Frame 6c. Mesoamerica: Greening the Ancient City

Mesoamerica: Greening the Ancient City: Agro-urban Landscapes of the Classic Puuc Maya


Aims 1, 3, and 4

Sole investigator: Dr Christian Isendahl, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University

The ultimate aim of the project (i.e., in a fullblown Urban Mind-project) is to explore stress and resilience in the agro-urban landscapes of the Maya, particularly in relation to climatic variability. For the current planning-phase of a large-scale project the initial aims are to provide detailed overviews of the state-of-the-art of the research on (1) prehispanic Mesoamerican agro-urban settlement forms and (2) northern Yucatán Peninsula paleoclimates.

Benefit of achieved aim
The ultimate benefit of the project is to inform a global comparative perspective to the Urban Mind concept on the basis of a New World case study.

Scope of study
The prehispanic Maya fashioned agro-urban communities: the settlements were large, they represented population aggregation, the socio-political systems were vertically and horizontally complex, and the bulk share of the agricultural produce was cultivated within the boundaries of the urban settlement. Maya cities were in some sense green cities: in addition to monumental civic/ceremonial precincts and large settlement barrios, agricultural fields, kitchen gardens, and orchards were integral parts of a cognitive and physical landscape shaping the Maya urban mind. Hence, Maya agro-urban communities combined rural production systems with urban functions, contesting essentialist notions of “urban” versus “rural” categories.

Maya urbanism represents three millennia of transformed continuities, beginning in the early first millennium BCE. Pulses of intensive urbanization followed by periods of urban settlement abandonment and then reorganization characterize the long-term history of Maya settlement patterns. Prehispanic Maya urban landscapes formed complex matrices of social, political, economic, cosmological, and environmental concerns. In the Puuc subregion of the northern Yucatán Peninsula urban culture was established during the 7th and 8th century CE and expanded over the following centuries until declining at the turn of the millennium. By the 12th century CE most Puuc communities had been abandoned. The key attractor of the Puuc subregion was its soil, deep and rich in nutrients, while—owing to geophysical and climatic properties—water shortage was a potential constraining factor for agricultural production. Prehispanic Puuc social and political economies were sensitive to climatic variability, anomalies in annual precipitation patterns in particular. As elsewhere, significant long-term shifts in annual climatic patterns (what we loosely may call climate change) would have been a potential source of severe stress on Puuc society.

Intellectual background – previous research
The project partly takes off from exploratory work in Isendahl 2002. The approach rejects linear explanation formulas of the relationship between social and climate change and builds on integrative, agent-focused anthropological perspectives in historical ecology (e.g., Crumley 1994; Balée 1998; Balée and Erickson 2006).

In this phase: critical literature survey only. In project continuation: a revised, up-dated version of the archaeoclimatological method of Bryson and Bryson (1997) will form a vital part, as will landscape-analyses of Maya agro-urban landscapes from (mostly) published sources.

Published and unpublished Maya agro-urban settlement data and paleoclimatological proxy records.

Expected results
Overviews and critical discussions of prehispanic Maya agro-urban settlement systems research and paleoclimatological investigations. Each outline will be submitted as a separate article to a peer-reviewed journal as well as summarized in a chapter for the planned The Urban Mind project volume.