Under the jungle, a more pluralistic Maya society

The stone temple in the ancient city of Caracol soars above the jungle in western Belize, an enduring symbol of the Maya dynasties that ruled Central America for centuries. Caracol’s central temple and others like it have long been viewed as symbols of the authoritarian structure of ancient Maya government, with kings holding all the power. But what lurks below the jungle tells a different story.

With the help of aerial lidar, a remote sensing technology that maps the Earth’s surface with aircraft-mounted lasers, archaeologists have discovered the remains of sprawling urban areas beneath the vegetation at Caracol and other Maya sites in recent years. Those discoveries are helping to rewrite the history of Maya society.

“It’s increasingly clear Maya cities were organized in a greater variety of ways than was often thought,” behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower told me.

In this issue’s cover story, Bower reports on new studies of this vast urban sprawl. For instance, in Caracol, which covered as much area as Milwaukee, communities more distant from the central pyramid had distinct artifacts and stone buildings that suggest that these “suburbs” had their own cultural practices and local governments.

Ancient Maya society is not the only civilization where archaeologists are reconsidering the king/vassal paradigm. Last year, Bower reported on research showing that as early as around 3,000 years ago, some societies were following “good government” practices that included fair taxation, control over political officials’ power and a voice for all citizens. Examples include the 16th century city of Tlaxcallan in Mexico and Indigenous clans in eastern North America (SN: 11/5/22, p. 16).

On the archaeology beat, Bower has been covering new findings about the ancient Maya and other civilizations for decades. In 1998, he reported on the discovery of caves located beneath Maya temples that were used for ritual ceremonies. He wrote about “immense plazas, elaborate buildings reserved for powerful officials, and ballcourts on which some type of organized game was played appear as regularly as shopping malls in suburban neighborhoods” (SN: 1/24/98, p. 56).

That’s just one of many evocative descriptions of Maya cities that Bower has penned over the years, despite never having visited one himself. “That would be very cool,” he says. “I’ve never been to any of the sites I write about. I’ve never even been to Stonehenge.”

And there’s another theme in Caracol’s story, Bower notes, one that’s repeated in civilizations around the world throughout history. Governments rise and fall; more pluralistic societies can be replaced by authoritarian ones, and vice versa. “There’s something humbling about the lidar data,” Bower says. “Here were these great cities and civilizations that are now covered up by jungle. The Classic Maya, that’s gone and those cities were abandoned.” But that’s not the end of the story. “Maya culture kept right on going,” Bower says. “It’s still vital today.”

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.