Power dynamics at a commoner hinterland community in the Maya lowlands : the Medicinal Trail site, northwestern Belize
Hyde, David Michael
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Many studies on the power dynamics of Maya groups focused on large ceremonial sites, but more recent research, including this study, has identified similar dynamics within Maya hinterland societies. Hinterlands are the remote or less developed areas of a region, and generally associated with subsistence agriculture. The increasing prevalence of hinterland settlement studies in the Maya Lowlands find densely populated landscapes with a range of mound sizes and arrangements (e.g., formal east-focused plaza groups, less formal courtyard groups, informal clusters, isolated mounds), as well as a diverse assortment of features. Settlement and soil physiography studies have demonstrated the socio-economic impact of environmentally diverse landscapes, with small variations leading to an uneven distribution of economically important resources. In this study, I investigate the socio-economic organization of the Medicinal Trail hinterland community, located in northwestern Belize of the Maya Lowlands. Specifically, I argue that the limited nature of good agricultural land in the Maya Lowlands provided an opportunity for the inhabitants of pioneering households to establish a basis for wealth that those who arrived later could not replicate. The monopolization of this land led to inequality which was maintained through the construction of ancestral shrines. The inhabitants of the two largest and oldest formal groups within the community, Groups A and B, represent Maya commoners whose economic and socio-political status was elevated above most of the community’s inhabitants, providing them with limited social power. This power, however, was dynamic and shifted as a result of agentic struggles between Groups A and B, as they vied for community leadership. Evidence suggests that community power was held first by the inhabitants of Group A during the Late Preclassic and later, during the same period, shifted to Group B, where it was held until abandonment. Evidence for Postclassic pilgrimages at Group B substantiates the later importance of this group. Though the inhabitants of Group A were no longer community leaders, they remained a wealthy and, likely, influential household through the Classic period. This study demonstrates the complex and dynamic nature of hinterland commoner social organization.