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


The field work on which this is based was carried out between the years 1965 and 1968. As the “Tikal Sustaining Project” it represented the culmination of many years of speculation and discussion about the nature and density of settlement in the outlying areas that surround the major ceremonial centers of Tikal and Uaxactun.

The fist two years of work (1965, 1966) were supported by Tikal Project funds specifically designated for the investigation of peripheral settlements under my direction. In 1967, a full six months of field work and two seasons of lab work (1967, 1968) were initiated by a generous grant from the National Science Foundation (GS-1409) with William Haviland as principal investigator and myself as field director. In 1968 fieldwork once again came under the aegis of the Tikal Project for a final round of excavation and survey.

Acknowledgments are owed to many more persons than can be listed here, but a chronological summary of the project will present some of them.

As a way of beginning, it is worth pointing out that specific attempts to begin investigation of Tikal's sustaining population go back to 1957 when plans to begin mapping and excavation were put into action. In that year David Pendergast was flown down to Tikal from UCLA to start excavation of house mounds. Little came of this first move, however. The lateness of the season led to postponement of the project until the following year and then later cancellation. This was apparently due to the decision to channel all efforts into mapping and opening up the site center.

While this clearly premature attempt to start excavation in what was then considered Tikal’s residential periphery was put to one side, mapping began in earnest. In February of 1957, Morris R. Jones, of the U.S. Geological Survey came to Tikal and initiated the mapping program which eventually culminated in one of the finest achievements of the Tikal Project to date, the site map published as Tikal Report No. 11 (Carr and Hazard 1961).

Actual excavation of small residential structures did not begin until 1959 when “salvage” excavations were started in the area which was to be taken over for the construction of the workmen’s village. Under the designation of Operation 20, the excavation of Group 4F-2 was directed by Ann Chowning with the assistance of P.H. Auerbach, Keith Dixon, and Peter Harrison. This work was continued in 1960, in the nearby Group 4F01, by Marshall J. Becker, Keith Dixon, William Haviland, Karl Heider, and Carlos Nottebohm, Jr.

The Tikal maps were not finished until the end of the 1960 season; but with preliminary offprints of large areas around Tikal a new confidence infused small structure excavation, and serious work began in more peripheral areas with the initiation of projects by Becker (1971:4) in 1960, and Haviland (1963:44) in 1961. This work was continued through 1964 by several different workers including Becker, Culbert, Haviland, Jones and Puleston in anticipation of a phasing-out of intensive field work of the Tikal Project in 1965.

It was during this period, in 1961, that I gained invaluable experience working as an assistant to Haviland in his investigations of small domestic structures (Haviland 1963). This was followed by work in chultuns associated with residences in 1963, and the excavation of an outlying ceremonial complex in 1964. The project to be discussed in the following pages began to take shape in 1963 with rather informal investigations of several poorly known “minor ceremonial centers” located within the Tikal National Park. One of the earliest of these expeditions in which I participated was made to Uolantun in 1963 with William Haviland and one of the Tikal workmen, Santiago Cifuentes. As we had read practically everything published on Uolantun in the camp copy of Morley’s (1937-8) The Inscriptions of Peten before we left, I remember our excitement at discovering that Uolantun consisted of more than the reported simple temple structure and stela. In my field notes I commented on this fact and recorded a count of 15 “ mounds” and two chultuns. Haviland also recorded information on these mounds.

Two weeks later we made a similar excursion to Chikin Tikal with Edward Crocker and Rafael Morales F., who was then the newly appointed Director of the Tikal National Park. We followed the overgrown oil company road shown in Figure 6. Halfway there we blundered off the trail into a large plaza-group which Haviland described and laughingly dubbed Taxicab, through we had also considered the names Uaxin Maxin and Mixta Xuc (the latter was finally given to a small group I mapped with the help of Christopher Jones in 1964 to the southeast of Tikal). Further on we came to the large platform that comprises the “site” of Canmul, of which I made a sketch map before continuing on to Chikin Tikal. Here we explored and ate lunch before beginning what turned out to be a long trek back to camp. Thus, bush-whacking trips to outlying sites which began as weekend “adventure” gradually took a more serious turn as we realized the significance of the data that could be gleaned from this fort of exploration including architectural details, site plans, and locations with respect to known Tikal.

In 1964, in the course of similar weekend trips, architectural drawings and maps of Coroal, El Encanto, Avila, and other sites were made with assistance of Hans Rudi-Hug, Andrew Nagy, Christopher Jones, and Peter Harrison, as we began to follow up reports of sites made by various workmen who had worked in these forests as chicleros (chicle gatherers). Locations were calculated on the basis of treetop compass sightings back on the temples of Tikal and of a set of aerial photographs.

At the end of the 1964 season one of our more reliable workmen, Gil Martinez, was assigned the task of following up stories of sites that might be reported during the “off” season. It was this commission that led to the “discovery” of the beautiful monuments at the site of Jimbal.

All this was done with the idea that it would be our last chance. Then in October of 1964, financial support from the Guatemalan government poured in, giving the entire Tikal Project a future of at least two more full years. The time was ripe for a more careful look at the settlement matrix of Tikal. A major question that could not be resolved by the recording of outlying site was where the “city limits” of Tikal lay, and whether, in fact, the dense scatter of housemound groups around Tikal as revealed in the 16 sq. km. site map was fairly typical for the whole of the northeast Peten as some scholars, including Gordon Willey, contended.

Within the immediate context of the Tikal Project, the idea that led to the creation of the Tikal Sustaining Area Project can be traced back to Satterthwaite’s (1951: 2) introduction of the concept of “sustaining area” in his discussions of his research aims in the British Honduras. Here Satterthwaite was anticipating a whole series of new approaches and questions that would soon sweep the entire field of archaeology. The Tikal sustaining Area Project derived much of its impetus from this more general movement. Willey’s (1953) survey of Viru Valley was an important model. While hitch-hiking to Guatemala in 1961, I was much influenced by a two-day sojourn with the Tehuacan Project as a guest of Richard S. MacNeish.

In 1965 the Sustaining Area Project began in earnest with the mapping of Chikin Tikal by Francis Bowles and of the South Brecha Survey Strip by me. The impetus for the latter came largely from the existence of four already cleared survey trails which had been laid out in 1964-65 when the limits of the Tikal National Park were surveyed.

Sampling excavations were carried out at Chikin Tikal and a number of sites on the survey strip. On the basis of this work an application for further funds was drawn up by Haviland and presented to the National Science Foundation in the spring of 1966.

In 1966, mapping on the East, West, and North Survey Strips was completed with the help of Jeffrey Parsons and Richard Blanton (Puleston 1967). Peter Puleston and Erik Ekholm cleared and staked the survey trails. Although the season was devoted almost entirely to survey, Donald W. Callender’s discovery of the North Earthworks led us to map 9.5 km. of this feature (Puleston and Callender 1967).

An expedition to Uaxactun investigated the west arm of the Ricketson survey (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937) to learn if settlement densities suggested by that survey were really as low, in comparison to those at Tikal, as seemed to be indicated (Puleston 1969).

In 1967, with the National Science Foundation grant (GS-1409) at our disposal and the projected mapping of the four radial survey strips completed, heavy emphasis was placed on excavation. Robert Fry directed the testing of approximately one-third of all mapped plaza groups on the North and South Survey Strips (Fry 1969). Several outlying ceremonial centers, including Uolantun and Navajuelal were excavated fairly intensively. The excavations at Navajuelal provided Ernestine Green with a six-month dissertation project, in which she was assisted by Lilita Bergs (Green 1970). William A. Haviland directed excavation of the stele at Jimbal and a housemound group on the South Brecha Survey Strip. Returning to the North Earthworks that season, the author and Donald W. Callender (Puleston and Callender 1967) excavated this feature at three points.

Wilfried Westphal recorded elevations with a transit along the South Brecha. As an extension of the earlier mapping project, the strip survey was extended along the north edge of the National Park for three kilometers and then north to approximately the center of the Ricketson house-mound survey (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937). Donald W. Callender laid out the survey trails for this project. The strips were then mapped by Richard Blanton and me. It was also during this season that Peter Puleston and Elias Contreras mapped ramon trees and collected botanical information. Numerous other small projects, including a survey by Stanley Loten of standing architecture found on the survey strips, the excavation of the embankment around the Laguna Verde Reservoir, a study of Maya traps, and the collection of small mammals by Peter Puleston were carried out. Intensive laboratory work under the direction of my wife, Olga Stavrakis, with the assistance of Natasha Levkovich and Emily Praeger, kept us abreast of the large quantities of artifactual material produced by survey in central Tikal and along the South Brecha Survey Strip. A report on the project at the end of the season was filed with the National Science Foundation (Haviland, Puleston, Fry, and Green 1968).

In 1968, excavations at Uolantun were continued with Peter J. Stavrakis, M.D., who assisted at a crucial time when I became ill with hepatitis. Particularly important was the investigation of a new earthworks system southeast of Tikal. This was discovered by one of the workmen, Gil Martinez, between the 1967 and 1968 field seasons. In 1968, I collected fish from the Tikal aguadas because of their possible significance to the limited animal protein resource base at Tikal. A survey of zapote trees was initiated by Daniel Higgins with the aid of Elias Contreras.

Preparation of the survey strip maps proved to be a major task, the completion of which would not have been possible without the help of Jane Homiller, who did all the initial inking of structures; Peter Stavrakis, whose steady hand helped draw contour lines; and Richard Werner, Keith Manthie, and Audrey Harris, who assisted in other inking and preparatory tasks. Much of the laborious task of calculating and converting measurements of bajo and construction areas was done by Olga Stavrakis Puleston. Thanks are also extended to Wally Zubrow of the Photographic Laboratories of the University of Minnesota, who faced successfully the task of reducing by five times some fifty meters of completed maps. An essential ingredient for the final typing was the Irish determination and good humor of Nancy Hanson.

Apart from the listed field, lab, and drafting crews, a considerable debt is owed to Lic. Luis Lujan Munoz and Rafael Morales F. of the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia for permission to work at Tikal; Antonio Ortiz C. for his assistance in making it possible for us to work out of Uaxactun; and Barbara Kidder Aldana, Alfredo Mury, and Vivian Broman Morales for their assistance in obtaining supplies, funds, and necessary “permisos” in Guatemala City; Dr. Fernando Aldana who took care of us when we came into Guatemala City with such exotic ailments as fungus infections, hepatitis, leishmaniasis, and malaria.

Finally, it is with gratitude that I acknowledge the support and encouragement I received from William R. Coe, who was responsible for allocating funds and personnel for this project at its inception and again during its final phase. Without his continued interest and assistance, it is unlikely that the project would have been realized.


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