yucatan polities is reminiscent of Grube and Martin’s description of the hegemonies of Tikal and Calakmul during the Classic period. Quezada’s conclusions concur with those of Restall, and he also notes that the batabs appear to have been relatively autonomous within their subject communities (Quezada 1993, 52-53). However, I see the ability to impose and collect tribute as real political power that should not be discounted. Therefore, in my view, the halach uinic had political power in Postclassic Yucatan. I conclude from Restall’s, Quezada’s, and Roys’s ethnohistorical analyses that there was variation in political organization in sixteenth-century Yucatan (in agreement with Marcus 1993 and Rice 2004). Although the cah appears to have been the most enduring political entity over the long term, these communities were sometimes incorporated into larger units dominated by a halach uinic. As both Quezada and Restall note, this potentate was in charge of a state that he controlled only loosely because the batabs had considerable power in their local communities. In other words, the halach uinic was a hegemon, possibly similar to the hegemons at Tikal, Calakmul, Naranjo, and other powerful cities during the Classic period (Martin and Grube 2008, 21).

According to Restall (2001), the cah (the basic Maya municipal community consisting of both the residential site and the territorial lands controlled by the town) was “the principal focus of Maya self-identity, loyalty, organization, and activity” (349). Restall equates the cah with the Mexica or Aztec altepetl, which is usually envisioned as a city-state that varies in size from small to large (Hare 2000; Smith 2008). This adds more complexity to the cah and seems to transform it into a polity.

Restall (2001, 350) argues that the “patronym groups” (chibal) of the ruling families were the second most important integrative social unit in Maya society. The legitimacy or authority of the royal families (or chibal) came from their assertion of higher status based on four elements: “social differentiation; an oligarchical monopoly over political activity; group hereditary status; and the perpetuation of dynastic origin mythology” (352, 371). Restall contends that the foreign origins the Yucatec elite families claimed have no basis in historical fact but served (successfully) to separate the elites from the commoners (370). This mythology of “stranger kings” (Sah-lins 1985, 73) allowed the royal elites to assert “a sacred and celestial connection to distant places and ancestors” (Restall 2001, 373; see also Helms 1993, 1998, McAnany 2008, 2010).

Yucatan’s noble class can also be considered the political elite because they had an oligarchical monopoly over political offices (Restall 2001, 359; Restall 1997, 65). Although lower-level elites and high-status commoners also held lower positions at court, the dynastic elite can be said to have controlled government, not through the construction of a centralized government but based on “the control of cah governorships (batabilob) by members of the dominant dynasty or their allied kin” (Restall 2001, 365). It is worth pointing out that Contact period Maya politics were much more participatory than most of us suspect, as Restall underscores: “No one man, or even one family, ruled a Maya community or polity alone; the members of the court, to degrees depending on their rank, participated in rulership” (364). This is what Restall calls “factional rule” (387n25; Restall 1998, 141), in contrast to the multepal (joint rule) that some scholars argue was the dominant form of government at Chichen Itza and Mayapan (see Schele and Freidel 1990). Restall (2001) describes “factional rule” as dominated by “negotiation and persuasion” rather than by hierarchy and “power over,”

And argues that this type of rule provided the motor for political dynamics during the Postclassic (370).

For the Yucatec Maya of the century before and after the Spanish Conquest, the court surrounding the halach uinic was the heart of the polity as shown by the fact that the court came together to face the Spanish threat (Restall 1997). The court included “previous rulers; relatives of the ruler eligible to succeed him; prominent members of allied or competing noble families; the rest of the general pool of principal men, including those with specific offices; representatives of commoner families holding lesser offices; and non-office-holding servants and dependents, including in pre-Colonial times, slaves” (Restall 2001, 359). The average size of the royal court of a Yucatec cah just before the Spanish Conquest was around 50; an example is the court of the halach uinic Nachi Cocom, which gathered for a summit in 1545 to review the territorial boundaries of the Sotuta polity (364). This is hardly large enough to be called a bureaucracy, especially because it was tied to specific elite families (see further discussion in Chapter 5).

Restall (1997) uses ethnohistorical documents to detail the size and structure of the government of the cah, which consisted of the batab and his council (cabildo in Spanish) (51). While the cabildo was clearly a Spanish concept that the Spaniards imposed on Maya communities, the ease with which the Maya adopted, transformed, and used it suggests pre-Hispanic roots, and I suspect that these roots lie in the royal court and/or council of pre-Columbian times (as suggested by Restall’s description of Nachi Co-com’s royal court).

Although the Spanish required that particular administrative positions be filled, the Maya created as many positions as they needed (ibid., 65-71). These numerous political offices were ranked and elite males advanced through the junior offices to the more senior positions such as batab, es-cribano (notary), teniente (interim governor), alcalde (judge), and regidor (councilman or ward representative; 71-72). Classic-period titles suggest a similar pattern of political advancement from lower to higher positions in the hierarchy (see Table 4.1 and Chapter 5). A clear consequence of “the creation of a ladder of offices. . . is the minimalization of specific functions, and the flexible usage of titles”—a process that worked against specialization within official political positions and therefore against bureaucratization (77). The establishment of all these political positions was driven by the desire of the Maya to include all principal men (called principales in Spanish and kuluinicob in Yucatec Maya) in the affairs of the cah (70-71).

These principales were men of status and/or wealth but not necessarily of noble blood; thus, they formed a middle-rank group.

Roys (1957) also describes the town governance of the cah (see Table 4.1). The batab fulfilled generally executive, judicial, and military functions. He also led the local council, which could impose limits on his power (7). He generally did not extract tribute but depended on an estate (“farm”) that townspeople operated on his behalf. Although the position of batab was generally hereditary, some batabs received their office from the halach uinic if one existed in their provincia. Special war chiefs, called nacom, carried out military campaigns, even though the batab was the nominal head of the warriors. Ah kulels, the batab’s deputies, delivered and carried out his orders. Ah cuch cabs, officers slightly higher in rank than the ah kulels, were in charge of the wards or barrios of towns. The ah cuch cabs were elected by their wards and were probably respected commoners (Roys 1943; Ringle and Bey 2001). The ah kulels and the ah cuch cabs formed the town council (Ringle and Bey 2001). In the province of Ah Canul, the deputies of the batab were called ah canob, or “speakers,” rather than ah kulels (Roys 1957, 12). Another post was that of the holpop (“head of the mat”), the head of the council (the mat was the symbol of both political power and councils in the pre-Hispanic Maya region). Roys (1957) mentions that in pre-Hispanic times, the holpop replaced the batab in some cah communities. In other documents, the holpops are the heads of important lineages. In the provinces of Hocaba and Sotuta, the functions of the holpops were parallel to those of the ak kulels: “This lord [halach uinic of Hocaba] governed and ruled his people in this province with his caciques, whom they called holpops, who were like regidors or captains; and through these [officials], they [the people] negotiated with the lord for what they desired” (Roys 1957, 55). After the Spanish Conquest, the holpops appear to have been stripped of their political duties and remained as the chief organizers of festivals, dances and the music at such events (Roys 1957, 7). In his study of the province of Chakan (where modern Merida is located), Roys finds that Ah Kin Euan, the ruler of the Maya cah of Caucel, was both the batab and head priest, which was not typical (35). Ringle and Bey (2001) describe the administration of the batab of Chicxulub, a lord named Nakuk Pech: “Despite what would seem to be a rather humble noble rank, Nakuk Pech briefly mentions a full complement of his own officers, including two ak kulelob, two holpopob, and two ah kinob [priests], as well as several naco-mob/holcanob” (272).

Postclassic Guatemalan Highlands

Braswell (2001) and Carmack (1981) bring to life the Postclassic K’iche’an (K’iche’/Quiche and Kaqchikel) Maya states and the royal courts at their centers in their respective capitals at Q’umarkaj and Iximche’ in the highlands of Guatemala. The K’iche’ capital at Q’umarkaj and other large towns in the K’iche’an states “were sacred sanctuaries for gods and lords,” and commoners “were too profane” to frequent these locations (Carmack 1981, 183).

Nobles (ajawa’), their slaves (mun), and attached commoners (vassals, alk’ajola’) lived in palace structures in the core of Q’umarkaj (Braswell 2001, 309-10). Warriors of both noble and commoner estate also resided in the court.27 Merchants of different kinds (lower-status ajk’ay or k’ayil, “people of the market,” and higher-status b’eyom, or ajb’eyom, “people of the road,” who sold long-distance valuables) also passed through the royal courts, although maybe not as residents. Commoners who became musicians or specialized artisans were attached to the royal court, although they may not have lived full time in the royal palaces either (310-11). The high esteem and status some musicians reached underscores the importance of performance and the materiality of power in Maya courts. The positions held by the lords of the royal court are detailed in perhaps ambiguous ways by a wide range of titles, including Ambassador (lolmay), Great Giver of Banquets or Spokesmen-Town Criers (nim ch’okoj), Councilman (popol winaq), Lord Sweatbath (tuj) (311), Tribute Officer (k’amahay, lolmet) (Braswell 2001: 311; Recinos and Goetz 1953, 52; Carmack 1981, 175). As Braswell notes, many titles point to the importance of councils in the governance of highland Maya polities during the Postclassic. Certain priestly positions were also of high rank and were inherited by the elites, such as Aj Tohil, Aj Q’ukumatz, and Aj Awilix (Carmack 1981).

Rulership among both the Kaqchikel and K’iche’ was shared among two lords in Kaqchikel (Ajpop Sotz’il and Ajpop Xajil) or among four high nobles in the latter (Ajpop, Aj K’amja [“king-elect”], Nima Rajpop Achij [major war captain], and Ch’uti Rajpop Achij [minor war captain]) (Braswell 2001, 312). This shared power is evidence against models of autocratic kingship and provides alternative models of rulership for the Classic period (see for example, the exploration of dualism at the site of La Milpa, Belize, in Tourtellot et al. 2003). Although dual or quadripartite rulership involved power sharing, it is not clear that power was equally divided between these co-rulers. For example, Schele and Mathews (1998, 300) note the association of the title Ajpop Sotz’il with the name of “firstborn child” (nab’ey al), hence a more powerful position, and the title Ajpop Xajil with the name of “last-born child” (chipil al), hence a less powerful position. Carmack (1981) argues that rulership was shared because representatives of powerful factions (or lineages) were present in these K’iche’an kingdoms, although the Ajpop was indeed the supreme ruler. Alternatively, Braswell (2001, 313) suggests that power was shared because of the two contradictory principles seen in divine rulership among the Postclassic Maya: “the preservation of power and the maintenance of sacred authority” Nevertheless, Braswell asserts that K’iche’an rulership “was based more on military prowess and threat than on any ritual authority” (322), and Carmack (1981) writes that militarism was so central to the K’iche’ that all political positions were both administrative and military (152). Even though the K’iche’an rulers claimed divine powers, their creation myths as recorded in the Popol Vuh (Tedlock 1986) state that commoners and lords were created at the same time from the same materials of water and white or yellow corn (Braswell 2001, 324).

Just as in the Postclassic communities of northern Yucatan, factional competition between the various social, territorial, and kinship groups was a central feature of K’iche’an politics (327): political power “was neither absolute nor organized in a simple hierarchical fashion. Principles of aristocracy, based on both ascribed and earned status, were used to determine the occupants of high-status roles” (327). Thus, competition for political positions was continuous (313), and we even know of rebellions, some led by commoners (Carmack 1981, 173, 156).

Carmack (1981) has reconstructed the political organization of the K’iche’ (or Quiche) kingdom, which controlled a large part of the Guatemalan Highlands at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Quiche recognized four major noble lineages (the Cawek, Nijib, Ajaw Quiche, and Sakic) at the capital at Q’umarkaj, and these controlled the official political positions. Within each of these major noble lineages there were subdivisions, called principal lineages, and each of these principal lineages ruled over large land tracts (estates), or chinamits. The head of the principal lineage was the chief of each chinamits (164). Each chinamit was “the basis for tribute and service obligations, judicial and ritual processes, and recruitment of soldiers to fight with their lords” (165). The various chinamits also formed the core of the Quiche kingdom, as they encompassed the lands surrounding the three major Quiche towns (Q’umarkaj, Pismachi, and Mukwitz Pilocab) (ibid.). The chinamits intersected with larger territorial or social divisions called calpules that spread throughout the Quiche basin. Each was under the control of one of the three major towns (166). The calpul consisted of several commoner lineages that intermarried; members of the same calpul could be vassals of different chinamits (165-66). Beyond the basin, conquered areas were organized as provinces (ajawarem) outside the chinamit and calpul structures (165). Approximately 30 provinces are known; they were named after the major towns where the Quiche military governors lived, such as Chichicastenango, Zacualpa, Sajcabaja, Totonicapan, Huehuetenango, and Quetzaltenango (185-86).

Although quadripartite rule was a central political principle among the Quiche, how this worked out in practice is a little more difficult to reconstruct. The Caweks, the dominant major lineage in the Quiche capital of Q’umarkaj, controlled all four positions that Braswell sees as representing “co-rulers” (Ajpop, Aj K’amja, Nima Rajpop Achij, and Ch’uti Rajpop Achij). In theory, when major affairs of the state took place, the heads of the four major lineages were supposed to be the central actors. They received the following four titles: Ajpop, Ajpop k’amja, K’alel, and Atzij winak (Carmack 1981, 169). However, the practice was different from the theory; the Caweks controlled both of the first two positions, the Nijib major lineage controlled the K’alel position, and the Ajaw Quiche major lineage controlled the fourth position, leaving out the Sakic major lineage completely. Carmack asserts that the Ajpop was the supreme ruler because he was the only one who could wear a nosepiece and whose throne could be covered by four canopies. The other three named “lineage heads” or “co-rulers” were his assistants in different capacities, as counselors, judges, and the like (170).

Below the king Ajpop, a number of officers served as judges and were part of a council that managed the political affairs of the state (168). The council included both the judges and tribute collectors (174). Another group of officials (governors and such) ruled over the provinces and were appointed and removed by the king. All these officials were of noble blood and were close relatives of the king (168). But, outside the capital, commoners filled political roles. For example, “vassal lineage heads served as justices of the peace” (174). Although priests were highly respected, they did not hold political power beyond two arenas. First, as the keepers of the ritual calendar and divination cycles, they were called into council to interpret the will of the gods. Second, the two highest priests, Tepew (or Aj Tepew) and K’ucumatz (or Aj Q’ukumatz), were the keepers of the state treasury (174-75).

A third level of Quiche political offices were held by officials who managed the chinamits of the principal noble lineages. They carried titles such as Utzam Chinamital (“head of the estate members”) or Aj Tz’alam (“wall officials”; each estate was separated by walls). However, they “were not considered officials of the state” even though the roles they filled could be characterized as something less than those of state administrators and something more than those of vassals and serfs. Carmack remarks that these officials became militarized over time because they were given the newly created military rank of achij. These positions were filled by young members of the aristocracy or by older commoner warriors (177).

Central Peten Lakes: Itza Polity

The third region from which we have substantial ethnohistorical documents about pre-Hispanic Maya political organization is the Central Peten Lakes, where the last Maya kingdom (the Itzas) were conquered almost 200 years after the kingdoms of northern Yucatan. Grant Jones (1998) is the principal source on the political organization of the Itza Maya just before the Spanish Conquest, and Caso Barrera (2002) adds an important new study. Jones (1998) describes Itza governance as “a complex system grounded in principles of dual rulership, a quadripartite division of elite governance over territories, and a crosscutting system of representation on a ruling council from outlying towns and regions” (60).

The Itza state was divided into four quarters (arranged approximately according to the cardinal directions); the capital was located on the island of Nojpeten (modern Flores) as a fifth province. The rulers of the whole polity were called Ajaw Kan Ek, and the high priest AjK’in Kan Ek’ (the cousin of Ajaw Kan Ek’). A pair of rulers (senior and junior members) governed each quarter but lived at Nojpeten. The senior governors were called Ajaw B’atab, Ajaw Noj Tz’o Kan, or Kit Kan (or reyezuelo in Spanish), while the junior rulers of the provinces were called simply B’atab’ (or cacique in Spanish) (92-93).28 The sources provide evidence of the dual religious and political roles of these rulers, and some may have also taken on military duties. Finally, these five pairs of rulers were complemented by 13 officials with the title of Ach Kat who fulfilled religious and military functions (61, 83, 87). The Ach Kat officials appear to have represented towns that were mostly in the periphery of the Itza realm (61).

Political and religious institutions were closely connected, not only because of the dual rulership that Ajaw Kan Ek’ and the high priest AjK’in

Kan Ek’ shared.29 For one thing, the quadripartite division of the realm was dictated by Maya views of the universe, and Maya rulers tried to bring the order of the cosmos onto the earthly plane. The Ach Kat officials may have also been tied to the ritual cycling of the 13 k’atuns (forming the may cycle; Rice 2004) because the communities or provinces they represented served as k’atun seating centers. The Spanish Franciscan missionary Fray Andres de Avendano y Loyola, who visited Nojpeten in 1696, recorded that the seating of each new k’atun rotated among 13 communities throughout the Itza kingdom (Jones 1998, 102). This religious-political structure served well to integrate the Itza state: “Newly conquered population centers could have been incorporated directly into the central ruling council at Nojpeten by adopting them not only as symbolic elements of the Itza historical and ritual record but also as part of the military structure” (103).

Jones sees the Itza political system as segmentary but believes that it preserved centralized political power in the hands of a small group of elite lineages (who controlled the senior governorships of the four quarters as well as the dual kingship) (83). This small elite group managed to overcome the weaknesses of segmentary organization through conquest and expansion during the 1500s and 1600s before the arrival of the Spanish in 1697 (450n68): “This system coalesced through a policy of integration by conquest, in which the Itzas incorporated newly dominated groups by marrying them to existing elites and granting them positions on the ruling council as Ach Kat military-religious leaders” (83). However, Jones believes that these same elements caused the instability of the Itza polity, concluding that the “rulers. . . were always at risk of rebellion by war captains [the Ach Kats]” (106). Caso Barrera (2002) also discusses the role of Ajaw Kan Ek’ in the Itza political organization: “In spite of the fact that Canek was the central figure of the Itza political system, we can say that his power was rather more symbolic as he could not make important decisions without consulting the other lords and principales [important people]” (219, translated from Spanish).

Jones (1998) also stresses the importance of councils in the Itza government (105). The two rulers of the Itza polity, the four pairs of rulers of the provinces, and the 13 Ach Kats formed the council of the state, and the Itza ruler Ajaw Kan Ek’ had to answer to it (106). Jones argues that this council rule was different from multepal (joint rulership by multiple kings, or confederacy) which some have argued was the dominant structure of all Postclassic states (Schele and Freidel 1990). Jones (1998) believes that Itza rulership should be seen as shared by principal lords and subsidiary lords (via the council) but “tempered by a strong principle of lineage domination by a single group of closely related males” (105-6).30

One final aspect of the Itza kingdom is relevant to our discussion. The Itza elites who were interviewed by the Spanish made a clear distinction between the core of the polity (Nojpeten/Flores and the lands surrounding Lake Peten Itza), and the hinterland, or peripheral provinces. The core of the Itza kingdom was strongly tied to the capital at Nojpeten and was generally under its control. In contrast, lands farther away from the polity’s core were gained or lost depending on the ability of the Itza kings to maintain allies and strong armies. These peripheral provinces were far away (as far as Tipu, Belize, for example; Ciudad Ruiz 2001), and this distance may have affected both the ability of the center to maintain control over them and the nature of that political control. Restall (1997) speaks of a similar conceptual distinction among the cah polities of Northern Yucatan.


In this chapter, I have painted Classic Maya states with broad strokes using settlement, epigraphic, and ethnohistorical data. Archaeologists have at their disposal both direct evidence and indirect evidence about the macro level of political organization from these three sources of knowledge.

Direct evidence from settlement pattern studies has allowed us to envision the scale of the Classic period states. Reconstructions of polity size vary from as low as 80 square kilometers to an average of 2,000 square kilometers and up to a maximum of 11,333 square kilometers. These estimates are not contradictory but rather capture the variability in the size (and power) of Classic polities both at the same time across the mosaic landscape of the Maya lowlands and through time as different rulers and different polities grew through conquest and alliance and then declined. Such discrepancies in size and political power suggest that the international system of the Classic period was very unstable, and this is confirmed by the epigraphic evidence. Nevertheless, in spite of the richness of settlement pattern data as exemplified by de Montmollin’s study in the Upper Grijalva Basin, questions remain about whether settlement size correlates directly with political power and whether settlement distribution can clearly point to the frontiers between separate polities. To reconstruct the sources of power and the extent of political, economic, and religious power, we need

To consider closely the activities that took place at each settlement in each polity (see Chapters 5 and 6).

Direct evidence from the hieroglyphs of the Classic period have not only told us the names and lives of the kings and queens who ruled these states but have also revealed the nature of the institution of divine kingship at the heart of Classic polities and the complexity of the international system that engulfed all lowland Maya states. Although all polities with emblem glyphs may have been independent at some point in their history, the smaller ones such as Motul de San Jose and Xunantunich must also have experienced intense pressures from larger and more powerful neighbors. It is likely that sometimes they were pressured into alliances and other times were conquered outright. Recent decipherments reveal the formation and re-formation of superstates or hegemonies and the playing out of wars and alliances between large and powerful cities, such as Tikal and Calakmul, and less powerful ones, such as Dos Pilas, Naranjo, and Yaxchilan, and small polities, such as Motul de San Jose and Xunantunich. In spite of the richness of Classic Maya texts, they have significant limitations: they only discuss the affairs of the “rich and famous” and give little or no attention to the lower levels of the socioeconomic ladder or to the economic affairs of any group. To gain the perspectives of all members of Classic states, we need to look at the archaeological remains left behind by all Maya individuals (as I will do in the following chapters). We also need to correlate the few hieroglyphic titles for lower-level political officials with the archaeology of small subsidiary centers.

Indirect evidence from the Spanish conquistadores, friars, and colonists who witnessed Maya polities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has also underscored the variability in size and structure of Maya native kingdoms. Postclassic Maya states ranged from the small Yucatec cah ruled by a batab to regional polities ruled by a halach uinic to the militarized and expanding states of the K’ichean kingdoms of highland Guatemala and finally to the hegemony of the Itza in the Central Peten lowlands. These ethnohistories reveal that factional rule and councils were important political institutions. However, despite the richness of the ethnohistorical documents, it is unclear if we can directly apply Postclassic conditions to the Classic period.

All in all, the settlement patterns and epigraphic and ethnohistorical studies presented in this chapter have highlighted that Maya archaeology must shift its perspective from the “old debate” of whether Classic polities were centralized or decentralized and focus on the variability in the different aspects of these ancient complex societies. In addition to great variation in size, Classic Maya states exhibited variation in their political institutions, including that of divine kingship. These institutions include the possibility of single or multiple rulers and range from far-flung hegemonies to tiny microstates (or city-states). They are organized using quadripartite or dual internal divisions, and various combinations of agricultural, religious, commercial, and political power characterize their capital cities and secondary centers. All of these features contributed to the political dynamics of the Classic period. To understand the causes of these dynamics, we need to turn to the internal structure of Maya polities, the topic of the next chapters.