The Organization of Agricultural Production on the Southwest Periphery of the Maya Lowlands: A Settlement Patterns Study in the Upper Grijalva Basin, Chiapas, Mexico

Dean H. Wheeler

PhD Thesis 2008

This study investigates the issue of elite management of intensive agricultural production on terraces during the Late-Terminal Classic period (A.D. 650-950) in the Upper Grijalva Basin of Chiapas, Mexico, on the southwest periphery of the Maya lowlands. The Late-Terminal Classic represents the height of social complexity in this zone with increased population marked by construction of many residential and civic structures.

A full coverage, systematic survey was conducted in two neighboring, contemporaneous polities each with differing needs for agricultural intensification due to differences in the distribution and extent of soils good for farming. In the San Lucas River Valley, characterized by the extensive distribution of relatively flat-lying soils good for agriculture, a 8.33 km2 survey recorded settlement on the margins of the Clavo Verde polity where the flat valley bottom transitions to sloping hillsides representing the likeliest location of agricultural terraces. In the Morelos Piedmont, where sloping topography and the limited distribution of soils good for farming would have presented distinct challenges to farmers, a 18.61 km2 survey recorded the extents of the core of the Morelos polity.

The Late-Terminal Classic population of the Clavo Verde polity was found to be under the carrying capacity of the best agricultural lands, and the absence of agricultural terraces indicates that this intensive farming technique was not adopted. For the Morelos polity, the Late-Terminal Classic population was found to be over the carrying capacity of the best agricultural lands, and the presence agricultural terraces indicate that this subsistence technique was adopted. The small scale and simplistic forms of the agricultural terraces indicates that top-down, elite management would not have been necessary to coordinate the labor for terrace construction, maintenance and cultivation. Locally available commoner labor would have been sufficient for these activities. Furthermore, the irregular, discontinuous patterning of terraces throughout the zone suggests that their construction was not the result of elite, top-down planning. However, the strong association between elite dwellings and agricultural terraces suggests that elites may have monitored intensive agricultural production on terraces.