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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Interregional interaction, symbol emulation, and the emergence of socio-political inequality in the central Maya lowlands Cheetham, David


In recent decades, scholars have increasingly turned to agency or actor-based models to explain the origins of social and political inequality. In part, this theoretical shift stems from the inadequacy of ecologically based models, especially where population levels are low and resources are abundant. Accordingly, social strategies that promote group solidarity while at the same time allowing individuals to transcend the egalitarian ethic are sought to explain the archaeological record. The transfer of religious beliefs to visual media represents a strategy which may be controlled by small segments of society or individuals, particularly religious practitioners. In many regions of Mesoamerica the Olmec art style emerged very rapidly around 1200-1150 B.C. and persisted for approximately 300 years. Though most scholars agree that this "Early Horizon" style—carried by ceramic figurines and carved and incised motifs on the exterior of pottery vessels—was religiously based and used to define social status, its origins have been the focus of heated debate; some suggest that it was inspired and diffused by the Gulf Coast Olmec culture, others suggest that it evolved independently in each region, the result of a pre-existing belief system. Recent excavations at the central Maya Lowland site of Cahal Pech have yielded objects reminiscent of the Early Horizon style from specific contexts of a slightly later date (c. 1000-800 B.C.). This study analyzes the style and context of two artifact classes from the earliest deposits at Cahal Pech: incised ceramic vessels and figurines. These data are compared to figurine attributes and incised motifs from several regions of Mesoamerica in order to differentiate between local and pan-regional styles. I argue that inter-regional contact, specifically the adoption of political-religious symbols and attendant behavior from other regions of Mesoamerica, was responsible for the relatively late appearance of the Early Horizon derived or "Intermediate Horizon" style at Cahal Pech. I conclude that inter-regional interaction involving symbols is linked to internal competition and supernatural beliefs at the local level, was encouraged by the self-interest of politico-religious actors, and that the emergence of social and political inequality in the Belize Valley of the central Maya Lowlands is attributable to this process. This model is contrasted with the Olmec-centric and regional developmental perspectives; all three are tested against ceramic and figurine data at Cahal Pech.

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