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Maya civilisation had complex political and economic systems

Researchers studied 22,000 animal remains at the museum as clues about life in the Maya lower classes.

PTI| Updated: Oct 31, 2015, 11:58 AM IST
Maya civilisation had complex political and economic systems

Washington: Maya civilisation known for its art and astronomy also had political and economic systems that were similar to modern societies, scientists have found.

Most of what we know about Maya civilisation relates to kings, queens and their elaborate temples.

"When you think about the Romans and the Greeks, we know a lot about all of the different social classes - from the Caesars down to the commoners - but although there were tens of thousands of middle-class and lower-income Maya in big cities, we still don't know much about the everyday lives of most people," said Ashley Sharpe, a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History at University of Florida.

Researchers studied 22,000 animal remains at the museum as clues about life in the Maya lower classes.

The bones showed that the civilisation had political and economic systems that were more complex than previously thought - systems similar to modern societies.

"We looked at how the Maya acquired and distributed animal resources in order to learn more about the economy and how the royal, elite and lower classes interacted," said Sharpe.

"It turns out, the Maya states and classes were not all homogenous. They had complicated systems in place for trade relations, distribution of food and access to species, which varied among the cities and social classes much like they do today," Sharpe said.

Sharpe and co-author Kitty Emery, Florida Museum associate curator of environmental archaeology, examined the animal remains from the ruins of three Maya city-states in Guatemala.

Sharpe traced the movement of animals and their resources from trade partners to Aguateca and the capitals of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. She also followed the flow of resources between royalty, the rich and the poor at the capital cities and to the less powerful surrounding villages.

Researchers found that middle-ranking elites used the widest variety of animals, while royalty and other high-ranking elites focused on a select group of symbolic and prestigious animals like jaguars and crocodiles.

"We had expected that the elites would have the highest diversity but that was not the case," Sharpe said.

Sharpe said poor villagers mostly ate fish and shellfish from rivers near their homes.

Researchers also found evidence that much like in medieval Britain, the Maya may have regulated hunting and fishing, creating more of a divide in access to animal resources among the classes.

At each of the three cities, elites, middle and lower classes all had access to different types of species, both imported marine resources as well as animals that could be obtained from nearby forests and rivers, Sharpe said.

The study was published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.