Researchers Trace Wealth Inequality Through Classic Maya Society

Researchers find lessons for modern society from studying wealth and power distribution in classic Maya.

Local community members sharing archaeological finds during excavations at a Classic Maya house mound at Uxbenká. (Credit: KM Prufer)

(CN) — Some Maya lived in elaborate 7,000 square foot homes filled with colorful pottery, carved jade and fancy conch shells, while others squatted in plain 500 square foot units nearby. Uneven distribution of wealth isn’t unique to Central American history. Wherever archaeologists find evidence of humans, invariably comes signs of hierarchy and inequality.

A new analysis of classic Maya homes published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE connects government structure to wealth distribution, offering clues to the underlying mechanisms that drive this phenomena.   

“We’re really trying to get at some of these very real issues of how inequality forms, how it’s perpetuated, and how it manifests in early cities,” said Keith Prufer, an author of the study from the University of New Mexico, in a statement. “One of the larger goals within archaeology is to try to show that modern societies and ancient societies are, in their fundamental elements, not that much different from each other.”

Using the statistical Gini coefficient, researchers measured distribution of income across two Maya communities, Uxbenká and Ix Kuku’il, from 250 to 900 AD. The study included 36 neighborhoods spanning 26 square miles.

At the time, Maya society ran from Western El Salvador through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Unlike the United States, which has a central government, each city state developed its own form of government. Researchers noticed the villages that shared power collectively tended to also share wealth more evenly when compared to the way both wealth and power became concentrated among those run by a small group of leaders.

Much like in modern society, wealth of the past is apparent through what people owned and built.

“Greater architectural investments and prestige goods are more abundant in districts with higher Gini coefficients,” the paper describes. “At Uxbenká, wealth inequality is reflected in massive landscape modifications in all three districts and elaborate tombs are located in the district seats. These larger, high-status households had access to luxury goods from the Guatemalan highlands, Belize River Valley, the Petén, and coastal regions including carved jade, modified conch shells, and polychrome pottery, which are less abundant in non-elite houses.”

“Other high status groups have imported polychrome vessels, figurines, conch shells, eccentric flint, bone lip plugs, shell beads, and jade earspools and incorporate iconography associated with wealth and power attesting to the accumulation of goods through patron-client relationships,” the paper continues.

Areas with higher levels of wealth inequality relied on external trade for resources. In many districts, larger households supported smaller households and distributed wealth through patron-client relationships.

“Another key is to look at palaces,” Prufer explained. “When you have very centralized palace buildings or funerary temples dedicated to a ruling lineage, the government tends to be more autocratic. In societies that were less autocratic, it’s harder to determine where rulers lived or even who they were.”

Still it’s important to keep these comparisons in context with one another.

“We’re comparing houses within a neighborhood to each other, and it still reveals a pattern. Everything is looked at in a relative sense,” said Gary Feinman, the Field Museum’s MacArthur curator of anthropology, in a statement. “It would be like if you compared all the houses in Kansas, some might be bigger than the houses in Manhattan, but that relative pattern of wealth distribution in Kansas, as compared to Manhattan, would still tell you something about wealth differentials in both areas.”

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