Water Control and the Emergence of Polities in the Southern Maya Lowlands: Evolutionary, Economic, and Ecological Models

Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell, Lisa J Lucero

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In the southern Maya lowlands of present-day northern Guatemala, Belize, the Yucatán and southeastern Mexico, rulers reached their apogee in the Late Classic period (c. AD 550-850) (Figure 10.1). Several factors influenced the number of supporters at any given center, the main one being the prosperity of the royal court. Powerful kings emerged in areas with noticeable seasonal variability and plentiful fertile land (Lucero 2003, 2006). Powerful Maya polities did not emerge along rivers as one finds in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, the coastal Andes, and other regions throughout the world; nor did the Maya rely on massive irrigation systems. Instead, powerful Maya rulers emerged in areas lacking rivers or lakes, where agriculture depended primarily on rainfall. During the four- to six-month seasonal drought, people also needed drinking water in areas without access to permanent water resources. Farmers lived in such areas due to the large pockets of fertile agricultural land. Lucero has argued elsewhere (e.g., 2002, 2003, 2006) that differential access to dry-season water necessitated cooperation between political elites and thirsty farmers, laying the foundation for the emergence of complex polities. Elites, as patrons, exchanged access to potable water and hosted expensive community rituals in exchange for labor, goods, and services from client farmers. Such events acted to solidify these critical economic connections. In this scenario, patron-client exchanges originated as a compromise between the descendants of the earliest settlers, who originally controlled access to fertile land rich in aguadas (natural rain-fed sinkholes), and latecomers, who had less access to aguadas. This compromise led to the construction of monumental buildings and artificial reservoirs. Eventually, farmers came to depend on the water reservoirs they had helped construct, while elites continued to accrue political and ritual control sufficient to demand (but not necessarily coerce) tribute from farmers. Lucero based the above water control hypothesis on archaeological, paleoclimatic, and ethnographic evidence. Here we lend further support and theoretical rigor to the hypothesis by drawing on and extending abstract, quantitative models of territoriality and inequality developed in ecology and economics. Specifically, we review the patron-client scenario from political economics (emphasizing recent agent-based simulations) and bargaining models from economic game theory. We explore the connections between the results of these models and the social and ecological processes likely at work in the southern Maya lowlands. In doing so, we suggest a set of hypotheses that grow out of and embellish Lucero's original water control model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCooperation and Collective Action
Subtitle of host publicationArchaeological Perspectives
EditorsDavid M Carballo
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781607322085
ISBN (Print)9781607321972
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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