Classic Maya Warfare

Weapons: Little attention has been directed to the weapons used in Maya warfare. The Classic Maya certainly had chert stone points suitable for hafting onto spears. Small dart points were introduced during the Postclassic, evidently from central Mexico. Caches of stone spear points were found along the defensive wall systems at Dos Pilas, as well as a cache of adult male skulls, decapitated while still fleshed, in a pit outside the exterior wall (Demarest et al. 1997, 234).

The Classic Maya were more warlike than considered by Thompson (1970), Morley (1946), and others in the 1940s and 1950s, but archaeologists do not agree on the role of warfare in the development and fall of Classic Maya society. Thompson viewed the ancient Maya as a pacific theocracy, based on interpretations at that time of empty ceremonial centers, low populations of contented rural farmers, and elite Maya engaged in cosmological and astronomical study. David Webster (1993; see also Webster 1976; Webster 2002), an archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University and a leading expert in Maya warfare, points out that the popular but erroneous view of the ancient Maya, particularly of the Classic period, was that they were unique among ancient civilizations and that they mysteriously rose and fell in the rainforest.

Warfare, capture, and sacrifice are commonly depicted in Maya art, especially art of the Late Classic, but these themes were largely ignored by Mayanists. Denial of the prevalence, even presence, of warfare in the Maya lowlands did not change until the dramatic breakthroughs in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs that began with Heinrich Berlin’s and Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s (see Coe 1992; Houston, Mazariegos, and Stuart 2001; Proskouriakoff 1960) stunning discoveries that cities had emblem glyphs and that the glyphs were historical, not calendrical or astronomical records, respectively. Instead, the hieroglyphs recount the history of Maya dynasties, highlighting the battles won, captives taken and sacrificed, and cities conquered and subjugated.

The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a tremendous increase in the evidence of Classic Maya warfare, particularly from epigraphy and art, and increasingly from dirt archaeology. The hieroglyphs provide a military record of conquests by Maya rulers, even naming some captives. Battle scenes are depicted on the magnificent wall murals at Bonampak (Miller 1986), Chichen Itza, and elsewhere. Warfare, capture, and sacrifice are pervasive themes in stone carvings at Classic sites (Schele and Miller 1986). The pictorial scenes on painted pots from the Late Classic also are replete with themes of warfare (Reents-Budet 1994). Documentation of warfare archaeologically through discovery, excavation, and study of walls, weapons, and victims of war is necessarily a more lengthy process.

Elsewhere in Mesoamerica, warfare has been linked to the origins and development of civilization (Flannery and Marcus 2003). In ancient Oaxaca, intervillage raiding resulting from competition for access to water, good farmland, and other resources escalated as agricultural populations increased in size over time. Raiding escalated into the conquest of territory to obtain resources through tribute and the consolidation of power by military force. Since the conditions were similar in the Maya area, future researchers may find that raiding and warfare developed prior to the Classic period, as competition for scarce resources and population increased.

In addition to Webster’s (1976) classic description of the defensive wall at Becan, defensive stone or earth walls have been reported from many sites in the southern and northern Maya lowlands. Although dating a defensive wall is often problematic, many evidently date to the Late Classic, although some date to the Early Classic or even the Late Preclassic. Southern lowland sites with defensive walls include Tikal, Calakmul, Becan (Webster 1976), El Mirador, Dos Pilas (Palka 1997), Aguateca (Inomata 1997), and Punta de Chimino (Demarest et al. 1997), among others. Dahlin (2000) describes a defensive wall around Chunchucmil in relation to walls around nine other sites in the northern Maya lowlands (see also Webster 1993; Webster 2002).

By Late Classic times, the Maya were engaged in frequent warfare, but was it related to the expansionistic, empire-building desires of Maya royalty, or was it to obtain captives for sacrifice, much like the Flowery Wars of the later Aztecs? Interpretations of the role and extent of Maya warfare are tied to Mayanists’ views of the political structure of the lowlands during the Late Classic. Some Mayanists, like Culbert (1991) and the Chases (Chase and Chase 1996), regard warfare as expansionistic, resulting in the enlargement of political territories. In contrast, others (Martin and Grube 2000) regard warfare as more limited to the acquisition of captives for sacrifice and as a component of diplomacy-in fact, sometimes a tactic to maintain political dominance when diplomacy fails. Dahlin (2000) points to the destruction of walled cities to end their economic control over production and distribution. Joel Palka (1997), by way of contrast, suggests that the rulers may have abandoned walled cities such as Chunchucmil and Dos Pilas after they were attacked, but that the bulk of the city’s residents may have continued to live in the city, except the abandoned downtown.

In the wider sphere of regional geopolitics, intermarriages sometimes occurred with polities at some distance, whereas warfare was usually initiated with polities closer geographically, usually neighbors. The greatest distance for interpolity marriage was between Palenque and Copan. For the other seven known instances of interpolity marriage, the average distance is 64 kilometers (with Palenque and Copan the distance is 109 kilometers). Hammond (1991) notes that for polities recorded in hieroglyphs as being engaged in warfare, each polity had an average territory of about 2,000 square kilometers, with the polity capital about 25 kilometers from each boundary, so that polity capitals were about 50 kilometers apart.

The patterns of royal visits and marriages are quite different from the patterns of warfare, a point well articulated by Hammond (1991) based on hieroglyphic data (Schele and Mathews 1991). In fact, patterns of visits and warfare are mutually exclusive. Rulers seem to have made shorter trips than did their royal representatives (lesser ahau). Rulers made short trips, as with the 45- kilometer trip downriver from Yaxchilan to Piedras Negras, or the 22-kilometer overland trek from Yaxchilan to Bonampak.

The possibility that Tikal conquered Rio Azul, some 100 kilometers to the northeast, also is under debate. Richard E. W. Adams (1999), who led the fieldwork at the site, believes that Tikal conquered Rio Azul and incorporated the site into the Tikal realm. Kneeling prisoners pictured on altars from Rio Azul are similar to those found by the Proyecto Nacional Tikal at the Lost World Complex. Adams also interprets the insignia of Ruler X from Rio Azul to indicate that he was related to Stormy Sky from Tikal. Other Maya archaeologists, notably Culbert (1991) and the participants of the School of American Research seminar on Maya politics, do not believe that Tikal’s polity extended that far.

Mathews (in Schele and Mathews 1991) tabulates interpolity warfare and captures recorded in the hieroglyphs. Mathews reports about a dozen men of ahau status recorded as being captured in major battles. They include those portrayed on murals in a room in Bonampak. Two rulers were captured without their territories having been taken over. They were Kan-Xul of Palenque and 18 Rabbit of Copan, with their captors being 64 kilometers and 47 kilometers distant. On the other hand, when Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas, 24 kilometers away, captured Jaguar Paw-Jaguar of Seibal, Jaguar Paw-Jaguar’s capital was subordinated to Dos Pilas. Hammond suggests that border skirmishes may have been quite common, with the purpose of obtaining captives for sacrifice and to enhance the captor’s status, and that polity capitals were more interested in guarding the work force for construction efforts and food production closer to the city than in protecting the exact geographical boundaries of their polities.

The history of empire building in the Petexbatun region, as outlined by Arthur Demarest (1997), includes a series of military conflicts and alliances. Tamarindito was the main power in the Petexbatun before the rise of the Dos Pilas royal dynasty and after its downfall. From the late seventh to the mideighth century, the Petexbatun region was subsumed under the power of Dos Pilas. Initially, there were battles with Dos Pilas relatives at Tikal in order to claim that throne and subsume Tikal under the Dos Pilas polity, and later battles to conquer local neighbors.

The power of Dos Pilas and the Petexbatun in general expanded following a pattern of intensifying dynastic rivalries and interelite competition until a. d. 760, when Dos Pilas was invaded, destroyed, and abandoned. After the fall of Dos Pilas, the seat of regional dynastic power moved for a time to Aguateca until it, too, was sacked and abandoned. Generally, the Petexbatun region wallowed in endemic warfare until about a. d. 820 or 830, the beginning of the Terminal Classic period (marked by the introduction of Fine Orange pottery to the area). Demarest regards this incessant warfare as instrumental in the collapse of the region. The regional polity fragmented into warring centers, and continued to fragment, ultimately with villages themselves being fortified. This had a negative impact on the stability of the economic and demographic basis of the region, with disruption of production and trade; agriculture and the balance of subsistence in various environmental niches changing to strategically placed walled fields; emigration; and depopulation of the area. The Petexbatun collapsed into endemic siege and fortification warfare, from which it did not recover.

Military Organization

Wars were organized and led by the ahau, usually the king. The military of each city-state was evidently well organized with a trained and large corps, owing to the frequent success in taking high-ranking ahau and cahal captives and, in some cases, toppling the capital of another polity and taking its territory. Military strategy included the taking of captives, some high-ranking, for humiliation of their polity of origin and for sacrifice. The presentation of captives before the ahau is depicted on painted pottery vessels and stone monuments.

Military strategies varied from raids to obtain captives, to sacking and destroying the capital of a polity, as at Aguateca in the Petexbatun, to conquering and subjugating a polity, as Calakmul did with Tikal and Naranjo. Military tactics included attacking the central acropolis of capitals to capture the king and his entourage. Some cities took defensive measures to counter such attacks. At Aguateca, a city that became allied with Dos Pilas in the Petexbatun region, Takeshi Inomata (1997; Demarest et al. 1997, figure 7) mapped a series of three concentric defensive walls around the city, itself in a naturally defensive location with an escarpment forming the eastern side of the city center, deep gorges along the south and west, and sinkholes along the north. Most of the walls were constructed at the end of the Late Classic (Tepeu 2), when the bulk of the population lived in the city. Walls were built to protect the city center and were laid out in a preconceived concentric plan. The walls here did not cross over architecture as at Dos Pilas. The innermost circle protected the royal palace, which housed the ahau of the Petexbatun polity.

Aguateca became an important city allied with Dos Pilas around a. d. 700. After the defeat of the Dos Pilas Ruler 4 in a. d. 761, the royal dynastic seat evidently moved to Aguateca with the “Ruler of Aguateca.” Demarest et al. (1997) believe that before the collapse of Dos Pilas, its royal dynasty may have periodically resided at Aguateca, with its better-planned and more-defensive wall system and its access to trade routes. After the fall of Dos Pilas, during the time of increasing endemic warfare in the Petexbatun, Aguateca may have been more defensively situated to successfully hold the royal seat of power in the region. A nearby hilltop site, Quim Chi Hilan, included residences and agricultural terraces protected by defensive walls, contemporary with Aguateca and evidently defended to provide a secure food source for nearby Aguateca. Defensive walls also protected small villages and springs. Cerro de Cheyo was a true fort or garrison outpost for Aguateca located on a fortified hilltop, with few local residences.

By the late eighth century, defense was the first priority in settlement location, in contrast to earlier settlement choices in the Late Preclassic through the early part of the Late Classic (Tepeu 1) when settlements were located near arable land and water and along water transportation routes, especially along the edge of Lake Petexbatun. By the end of the eighth century, most hilltops were the locations of fortified villages or forts.

Inomata (1997) recounts how the epicenter of Aguateca was attacked and burned, with people fleeing and leaving their possessions behind. What he refers to as a deliberate attack and destruction by outsiders took place at some point after the last dated stela to the “Ruler of Aguateca” in a. d. 790 and before a. d. 830, the beginning of the Terminal Classic. Demarest et al. (1997) suggest that the attackers may have laid logs across a narrow section of the gorge on the eastern side of Aguateca and quickly and effectively entered and ransacked the epicenter of the community (as depicted in National Geographic magazine, Demarest 1993). The attack and burning of buildings in the central area is clear from excavations in three buildings that had the shattered remains of artifacts on their floors, with reconstructible activity areas. There were thin layers of burnt daub on floors and evidence of burning on some of the walls, indicating that the buildings were burned when they were abandoned. In contrast, the buildings outside the epicenter were not burned, and their occupants had enough time to carry away household goods, as the floors were clean. It is of particular note that the invaders did not occupy Aguateca, but instead sacked the city and left it empty. The imperialist military strategy exhibited earlier by Caracol, Tikal, and Dos Pilas was not evident with the attack on Aguateca. The objective of these attackers was not to conquer or subjugate; the city was simply taken off the geopolitical map of power.

Mesoamerican Warfare


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