Large, varied buildings
A large, permanent population
Distinctions between social classes
[#paragraph1]Prior to the beginning of the Late Preclassic period in 300 B.C., Maya ceremonial centers of relatively substantial size had already appeared in Central America. The ceremonial center was a distinctive feature of Maya culture, acting as a focus for the community. Generally speaking, these centers were not what we would call cities. [#insert1]Although they did consist of a number of large and varied buildings, they did not have a substantial resident population. Some scholars have even labeled these Maya centers “vacant towns.” [#insert2]Their permanent population consisted mainly of rulers, priests, and their attendants plus a limited number of artisans. [#insert3]The elite lived in big houses or in palaces in and around the center. [#insert4]The bulk of the peasant population lived in much more [#highlight2]modest[/highlight2] wood and thatch homes in the areas surrounding the centers. [#highlight3]At certain times of the year, on the occasion of major religious festivals such as the one at the time of the planting of their crops, scholars hypothesize, by analogy to historical and modern practices, that the peasants would flock to the centers to observe and participate in the ceremonies.[/highlight3] At other times of the year, some of the peasants would be called into the centers to help in the construction of new temples and palaces dedicated to the glory of the gods and to the comforts of their earthly representatives, the priestly rulers. The peasants also would provide the food to help sustain the elite in the centers.
[#paragraph2]What the peasants received from the elite was certainly not as tangible as the services they provided. In return for food and labor, the peasants were offered a psychologically and spiritually secure and ordered world, as well as access to some trade goods. Apparently, this was enough. Agriculture in the tropical Maya lowlands was at best a chancy business: even slight shifts in the onset of the rainy season or the dry season could mean disaster for that year’s harvest. The religion of the ancient Maya helped the peasants cope with their [#highlight5]precarious[/highlight5] lives. If the gods were properly propitiated, the crops would be good—as would life in general.
[#paragraph3]One archaeologist, William Haviland, argues that it was the centralizing effects of Maya religion that led to the rise of Classic Maya civilization. He believes that the religious centers acted as magnets to peoples living in the surrounding areas. To support the growing populations around the centers, Haviland argues, the agricultural systems became intensified. This led to the evolution of a complex state. Haviland believes that as early as 200 B.C., the “vacant” ceremonial centers at Tikal had begun transformation toward urban centers. Moreover, by this time or even earlier, other centers with huge, labor-intensive buildings had begun to emerge. Sites such as Nakbé, El Mirador, and Lamanai may have approached urban dimensions in the last few centuries of the first millennium B.C.
[#paragraph4]Other scholars attribute the growth of the ceremonial centers to trade. William Rathje argues that the basic cause for the rise of Maya civilization was the necessity for the Maya, who lived in resource-poor lowlands, to trade with adjacent highlanders for materials such as obsidian (a rock used to make ornaments and cutting edges), salt, and hard stone for grinding implements. Rathje maintains that lowland sites such as Tikal, which were quite distant from the highland resource areas, were made bigger and architecturally magnificent to attract highland merchants and their trade. In order to undertake all the building, the elite had to attract more artisans and bring more laborers into the community to do the work. These population increases led in turn to even more building, population growth, greater population density, greater social differentiation, and occupational specialization. Critics have argued, however, that [#highlight8]there were local substitutes for the external “necessities” and that foreign trade was present well before the rise of complex architecture.[/highlight8]
[#paragraph5]Yet other factors beyond ideology and trade must have been important in the emerging Classic Maya civilization. Competition among the growing number of centers may also have played a key role in the growth of social, economic, and political complexity, as the organization of the centers grew to meet the pressures of other centers for new agricultural land and control of rising populations.