With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Andrew Scherer and Dr. Charles Golden will lead a bi-national team of scholars in the archaeological investigation of Precolumbian warfare in Chiapas, Mexico. During the Classic period (AD 250 to 900), the Maya kingdoms of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan struggled to control this area, contending with intrusions by other dynasties as well. Based on the results of Scherer and Golden's prior NSF-supported research, the Late Classic period (AD 600 - 900) lords of the Yaxchilan kingdom constructed an extensive landscape-oriented defensive system that consisted of a fortified border system of masonry walls, hilltop redoubts, and noble palace centers strategically situated among a series of settlements positioned to defend the greater polity against attack from neighboring polities. In contrast, Late Preclassic period (400 BC to AD 250) defensive features from the region are site-oriented, meant to protect only a single community, and hint at the fractured geo-political landscape of that earlier time. What is unclear, however, is whether Yaxchilan's Late Classic period landscape-oriented border fortification system is unique to that kingdom, thus representing a distinctive political and military situation, or if other kingdoms in the western lowlands pursued similar geo-political strategy.

This project seeks to test the diversity of Classic period Maya warfare strategies through the investigation of the spatial distribution of defensive features, settlement, and material culture associated with a 360 km2 area around the Classic period site of La Mar. Data from hieroglyphic texts and iconography establish that La Mar was a secondary center at the limits of the Piedras Negras polity and that La Mar's governors were among the Piedras Negras kings' most important military allies. Lacking, however, is archaeological data to correlate with the historical evidence for warfare by the Piedras Negras kingdom.

This research will enhance understandings of ancient Maya defensive features and warfare and addresses the role of warfare as both a cause and effect of political formation and collapse in the Maya region. The results of this research will contribute to our understanding of Precolumbian political processes, particularly in regards to Mesoamerican boundary formation processes. More significantly, this archaeological research will provide a long-term diachronic perspective that can contribute to the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of warfare at the margins of the state. Landscape approaches to ancient warfare are of increasing importance in the study of violent conflict. However comparative data are lacking from complex societies in the tropical Americas to compare and contrast with not only other parts of the New World, but also with Old World complex societies where much of our cross-cultural understanding of fortifications, landscape, and the conduct of war are rooted.

The proposed project will provide field and laboratory experiences for doctoral, masters, and undergraduate students from both Mexico and the United States. More broadly, the project will advance international collaborative research in an area of Chiapas that has received little archaeological attention. This research will provide government authorities, land-use managers, and local communities with data regarding the location and extent of archaeological sites in an understudied region of Mesoamerica.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Brown University
United States
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