HomeBiographyWritingsPhotosContactAncient Maya Settlement Patterns and Environment at Tikal, Guatemala: Implications for Subsistence Models Dennis Edward Puleston A Dissertation in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 1973

Chapter Nine: Summary and Conclusions


Tikal Settlement Patterns
Problems for Future Consideration
Final Summary


At the outset one of the principal objectives of the present study was to shed new light on the dynamics of ancient Maya demographic patterns. One of the questions raised concerns the issue of whether or not a Tikal "settlement pattern" could be outline. I believe it can but insofar as settlement patterns changed throughtime, it is convenient to describe first patterns that are typical for a particular period of time. On this basis I feel that six separate patterns can be recognized in the Tikal data. Each has been given the Maya name for an insect form selected from a list compiled by Roys (1937:327-344). By this means settlement pattern types will be released from the implication that there is complete coincidence of their temporal boundaries with those of the ceramic complexes which have been used to identify them.

Sketches are used to illustrate the characteristics of each settlement pattern. In all cases the overall pattern is a reconstruction based on the data provided by the mapping and excavation on the survey strips, by knowledge about the location and ceramics of satellite sites, and, in a very rough way, by the distribution and orientation of major bajos and ridges. The sketches are intended to portray a visual summary of the pattern as it occurs at Tikal. The four satellites shown in Figure 30 may be considered representative of the sites Jimbal, Chikin Tikal, Uolantun, and Navajuelal. Tintal bajo (logwood swamp) areas are delimited by a dashed line. Contour lines roughly indicate the higher area on which central Tikal is located, the Uolantun ridge, and the Arroyo Holmul. Elsewhere a more or less even terrain is assumed.

Tikal Settlement Patterns

Koxol Settlement Pattern

This settlement pattern, which appears to coincide with the manufacture and use of Eb and Tzec ceramics of the Middle Preclassic regional period, is represented by isolated finds which, in spite of the small size of the sample, seem to fall into a recognizable pattern. This pattern at Tikal can perhaps best be described as a tightly knit hilltop hamlet. Beyond the limits of this hamlet, which probably covered an area of one-eighth to one-quarter km 2, settlement units were widely scattered and usually isolated. What evidence there is suggests that ceremonial structures used by the population were located away from the main residential area on a high ridge or hill.

This pattern is suggested by the nearly ubiquitous distribution of Middle Preclassic ceramics in the fills of later structures around the West Plaza, Great Plaza, North Acropolis, and the large plazas west of the South Acropolis. This concentration contrasts with their virtual absence in surrounding areas. Localities where Eb and Tzec ceramics were found outside this hamlet area were dispersed and generally on well-drained hill slopes or hilltops.

No evidence for ceremonial architecture nor even for ceremonial deposits, such as caches, have been found in association with the Middle Preclassic remains at Tikal. The only known ceremonial architecture for this time period was found at Uolantun. The possibility that secular and religious activities were kept separate at this time is suggested by the fact that not a single identifiable fragment of Eb or Tzec ceramics was found in association with any of the ten excavated residential groups around the Uolantun ceremonial structure.

Figure 28. The Koxol Settlement Pattern (Middle Preclassic). The small square is the symbol for a major locus of ceremonial, and (for later periods other than Koxol) elite residential architecture. The dots present a visual summary of the distribution and density of lower class residences.


Zinic Settlement Pattern

This settlement pattern which coincides, at least roughly, with the manufacture and use of Chuen, Cauac, and Cimi ceramics, during the Late Preclassic period, heralds significant change. A nucleus of ceremonial function is now clearly established (W. Coe 1965) within an area of residential occupation suggested by the presence of Chultun 5D-6 and the broad distribution of ceramics over the areas of the Koxol hamlet. Evidence of at least possible Preclassic ceramics was found at three of the ten excavated loci at Uolantun. Ceremonial construction continued on the site of the earlier activities discussed above.

The contrast of tightly settled hamlet and essentially vacant peripheries is absent. A densely settled core persists, but its edges merge into occupation sites which are fairly evenly spaced and considerably more numerous on uplands within a radius of about five km at Tikal. Beyond this perimeter, settlement is present, but it is scattered out into relatively isolated units.

Figure 29. The Zinic Settlement Pattern (Late Preclassic).


Kamaz Settlement Patterns

This settlement pattern coincides roughly with that of the Early Classic period. It is characterized by massive development of the ceremonial nucleus which now includes elite residences and which falls within the definition of a site epicenter. The residential core is now not so easy to distinguish from the residential peripheries. At Tikal the site peripheries are more clearly indicated than ever before by the construction of an earthworks system near the end of the Early Classic period. Settlement is no longer so clearly confined to hill slopes and hilltops but also occurs in low-lying areas often on comparatively poorly drained soils. Settlement units within residential areas are about three times as dense as in the Koxol Settlement Pattern but still maintain a "dispersed" appearance, though the spaces between each plaza group are greatly reduced.

Beyond the site peripheries, settlement is also dense, perhaps at the level found in the residential periphery of the main site for the Koxol Settlement Pattern. As within the site peripheries, settlement is frequently found on near level less well-drained soils.

Figure 30. The Kamaz Settlement Pattern (Early Classic).,The heavy line indicates the earthworks system.


Xulab Settlement Pattern

The Xulab Settlement Pattern appears during the Late Classic period, contemporary with the manufacture and use of Ik and Imix ceramics at Tikal. Though it is basically quite similar to the preceding Kamaz Settlement Pattern there is evidence for an actual decline in settlement density in certain portions of the intersite area. The available evidence suggests that this decline, which is well established to the south of Tikal during the time of the use of Ik ceramics, does not begin until the appearance of Imix ceramics north of Tikal. The intersite decline may represent a pattern of continuing site nucleation that goes hand in hand with an increase in residential settlement/population density around the site epicenter. The latter is suggested by Haviland's (1963:404) observation that for most groups in the northeastern section of Tikal, there was an "increase in the number of structures during the use span of the group," within Late Classic times. This increase has not been quantified, and is not reflected in the gross category of "Late Classic" used in Figure 22, nor in the survey strip excavation data presented in Figures 12 and 13 which are derived from group test-pits rather than from structure excavations. This limitation of the survey strip data  makes it impossible to do more than surmise about what was going on in the zone of peripheral residence outside the central nine km2 of Tikal but within the line of the earthworks.

The increasing contrast of settlement density in site and intersite areas also is manifested on a smaller scale at the site of Jimbal which lies north of Tikal near the end of the North Brecha Survey Strip. It does not apply to the small settlement associated with Navajuelal at 10.0 km on the South Brecha Survey Strip where Late Classic settlement is substantially reduced in comparison to Early Classic times.

Figure 31. The Xulab settlement Pattern (Late Classic).


Zuluay Settlement Pattern

This settlement pattern falls roughly in the time period designated as Terminal Classic, contemporary with the use of Eznab and Imix/Eznab transition ceramics at Tikal, (Fry 1968).  In contrast to the preceding Kamaz and Xulab settlement patterns this complex is characterized by a great reduction in site settlement size and the virtual disappearance of intersite settlement. What settlement there is occurs at a density that is roughly comparable to that of the Zinic Settlement Pattern. There is evidence to indicate that the earthworks ditch, which had served as a significant site boundary up through times in which Imix ceramics were in use, was not filled in, at least in the vicinity of the one excavated causeway across it (Puleston and Callender 1967:45).

Taken as a whole, settlement density within the limits of the former site boundaries can also be considered roughly comparable to that of the Zinic Settlement Pattern. Two important distinctions, however, should be pointed out before this comparison is carried too far. These are: 1) Zuluay settlement within the area designated as "Residential Tikal" occurs in comparatively compact clusters while Zinic settlement is more evenly dispersed (see Figures 12 and 13); and 2) beyond the site boundaries, complex satellite sites are associated with clusters of residential settlement. For the Zinic Settlement Pattern we have only evidence for the ceremonially oriented satellite of Uolantun which architecturally quite simple. There is no evidence for complex satellites like Jimbal and Navajuelal whatsoever.

In effect the Zuluay Settlement Pattern has much the appearance of Willey's (1956:111) Type C.

Figure 32. The Zuluay Settlement Pattern (Terminal Classic).


Kulim Settlement Pattern

This settlement pattern is described on the basis of finds of Caban ceramics. It is the most distinct of all the settlement patterns to be described here and on a temporal scale represents a most dramatic change in settlement patterns. Basically it appears to be characterized by isolated homesteads and very small settlements made up of loosely clustered residences. Unlike the settlement of the Middle Preclassic Koxol Settlement Pattern, Kulim settlement does not tend to concentrate on the highest ridge tops. On the basis of our limited sample it seems to occur fairly consistently on lower hills and even bajo edges. Within the area covered by the nine km2 map of Tikal, as well as on the South Survey Strip, proximity to the water provided by the presumably still functioning reservoirs seems to have been more significant than drainage, elevation, or the focus provided by the now completely abandoned site epicenters of Classic and Preclassic times.

Some of these patterns are clearly more similar to each other than others. If generic categories were to be applied, the Kamaz and Xulab complexes would surely be included under the same category as they are very similar. In Figure 34 I have attempted to express the degree of relationship among the settlement pattern complexes by spelling out the distinctions by which they can be defined. Thus I feel, for instance, that the Zinic complex is more like the Kamaz and Xulab complexes would surely be included under the same category as they are very similar. In Figure 34 I have attempted to express the degree of relationship among the settlement pattern complexes by spelling out the distinctions by which they can be defined. Thus I feel, for instance, that the Zinic complex is more like the Kamaz and Xulab complexes than the Zuluay complex, in which striking differences manifest themselves in response to the process of the collapse. The changes brought about by the emergence of a ceremonially oriented site epicenter separates the Koxol complex from all those which have been mentioned thus far. Finally the Kulim complex, characterized by low density and abandonment of the higher ridges which had been focal points for settlement and ceremonial activities from earliest times, exhibits the most significant distinctions of all.

The profound nature of the changes represented by the Kulim complex, and even its differences in comparison to the Middle Preclassic Koxol complex, may be the result of the basic shift in subsistence patterns hypothesized in the previous chapter.

Figure 33. The Kulim Settlement Pattern (Postclassic).


Each of these settlement patterns represents a distinct change. Some of these changes are more marked than others. While the Kamaz and Xulab settlements patterns are basically quite similar, the differences between Kulim and any of the others are extreme. Figure 34 summarizes these relationships and their degree of similarity. These changes are not placed against a chronological scale; if they were, the contrast of the gradual rate of change up to Classic times with the rapid and dramatic changes that take place in the Zuluay and Kulim settlement patterns would be evident.

What do these changes reflect? Moseley (1972:33), on the basis of his analysis of Peruvian sequences, notes that each substantial change in settlement pattern apparently coincided with a major change in subsistence patterns. Stated as a generalization this may be true for the Maya area as well. Elsewhere Sharer and Gifford (1970) have discussed an important shift that appears to have taken place in Preclassic times. This shift involved the movement of certain populations away from small Middle Preclassic riverine settlements into the interior of the Maya lowlands. It is suggested that this move was accompanied by a shift from dependence on levee cultivation of maize to heavy utilization of the ramon (Puleston and Puleston 1971). I suspect that excavation will reveal these early riverine settlements to be more nucleated than is typical for Tikal. The fact that a chultun filled with Eb ceramics (Ch. 5G-15) is one of the earliest constructions discovered at Tikal suggests this transition had already taken place when Tikal was first settled.

Now moving to the Classic-Postclassic transition, I have already given my reasons in the final section of Chapter VIII for believing that the major change in settlement pattern that takes place between Late Classic and Postclassic Kulim times does reflect a shift in subsistence emphasis from kitchen gardens to the milpa at Tikal. I would further suggest that this shift was a trend that started in Late Classic times with the transition from the Kamaz to Xulab settlement patterns. At this time limited slash-and-burn cultivation of maize for the elite may have forced abandonment of certain intersite areas. With the population declines and instability brought on by the collapse, even greater emphasis may have been placed on slash-and-burn agriculture, producing the even more nucleated Zuluay pattern. This pattern is characteristic of modern settlements where slash-and-burn agriculture is used. Defensive considerations and the destruction of the earthworks may also have contributed to this development.

Further declines in population and complete abandonment of the old site epicenters leads us into the Kulim pattern. At this time it is almost certain that slash-and-burn cultivation of maize was the principal means of food production, as it was in the small settlements north of Lake Peten, visited and described by Father Avendaño (ca. 1910:24) in 1695-96. The likelihood that population declines preceded the shift leaves open the possibility that Boserup's (1965) arguments for the dependent role of agricultural intensification on population growth may also work in reverse. In other words, agricultural techniques are the dependent variable and population density the independent variable, regardless of whether population densities are rising or falling.

Having reviewed the dynamics of Tikal's settlement patterns we may now return again to the question of whether or not some overall pattern may be discerned. I feel that the answer now would have to be "yes" if we describe the pattern in terms of a tradition. Willey and Phillips (1958:37) propose a definition for the concept of tradition: " . . . an archaeological tradition is a (primarily) temporal continuity represented by persistent configurations in single technologies or other systems of related forms." This concept appears to be applicable to the settlement patterns of Tikal as described above and summarized in Figure 34. Following the definition, one can say that a "persistent configuration" of settlement focused on a recognizable epicenter of ceremonial architecture seems to extend at least from Late Preclassic (the Zinic pattern) to Terminal Late Classic (the Zuluay pattern) times. This appears to be what might be referred to as the Tikal settlement pattern tradition. While I do not feel that there is enough certain evidence to determine whether or not the Middle Preclassic Koxol pattern belongs to this tradition, it seems clear that the Postclassic Kulim pattern does not. For the Tikal area, the Kulim pattern may represent a separate Postclassic settlement pattern tradition. One of the principle functions of defining traditions, as Willey and Philips (1958:38) point out, is its use as a tool for the investigation of cultural stability. Without any knowledge, then, other than that provided by settlement patterns (as summarized in Figure 34), one would be led to suspect major changes in the transition from Terminal Classic into Postclassic times. Lesser changes, as have been discussed above, might be used to define shorter traditions such as that indicated by the relatively minor differences in the Zinic, Kamaz, and Xulab patterns. This would possibly leave the Zuluay pattern as representative of a separate tradition but since it cannot be linked to anything later, it is too brief temporally to fit the definition. In light of its temporal brevity, it might be considered representative of a transitional period or a horizon. I do not believe the latter possibility is applicable because of the change from Xulab to Zuluay which is more one of quantity than of total configuration. The basic pattern does not change. I suggest that we are dealing with a single settlement pattern tradition which ends with the shift from the Zuluay to Kulim settlement pattern. Depending on the time depth involved, it may be followed by a distinct Postclassic tradition.

Figure 34. Chart summarizing the relationships among Tikal settlements patterns.


Problems for Future Consideration

Despite the many new insights provided by the data presented here, there are still a number of problems which deserve review because of the difficulties they posed here and their pertinence to future research on the question of ancient Maya palaeodemography.

As I have indicated in the text, of particular concern are the data relating to the quantification of populations for Preclassic and Early Classic times. Since the entire test-pitting program was oriented to the visible remains of structures which were extant at the end of the Classic period, it was necessary to assume that Preclassic and Early Classic structures occurred only at these loci and that former midden materials were not transported from one place to another. There are good reasons, listed in the text in Chapter IV, for believing that fill transport was minimal. There is ample evidence, however, for the existence of Preclassic and Early Classic structures at loci other than those indicated by the presence of Late Classic structures. Where they have been discovered these have been refereed to as "hidden house ruins." They have not been allowed for in the calculations. While consideration of this variable would seem to increase our estimates of Preclassic and Early Classic populations, it is very possible that this variable is more than offset by two others which would tend to decrease population estimates for these time periods. These are: 1) evidence that excavated Early Classic structures do not show the same frequency of sequential construction found in Late Classic structures, suggesting the possibility that perhaps they were not occupied continuously; 2) the assumption made in the test-pit survey that a plaza group revealing Early Classic occupation had as many structures as occurred there in Late Classic times.

Regarding the first point, there are reasons for suspecting that the Early Classic Maya utilized kitchen gardens much as the Late Classic Maya apparently did. This would have had a stabilizing effect on residential patterns which might not be reflected in sequential construction. Perhaps in Early Classic times less emphasis was placed on structural modification of house platforms for cultural reasons despite relatively continuous occupation. At this point what we need is tighter temporal control of Early Classic occupation such as might be provided by a whole series of C14 dates from several Early Classic residences. To date this has not been done. The second point is easier to test and as I have indicated in Chapter VI, in the section on the problems involved in calculating an Early Classic population for Tikal, might be handled through an improved test-pitting technique that included random selection of structures within a particular group. There is no substitute for complete excavation, however, and full information on the Early Classic structures at Tikal which have already been excavated will certainly give us a much better idea on what a typical Early Classic plaza group would have looked like and how it might have changed through time. Preclassic structures, of course, present even more of a problem in this regard; not only are they more disturbed by later construction activities, but there were fewer of them to start with.

Another point that needs more work is the assumption that Haviland's figure of 16% for the percentage of non-residential structures can be applied to the outer portions of Tikal and the intersite areas. I suspect that it is too high for the reasons I have given in the section on "Methods and Assumptions" in Chapter IV. This question would best be dealt with, however, on the basis of a more completely excavated sample of randomly selected structures.

Throughout the calculations I have based all population estimates on an estimate of the number of occupants of a typical house which is derived from the average floor areas of a sample of Late Classic structures. Since the one Preclassic structure (Str. 2G-61) described by Haviland (1963) had a floor area more than three times this average it is possible that floor areas and the number of occupants per house changed significantly through time. Obviously what is needed here is more information on the size of the typical Preclassic and Early Classic residence and again it is possible that relevant data will emerge from the excavations which have already been conducted at Tikal.

As I think I have pointed out the most serious problems in what I have attempted to do here relate to the quantification of Preclassic and Early Classic populations. With respect to the estimates of the Late Classic populations of Tikal and the surrounding intersite area I feel considerably more secure. What is especially needed now is comparative data from sites and particularly intersite areas from other parts of the Maya Lowlands, not only from in the Peten but from the Yucatan, along the Usumacinta River, Belize, and further south around sites like Quirigua and Copan.

This brings us to consideration of the Postclassic data and here I can point to a crucial test for the subsistence shift hypothesis I have presented in Chapter VIII. ON the basis o the assumption that the Postclassic Maya placed much emphasis on milpa agriculture we would expect Postclassic settlement densities in the intersite areas that surround sites like Mayapan, Chichen Itza and Topoxte to be considerably lower than we find around Tikal and Uaxactun. We already have the evidence to indicate an increase in settlement density within site limits in Postclassic times; we now must check to see if there is a corresponding drop in what finally might be identified unequivocally as full-scale agricultural sustaining areas.

Final Summary

I would like now to provide a final summary of the course of the argument and evidence that has been presented here. Starting with the archaeological work of Willey in Viru Valley, archaeologists have come to realize that settlement patterns can provide essential insights into many aspects of culture. They may provide information on social, political, and economic organization. They are particularly relevant to questions of demography and agriculture. An essential component of the study of these items, however, is quantification.

Over the years a considerable amount of work has been done on the mapping and excavation of residential structures in the Maya area. This includes the many excellent site maps which have appeared in recent years, namely those of Mayapan, Tikal, Dzibilchaltun, and Barton Ramie. But intensive excavation projects dealing with residential structures have been far less frequent. The most comprehensive work in this area has been carried out at Tikal by Haviland and Becker.

Despite these advances, however, a major question that has received very little attention is the nature of what I have referred to as intersite areas. These vast areas which lie between the larger and comparatively well-known sites in the southern Maya Lowlands have been examined only in the most cursory manner, and thus it is very difficult to deal with the questions of demography and agriculture mentioned above. Because of the lack of knowledge about these areas, archaeologists have alternatively viewed major sites as nucleated pre-industrial cities and ceremonial centers around which settlement was no more dense than anywhere else.

Those who have claimed that the larger sites were cities have tended to argue on the basis of the apparent abundance of residential settlement that occurs immediately around them. Those who have claimed that they were ceremonial centers have turned to the obvious limitations of slash-and-burn agriculture which at best could not support more that 30-75 people per km2. Regardless of the viewpoint on this question much effort has gone into attempts to juggle the apparent inconsistencies of subsistence potentials and the indicated populations.

Explanations have included 1) the suggestion that the majority of the mapped residential structures were occupied at any one time, and 2) that slash-and-burn agriculture was somehow much more productive than it is today. An alternative explanation suggested by Satterthwaite, and later Haviland, was that somewhere beyond the comparatively dense settlement around larger sites like Tikal there was an agricultural sustaining area where the bulk of food production was carried on. The Tikal Sustaining Area Project was oriented to the discovery of such an area through the collection of quantified settlement data.

Beginning in 1965, mapping of six half kilometer-side survey strips was undertaken. By 1968 these had been completed and totaled nearly 60 km in length. Substantial samples of settlement in intersite areas had been obtained. In order to provide control of time, a ceramics survey was also carried out that included approximately one-third of all the mapped plaza groups on the North and South Survey Classic times, on land areas including all but the lowest bajos, may have averaged from 200 people/km2 in intersite areas to nearly 700 people/km2 within the limits of the Tikal earthworks.

The evidence indicates fairly clearly that this was once one of the most heavily settled regions to be found in the pre-industrial world, as Morely (1923:272) himself once suggested. The present area covered by the Tikal National Park (576 km2) with 540 people/km2 in the site area (120 km2) and 150 people/km2 in the intersite area (476 km2) must have had an average density of 230-240 people/km2. The Valley of Teotihuacan (600 km2) with a peak population of 150,000 people (Sanders 1972:108) did not have more than the equivalent figure of about 250 people/km2. It is fairly evident that the large Classic and Postclassic populations of the Valley of Mexico were sustained by systems of intensive cultivation based on elaborate soil and water control techniques (Sanders 1965:168) including the famous chinampas (Amillas 1971). Certainly the agricultural systems of the ancient Maya must have been at least equal to these.

Studies of soils indicate fairly clearly that slash-and-burn agriculture could not have sustained the indicated populations even in intersite areas. Of the alternatives that were open to us, terracing, irrigation, chinampas, and high performance of milpa all seemed unlikely. The discovery of the correlation between the ramon tree and settlement remains led to consideration of kitchen gardens and here at last the pieces of a complex puzzle began to fall together.

The spacing of ancient Maya plaza groups on plots of land that ranged from 0.6 to 1.5 hectares (l.5-3.6 acres) in area now made sense in terms of such a system. Measurements of the annual yield of ramon trees per unit area showed they could produce quantities that were more than sufficient to meet the food requirements of the assumed number of occupants for a typical group. Experimental work with the chultuns demonstrated that these constructions were probably used for the storage of ramon seed (Puleston 1971a). The hypothesis that most food production was carried out in such gardens was consistent with the lack of evidence for an agricultural sustaining area. Finally the evidence for a shift in settlement patterns involving a reduction of the presumed garden space with the advent of Postclassic times was entirely consistent with the apparent cessation of the use of chultuns and the importance of the milpa by the time of the Conquest.

As a final point I would like to quote the perceptive statement made by Sanders in his "Cultural Ecology of the Maya Lowlands (1962:88)". The face that this comment was made five years before the ramon began to receive serious consideration as a significant component in ancient Maya subsistence patterns makes it almost prophetic: Looking at tropical agriculture as a whole and the problems involved, it would seem that orchard crops involving trees or tree-like herbs, such as the banana or papaya, would be an ideal agricultural system, since it involves slow growing plants that extract much less nutriment from the soil than fast-growing grains, require [sic] humid conditions, which are compete with weeds because of their size. This system of farming is most in harmony with the ecology, since it simply means the replacement of a natural forest of limited food productivity with an artificial forest of great productivity.

Surely the brilliance and magnitude of ancient Maya achievements are a reflection of an entire network of stable and harmonious adjustments to the special conditions found in the tropical forest environment. Similarly, the collapse of this civilization, as suggested by the dynamics of its settlement patterns, must have coincided with the abandonment of such a system.


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