A Heterarchical Approach to Lowland Maya Socioeconomies



Study of Maya economy has traditionally been dominated by hierarchical or vertical models, in which societal elites were thought to have had significant impact in the organization of production and exchange. We propose that evidence for strong elite regulation of lowland economy is lacking. Both inter-site and intra-site patterns better support the likelihood that many aspects of lowland economy were probably self-organized and not regulated by a centralized controlling group or groups. It is proposed that the spatial structure of important lowland resources played a significant role in Maya socioeconomic systems. While at one time tropical forests were viewed as homogenous and spatially redundant, more recent perspectives emphasize local mosaic or patchy zonation of important biotic and abiotic resources. Intensive craft production and non-centralized regional exchange of large quantities of economic goods were elements within a self-organizing system influenced more by resource structure than hierarchical elite regulation. In our view, the concept of heterarchy represents a better way of understanding Maya economy, as it avoids the a priori assumption that complexity must take a tiered hierarchical form. Throughout this chapter, the heterarchical perspective is used to view the character of lowland Maya centers, the hubs of elite control, from an economic standpoint.