Water Control and Maya Politics in the Southern Maya Lowlands



In this chapter, I present a model of the development of Classic Maya polities in which economy and ideology articulated to form the basis of political power. Power is manifested by the ability to acquire tribute from subjects. Many of the largest Maya polities grew in areas without lakes or rivers but with seasonal water sources such as natural rain-fed aguadas and/or swamps or bajos. At large Maya centers, rulers built immense reservoirs that would have met daily water needs during the annual dry season (January through April/May). I argue that control of water resources, symbolism and rituals during seasonal drought provided the means to amass and maintain the increasing political power evident during the Classic period (ca. A.D. 550–850) in the southern Maya lowlands. Counteracting the centripetal forces of water resources during drought, however, were the centrifugal distribution of other vital economic sources, specifically, dispersed agricultural land. In addition, standing water, if not maintained, can result in a dangerous build-up of noxious chemicals. Emerging Maya rulers associated their abilities to keep the water clean through ritual and symbolism to attract hinterland farmers and their labor.