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Reconstructing Maya and Zapotec Political Organization

Forms of archaeological evidence used to reconstruct Maya and Zapotec political organization include: 1) settlement information such as building size, building function, number of hours to construct, number of occupants, population size, spatial position and what buildings are closest to the central plaza or central ceremonial district e.g. the large elite houses/administrative buildings at Monte Alban; 2) artistic representations which frequently portrayed political symbols, propaganda, conquests of neighboring polities, and the capture and sacrifice of nearby rulers - such as appears at Structure J of Monte Alban with the danzante figures of eviscerated leaders; 3) Mesoamerican writing systems, such as the Zapotec place signs that represent places conquered; 4) the position of a "disembedded capital" in a region - such as Monte Alban, placed in a middle position in a large valley much as Washington D.C. was originally selected to be the neutral middle administrative center for a larger political region; 5) ethnographic analogies to the "big man" political system, where individual charisma and energy created authority (Mayan) rather than holding office (Zapotec); 6) elaborateness of elite tombs and temples such as at Palenque and Copan, etc. where many person-hours were invested in the construction of tombs and religious buildings; and, 7) the elaborateness and energy expenditure for a rulerís house. Big men can often get the population to work on a community temple but cannot get others to build them a large personal house. State leaders can coerce commoners to build elaborate personal houses which may also serve as administrative buildings.

The Classic Maya form of political organization, with no standing armies, appears to have emphasized the qualities of the individual leader, and was closer to the "big man" system of Papua New Guinea, rather than the Zapotec political organization which emphasized the office rather than the individual. The coercion that a Mayan leader like 18 rabbit could impose on a city state apparently had limits since he was "given up" during a neighboring polityís conquest and sacrificed. The Zapotec considered the generic political office to be more important than the individualís personal characteristics and in Oaxaca powerful families ruled in a kind of confederacy with hereditary palaces and a disembedded capitol which was both an administrative and ceremonial center supported through tribute and conquest. Similar to the Aztecs, each valley in this confederacy was semi-independent.

Both the Classic Maya and Zapotec systems linked politics, religion, economics, and social organization. Both systems required the effort of the masses to be harnessed in large community building projects related to religion and politics and justified wars against neighboring groups in cosmological terms that required human sacrifices to keep the universe in balance and food abundant. The Zapotecs, like the later Maya, undertook some wars for territorial conquest such as when the Zapotec conquered the Cuicatlan Valley to obtain valuable soils for agricultural production. Both constructed propagandistic artistic stelae (e.g. 18 rabbitís larger than life sculptures) and temples to emphasize the successful conquests that the leaders had undertaken. 18 rabbitís Structure 22 was estimated to have required 30,000 person hours or 30 days of work by 300 people as opposed to 100 hours to construct a commonerís house. In both systems power, prestige, and wealth were displayed to generate and maintain centralized political powerand religious authority. Leaders also could maintain power by redistributing resources and controlling the best agricultural lands. Bottom land controlled by Zapotec lineage heads was better farmland and farmers could be required to pay the landowners with labor rather than food. By reifying the cosmology in monument building projects, rulers in both societies could link themselves to religious as well as political and economic authority.



Copyrighted photograph taken by Clive Ruggles

Articles © 1997 Kevin L. Callahan