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Archaeology of the Maya Highlands

Abstract and Keywords

The Guatemala highlands is an area of contrasting climate, topography, and agricultural potential. High basins and fertile valleys are situated among a series of mountain ranges from the Pacific Coastal volcanic chains to the massive uplifts to the northeast, offering several advantages that facilitate human settlement. The Central Highlands are home to important natural routes, including the Motagua River, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean and separates a series of these mountain ranges crisscrossing Guatemala from east to west. To the north, tributaries of the Chixoy River irrigate the Central Highlands. This article focuses on the Central Highlands, and in particular on the primary site of Kaminaljuyú, which can be used as a proxy to understand better developments throughout the region.

Keywords: Guatemala, Central Highlands, Kaminaljuyú, Mesoamerica

The Guatemala highlands is an area of contrasting climate, topography, and agricultural potential. High basins and fertile valleys are situated among a series of mountain ranges from the Pacific Coastal volcanic chains to the massive uplifts to the northeast, offering several advantages that facilitate human settlement. Some areas are surrounded by large ravines that impede large settlements (Borhegyi 1965). The Central Highlands are home to important natural routes, including the Motagua River, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean and separates a series of these mountain ranges crisscrossing Guatemala from east to west. To the north, tributaries of the Chixoy River irrigate the Central Highlands.

There is still much to learn about the Guatemala highlands. Excavations have been carried out at some sites, as well as a few regional surveys (Smith 1955; Robinson 1994; Robinson et al. 2002); however, the majority of these projects took place in the 1940s and 1950s. Recently, there has been a resurgence of work in the region with many projects now entering the final phases of analysis and publication, as is the case with Xacbal and El Soch in Quiché.

In this chapter, I focus on the Central Highlands, and in particular on the primary site of Kaminaljuyú, which can be used as a proxy to better understand developments throughout the region.

(p. 246) The Central Highlands

The Central Highlands are composed of the Departments of Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, and Chimaltenango. The region is mountainous and volcanic, with some fertile valleys. The highlands are bounded by the Motagua River to the north, the Los Platanos River and the Las Nubes Mountains to the east, Lake Atitlán to the west, and the piedmont to the south (Figure 17.1).

 Archaeology of the Maya HighlandsClick to view larger

Figure 17.1 The Guatemala highlands.

Prehispanic occupation in the area dates to the Preclassic period, around 1000 bc, and it continued through the Postclassic. Developmental dynamics in the region varied, as can be observed in changes in the size and importance of Kaminaljuyú over time. This site was located in the Valley of Guatemala and included more than (p. 247) two hundred structures (Kidder 1961). These constructions consisted of earthen or rubble-filled platforms, the surfaces of which were covered with a layer of clay. In the central valley, Shook (1952) reported interconnected settlements, although none rivaled the size of Kaminaljuyú. Given its geographically strategic location, Kaminaljuyú could control the exchange of goods like obsidian, cacao, jade, and cotton. This control afforded Kaminaljuyú its role as protagonist throughout the prehispanic history of the region.

More complex developments are observed in the Middle Preclassic period. During this period (800–400 bc), several structures were erected around the Miraflores Lake. This area was extremely important because control of the lake allowed prehispanic rulers to control the flow of water used to irrigate fields, starting as early as 500 bc (Barrientos 1997). Social differentiation can be identified in burials with particularly rich offerings in the central part of the site, offering a stark contrast with those in lower-class residential areas. Recent research has revealed a contemporary ceremonial center at Naranjo (800–400 bc), 3 kilometers north of Kaminaljuyú (Arroyo 2010). Most of the plain monuments in the Maya area are from this site, which has a total of thirty-five monuments. Shook (1952) identified thirteen other sites in the Central Highlands with plain stelae; however, the majority had just two or three examples. Thus, Naranjo is assumed to have been of greater importance, making it the regional center during this period.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University (Michels 1979) have proposed the presence of five dominant lineages, each controlling particular parts of the Central Highlands. This proposal was later investigated through large-scale surveys (Murdy 1984). Nonetheless, Kaminaljuyú seems to have been the most important center, and Love (2008) has suggested that the site was a state, rather than a complex chiefdom, beginning as early as the Middle Preclassic. In the Late Preclassic, the social organization of the site became more complex given that 70 percent of the visible structures were built during this period and then later remodeled. This era of florescence was one in which Kaminaljuyú exercised commercial control throughout the highlands and southern coast, promoting cultural contact with important centers in the neighboring region of Chalchuapa to the east and sites in the Department of Escuintla to the south. The Central Highlands were linked with the northern highlands throughout the Preclassic period.

The Northern Highlands

The northern highlands include the Departments of Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, and Quiché. This region is bordered by the Motagua River to the south; the Chamá Mountain Range to the north; the Polochic River Basin to the east; and the Ixcán, Negro, and Chixoy Rivers and their tributaries to the west (see Figure 17.1). There (p. 248) were significant settlements in Baja and Alta Verapaz. Work by Sharer and Sedat (1987) has revealed settlement in the Salamá Valley beginning in the Preclassic period, around 1200 bc. The French Archaeological Mission in Guatemala documented the sites of Sakajut in Alta Verapaz, El Portón in Baja Verapaz, and Río Blanco in Quiché (Ichon and Arnauld 1985).

Population increased from the Middle to Late Preclassic, with the greatest concentration located in the Salamá Valley (Sharer and Sedat 1987). Social classes are demonstrated by the presence of individuals buried with special offerings, human crania that were likely included as trophies, and twelve bodies buried outside of a crypt in Los Mangales, Verapaz. This group likely originated in the southern highlands or the Pacific piedmont and surrounding lowlands. The site of Los Mangales was located along a natural route from the northeast, offering particular commercial advantages.

El Portón, in the Salamá Valley, appears to have been founded as a political center for the entire region with the residences of the nobility located at the neighboring site of Las Tunas. The Salamá Valley is also home to sculpted monuments that included very ancient hieroglyphic texts, generally contemporaneous with the first texts from Kaminaljuyú. These monuments are carved in a very particular style linked to sites to the Central Highlands (Fahsen 2010).

Surveys and other projects in the northern highlands have identified two population groups during the Preclassic: one to the west near the middle course of the Chixoy River and in adjacent Quiché, and one to the east in Baja and Alta Verapaz. Evidence suggests links between the Central Guatemala Valley, the Pacific Coast, and the Maya lowlands to the north, particularly the area near the Pasión River.

Notably, none of the sites mentioned reached the size of centrally located Kaminaljuyú. This fact contributes to the notion that Kaminaljuyú achieved its enormous economic power through control of the exchange in obsidian, jade, cacao, and other important perishable items. Its strategic location along a natural trade route favored an unprecedented development of social complexity at the site during the Late Preclassic.

Toward the end of the Preclassic, an important change has been observed. Popenoe de Hatch (2003) has proposed that this change was brought about by the intrusion of groups from the western highlands, possibly from near La Lagunita in Quiché. This change, and the potential conflict associated with it, is evidenced by the destruction of monuments representing important rulers and community leaders. However, it is possible that intruding groups were not the only cause.

Paleoenvironmental records have documented that around 200 ad an environmental shift with considerable ecological impact affected many centers, particularly Kaminaljuyú. Similar records from the extinct Miraflores Lake reveal its desiccation and the abandonment of its canals around 250 ad (Popenoe de Hatch 2003). The environmental changes appear to have affected other places as well. In neighboring Sacatepéquez, evidence from the Quilisimate Lagoon indicates a drought occurred around 260 ad (Robinson et al. 2002). Paleoenvironmental research on the Pacific Coast also demonstrates that this region suffered a drought (p. 249) at the end of the Late Preclassic, around 200 ad (Neff et al. 2006). Based on recent research by Lozano-García and colleagues (2010) at Verde Lake in the Tuxtlas Mountain range, this event had an impact far beyond the Maya highlands and the southern coast.

If Kaminaljuyú maintained a strong relationship with several great Mesoamerican centers, as well as other sites of lesser importance in the hierarchy, the drought must have affected the social organization. The result could have been rebellions, and external groups taking advantage of the opportunity of weakened political control to confront and possibly subjugate the Preclassic population of this important center.

Climactic conditions stabilized during the Classic period, as observed in the decline in forested areas and the increase in plant species that thrive in open areas (Neff et al. 2006). This situation favored population expansion, and, through alliances, may have resulted in a group of highland Maya wielding considerable economic and social power. Beginning around 400 ad, Kaminaljuyú extended its exchange networks to the Central Mexican Highlands, as seen in the site's architecture and rich tombs suggesting strong ties with Teotihuacan (Kidder, Jennings, and Shook 1946; Sanders and Michels 1977). Nevertheless, recent osteological analyses indicate that Kaminaljuyú had ties with both Teotihuacan and the Maya lowlands (Wright et al. 2010). Kaminaljuyú continued to be an important center with a political system distinct from that of the Preclassic, distinguishing and formalizing itself as the center of power by controlling several important trade routes. These routes were controlled by this new group, which Hatch refers to as a Mexicanized group (Popenoe de Hatch 2003), who entered the valley at the end of the Preclassic and took over control of Kaminaljuyú.

The social complexity achieved by the population of the neighboring region of Salamá at the end of the Preclassic and beginning of the Classic is exemplified by the burial of a leader or shaman at the site of La Lagunita (Ichon 1985). During this period (100–600 ad), impressive cultural developments are seen in the largest ceremonial group (Group A) of La Lagunita with pyramids 10 meters tall and a cruciform spatial layout. The axes of the site included offerings of thirteen statuettes in front of the entrance to an artificial cave in the center of the plaza. Inside of the man-made cave, large stone slabs were found on the floor along with multiple objects, including three hundred ceramic vessels. The cave was sealed sometime between 350 and 400 ad.

Interestingly, Arnauld (2003) has identified linguistic differences among the groups that inhabited the northern highlands, possibly reflecting sociopolitical or ethnic/cultural fragmentation in the region at the beginning of the Classic period (100–400 ad). This same pattern may have also prevailed during the Epiclassic (900–1100 ad) when instability arose among the groups in the Verapaz regions following the demographic growth of the Late Classic period (600–900 ad).

In the Late Classic, there was a short hiatus in occupation although the ceramic materials indicate continuity in populations. Remarkably, ballcourts and the sculptures that served as field markers have been reported from several sites (p. 250) dating to this period (Shook 1952). Late Classic sites are located in the valleys and on slopes of the Central Highlands. The administration of these sites appears to have become less centralized during this period, and ties with the Pacific Coast were strengthened (Popenoe de Hatch and Shook 1999).

Site density increased in the northern highlands (Figure 17.1), with site organization and orientation dictated by the terrain. Topography had the greatest impact on the spatial organization of these centers. During the Protohistoric period, ballcourts are found with patios or plazas, and defensive sites were located in the high mountains or on peninsulas of land surrounded by ravines.

The northern highlands may have had contact with sites in Chiapas and the Maya lowlands as early as the Preclassic, certainly by the Early Classic. These contacts continued into the Protohistoric period. The region appears to have entered into conflict during the Postclassic period because defensive locations and settlements surrounded by walls and terraces became the norm (Smith and Kidder 1951; Woodbury and Trik 1953).

Recently, several projects have focused on the northern highlands, examining sites such as Xacbal (Velásquez, personal communication, 2010) and El Soch. These studies have offered a general view of the highlands, indicating a social organization more closely resembling that of chiefdoms with commercial economies, veneration of cave systems, and less investment in art.

One of the most important sites in the region is Cancuén in Alta Verapaz. Recent research at the site indicates that it was a- key commercial center during the Classic period, enjoying strong ties with the Maya lowlands to the north. The discovery of a jade workshop at the site suggests it was an important area for the production of jade objects traded with distant areas to the north (Kovacevich 2006). The site's architecture follows the highland pattern of using stone slabs, although some sections of the site, like the palace, more closely resemble the lowland style. This has led Demarest (Demarest and Martinez 2010) to suggest that the site had an international style and functioned as a critical commercial center. Demarest argues that toward the end of the Classic, Cancuén was a hegemonic state with specialized exchange, production of jade and other items for export, control of a long-distance exchange network, and a subdivided political structure (Demarest and Martinez 2010).

The highlands suffered a drastic drop in population at the beginning of the Postclassic period (1000–1200 ad). Centers changed in size and function, and it seems that the population was now concentrated in nucleated villages. Some of the sites in the central valley include Kaminaljuyú, Taltic, San Antonio Frutal, and Solano. The sites in Chimaltenango include La Merced, Chuabaj, Saquitacaj-Chibalo, and Tzabalaj-Comalapa. Some of these sites have stone sculptures.

In contrast to the Early Postclassic, the latter half of this period (1200–1524 ad) saw a substantial increase in the population at most of the sites in Chimaltenango and the Departments of Sacatepéquez and Guatemala. This may have been related to migrations from outside the region. Kaminaljuyú became a dispersed village, while a large, regional center was located at either Chinautla or Beleh. The (p. 251) latter site was characterized by a natural defensive system, a feature it shared with contemporary settlements in other regions where conflict between social groups had increased.

Investigation of the Postclassic period in the northern highlands has focused on sites in the Chixoy River Basin, with Cauinal and Cahyup being the most important sites at this time. Cahyup, to the north of Rabinal in Baja Verapaz, was founded in the twelfth century by the Pokomames, who were later conquered by the Agaabes, a Quiché group. Cauinal, which was flooded by the Chixoy reservoir, is located in the valley of the same name.

The Western Highlands

Few studies have been conducted in the western highlands but the area was occupied during the Preclassic and Classic periods. Sites here include Semetabaj and Chukumuk near Lake Atitlán, although both also have Classic-period occupations (Shook, Popenoe de Hatch, and Donaldson 1979). At neighboring Huehuetenango, Cambote (Clark et al. 2001) was important, with pottery similar to that found in the central and western highlands, including figures and vessels very similar to those from Kaminaljuyú that demonstrates contact between these regions as early as 800 bc.

The site of Zaculeu was the capital of a Mam kingdom and had significant occupation during the Early Classic and Postclassic periods. It is surrounded by drainages that afforded a defensive position (Woodbury and Trik 1953). Zaculeu was the most important site during the Classic period. Rich tombs dating to 400 ad have been uncovered, as well as evidence of important texts during the Late Classic (Woodbury and Trik 1953). Surveys in the Huehuetenango area have documented a population increase in the valley during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic. Other sites in the region also show indications of multicultural change (Iglesias Ponce de León and Ciudad 1999). The site of Gumarcaaj and its Quiché inhabitants conquered lands to the north, south, east, and west of the highlands. They dominated critical commercial routes like those between the highlands and the Pacific Coast and thus maintained control of the region and defended it against the Mam.

The neighboring Chiapas highlands, particularly the Grijalva Basin, offer information comparable to studies in the Guatemala highlands. During the Late Preclassic (400 bc–100 ad), some sites in the western Guatemala highlands (e.g., Cambote) had ties with the Chiapas highlands through the transport and distribution of obsidian. The largest population occurs during the latter part of the Late Preclassic and the early part of the Classic period, with ties to the site of Kaminaljuyú. In particular, Ojo de Agua, Chiapas, is an important Early (p. 252) Classic-period site, and it is possible that subsequent population density in Grijalva Basin settlements during the Classic period have buried evidence of earlier occupations. Examples of Late Classic-period sites include Lagartero, Tenam Rosario, Ojo de Agua, and Guajilar (Bryant, Clark, and Cheetham 2005). The Postclassic has not been well studied; still, we know that Canajasté (Blake 2010) was significant, as were Guajilar and Los Encuentros (Bryant, Clark, and Cheetham 2005).

Final Comments

Kaminaljuyú was the key site in the region from its beginnings in the Classic period when it enjoyed decentralized power, although the settlement became more dispersed toward the end of that period. Contacts maintained throughout the site's history extended to the Pacific Coast, eastern Guatemala, the Petén lowlands, and southeastern Mesoamerica. Due to its location in the valley occupied by Guatemala City, considerable information has been lost to modern settlements. However, this has not obscured Kaminaljuyú's importance in the region.

The Guatemala highlands offer several research opportunities for furthering our understanding of prehispanic Mesoamerica. There are sites throughout the highlands that have never been investigated and would considerably increase our understanding and improve the archaeological record of the area. More work is needed to truly understand the nature of the region and to be able to compare it with better-known regions. The region has enjoyed a dynamic history with various groups taking advantage of this strategic location to control critical resources and trade routes and maintain power throughout history.


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