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Conflict, Fortresses, and Threat Environments in the Ancient Maya World

Stephen Houston is the Library of Congress Kislak Chair for the Study of the History and Cultures of the Early Americas, as well as Dupee Family Professor of Social Science at Brown University.

In the lead-up to Professor Houston’s April 25 event at the Library, titled “Flint, Shield, and Fire: Exploring Ancient Maya Warfare,” I asked him about some of the themes he will be discussing to give readers a preview of this fascinating topic.

Please join Professor Houston to learn even more. The April 25 event will be held at 4pm in room LJ-119 of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building, and free tickets are available here.

Rendering of Bonampak Murals by Heather Hurst, with Lenny Ashby, courtesy of the Bonampak Documentation Project, Yale University.

First, what does a layperson in today’s world need to know to understand the very basics of warfare in the ancient Maya world?

By now, the belief that ancient peoples of the “New World” were peaceful does not have much support. An earlier idea existed, endorsed by some scholars, that conflicts were dedicated to capturing people or ritual objects, or to engage in feuds.

Today, we know otherwise. Many indigenous groups showed a high degree, not of casual raids, but of sustained and coordinated violence. For that, if only to protect themselves, they developed a fair amount of infrastructure, including fortifications, garrisons, and places to store weapons and provisions.

Yet conflicts did change over time. More people meant more conflict. In early Mexico and Central America, indigenous groups acquired an enhanced ability to inflict pain on enemies. From what scholars can now see, transformations of technology, tactics, and logistics accelerated warfare. New threat environments came into existence, and kingdoms or settlements had to think creatively about how to survive and overcome these assaults.

An extraordinary discovery of unsuspected fortifications allows us to explore ancient American conflicts. This find comes from the Classic Maya (c. AD 300–800) of Mexico and Central America, in an area not far from the great Maya city of Tikal in northern Guatemala. Somewhat fancifully, we have called this “La Cuernavilla,” after the Spanish term for a fortress in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Why? Because their layout and function isn’t all that different! Tolkien had imagined moats, interior zones, and ramps into more remote refuges—all present at La Cuernavilla. Above, along high ridges, are what appear to be watch posts of the sort that could have been lifted right out of his books.

What happened at La Cuernavilla wasn’t so fanciful, however. Growing evidence from a project I’m doing with Thomas Garrison of Ithaca College reveals fascinating changes in the region. Quite simply, there may have been a new political reality, and the Maya had to respond forcefully to these challenges.

Here’s the background: far away, in what is now Mexico, an imperial power at the city of Teotihuacan had made its way into the Maya world—this occurred in AD 378. The intrusion must have been hostile, based on hieroglyphic evidence studied with great insight by David Stuart of the University of Texas, Austin. For a short time, the citadels of La Cuernavilla offered protective zones, places of surveillance, and, to the viewer below, an overwhelming display of control. In other words, La Cuernavilla responded to a new threat environment of the sort I just mentioned. In this case, though, the threat was probably of foreign origin.

From what we can tell—there is still much to explore—La Cuernavilla represents the most massive defensive system in the Maya world. It is also among the most elaborate ever discovered in ancient America. Prof. Garrison and I have received funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to study them. Hopefully, we can nail down who built the fortifications and why. Were they a kind of “Maginot Line,” a set of bunkers designed by France to protect itself from Nazi Germany? (Of course, that story did not end well.) Or were they like crusader castles in the Middle East, namely, citadels allowing foreigners to oppress local populations?

How important was warfare in ancient Maya society?

Maya conflicts probably varied in impact. Some aggressions involved relatively few people. A border skirmish might erupt between antagonistic kingdoms. In fact, walls hinting at such tensions closed off ravines between the kingdoms of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, and Yaxchilan, Mexico. (These were mapped in remarkable field research by Charles Golden of Brandeis University and Andrew Scherer, my colleague at Brown University.) Warriors seized captives as political hostages or as offerings for sacrifice. Careful tallies ensured that credit for captures went to skilled warriors, and titles such as Aj Jol, “He of the Skull,” affirmed the importance of headhunting. Overall, the bodies of captives became a key target of violence. I have little doubt that a keen awareness of personal honor influenced these practices.

Along with most colleagues, I believe that the Classic Maya had both limited conflict, as motivated by narrow objectives, and highly destructive attacks or campaigns. The cataclysms of war in our own time lay beyond their technology. Yet their own conflicts had a big impact too. Late Classic texts refer to occupation or burning of important cities, the forced exile of local kings, the removal and mutilation of royal monuments, and the wholesale replacement of dynasties. Devastating to cities and dynasties, these clashes followed strategies that played out over generations, affecting numerous kingdoms. In much the same way, La Cuernavilla and areas nearby display multiple defenses. There were rapid-response ramps from citadel summit to base and moated areas with distinct sectors, girded to either side by lakes and swamps, and at least one palace.

Rendering of Bonampak Murals by Heather Hurst, with Lenny Ashby, courtesy of the Bonampak Documentation Project, Yale University.

What about warfare in the ancient Maya world is different from the way we conceive of it today, and what would seem familiar?

The headhunting and need for sacrificial captives are, of course, rather different from our own ideas of why we wage war! But the terror, fear, even rage and anger—those emotions would be recognizable today. And, I regret to say, there are always non-combatants who suffer through no fault of their own.

Could you tell me about lidar, and what new discoveries its use is bringing to the study of Maya warfare?

Lidar is a means of using lasers to retrieve information about surfaces under deep forest. Ordinarily, those features would be completely invisible. Swatting mosquitoes and dodging snakes, we would have to cut sight lines through jungle and haul out cumbersome mapping equipment to remote locations. In contrast, lidar is shot from a plane that flies in overlapping bands, almost like a plow in a field: back and forth until the coverage is complete. There is a great deal of processing in computers, but the overall results are startling. For our team, this work was sponsored by a Guatemalan charity, PACUNAM, directed by Marianne Hernandez. I’ve been truly privileged to participate in this breathtaking advance. And, believe me, there is much more to come!

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