The Peaceful, Cooperative Maya Transition From Hunter-gatherer to Farmer

Credit: Takeshi Inomata/University of Arizona

A round structure at Ceibal circa 500 B.C. that researchers conclude
is too large to have been built by the few permanent residents in the area.
 
From my college days to my present avocation of researching and writing SNfW, I've had a fascination with anthropology and archaeology.  One assumption of mine is that there was a level of conflict between the hunter-gatherer population of a region and newcomers establishing fixed agricultural settlements.  It seems something that disputes and violence would just happen, sort of like the range wars between ranchers and farmers in the 19th Century American West.

Sound reasonable?

According to new research, that may not be how it happened, at least when fixed settlements started appearing in the midst of hunter-gatherer groups of Maya.  Archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan conclude just the opposite based on their analysis of three thousand year old Maya ruins.  If their theory is correct, it puts a different spin on how agriculture spread in leap-frogging jumps along the coasts of the Middle East and Europe.

Here's the story:
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Archaeologists discover Maya 'melting pot'

Archaeologists working in Guatemala have unearthed new information about the Maya civilization's transition from a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary way of life. They have found evidence that mobile communities and settled groups came together for construction projects and public ceremonies.

Led by University of Arizona archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, the team's excavations of the ancient Maya lowlands site of Ceibal suggest that as the society transitioned from a heavy reliance on foraging to farming, mobile communities and settled groups co-existed and may have come together to collaborate on construction projects and participate in public ceremonies.

The findings, to be published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenge two common assumptions:
  1. that mobile and sedentary groups maintained separate communities, and
  2. that public buildings were constructed only after a society had fully put down roots.
"There has been the theory that sedentary and mobile groups co-exited in various parts of the world, but most people thought the sedentary and mobile communities were separate, even though they were in relatively close areas," said Inomata, a UA professor of anthropology and lead author of the PNAS study. "Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center."

A public plaza uncovered at Ceibal dates to about 950 B.C., with surrounding ceremonial buildings growing to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C. Yet, evidence is scarce of permanent residential dwellings in the area during that time. Most people were still living a traditional hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle, moving from place to place throughout the rainforest, and would continue to do so for five or six more centuries.  The area's few permanent residents could not have built the plaza alone, Inomata said.

"The construction of ceremonial buildings is pretty substantial, so there had to be more people working on that construction," he said.

Inomata and his colleagues theorize that groups with varying degrees of mobility came together to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over the next several hundred years. That process likely helped them to bond socially and eventually make the transition to a fully sedentary society.

Life in the Stone Age,
Bronze Age and Iron Age
by Anita Ganeri

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"This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People think that first you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it's the other way around," Inomata said.

"For those people living the traditional way of life, ceremony, ritual and construction became major forces for them to adapt a new way of life and build a new society. The process of gathering for ritual and gathering for construction helped bring together different people who were doing different things, and eventually that contributed to the later development of Mayan civilization."

The transition was gradual, with the Maya making the shift to a fully sedentary agrarian society, reliant on maize, by about 400 or 300 B.C., Inomata said.

"The most fascinating finding is that different peoples with diverse ways of life co-existed in apparent harmony for generations before establishing a more uniform society," said Melissa Burham, a study co-author and a graduate student in the UA School of Anthropology. "Discovering an ancient 'melting pot' is definitely the unexpected highlight of this research."

Related stories:
Other posts:

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Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Arizona.  Takeshi Inomata, Jessica MacLellan, Daniela Triadan, Jessica Munson, Melissa Burham, Kazuo Aoyama, Hiroo Nasu, Flory Pinzón, and Hitoshi Yonenobu. Development of sedentary communities in the Maya lowlands: Coexisting mobile groups and public ceremonies at Ceibal, Guatemala. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 23, 2015

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