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What Mayan Civilization Can Teach Us about Secession and Decentralization

The US and other countries of the Western world are divided by ever more stark ideological differences, to put it mildly. Because most people live in societies where the power to make some of the most important choices and to use offensive force to effect them is concentrated in the state, these increasing differences of opinion are raising the stakes of losing or lacking political power. Accordingly, all kinds of people have begun to take an interest in political secession and decentralization as a solution to the intensifying power struggles.

But one of the critiques of the secession-decentralization strategy is that it allegedly results in scattered populations vulnerable to military conquest and that the model is cumbersome when it comes to trade, travel, and communication. The idea is that a single strong state is the most secure and the most practical option. The example of pre-Hispanic and early modern Mayan civilization provides a powerful retort to this argument, as we will see. Ethnically and linguistically similar but divided into scores of smaller states connected by long-distance trade networks, Mayas were able to escape homegrown tyranny for millennia and resisted foreign Spanish conquest for hundreds of years.

Pre-Hispanic Mayan Civilization: A Multitude of Regional States and City-States

Centered on the Yucatan Peninsula, pre-Hispanic Mayan civilization flourished in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, not far south of the Aztec Empire.1 Unlike its neighbor, the Mayan civilization was never a centralized empire. Instead, the land was a patchwork of small states jostling one another for power, many of whom were connected by various military alliances and long-distance trade networks. In the twenty-five hundred years from the rise of Mayan civilization to the Spanish conquest, political scientists Claudio Cioffi-Revilla and Todd Landman have identified seventy-two major Mayan chiefdoms (akin to city-states) and regional states (ruling over tiers of municipalities), noting the existence, in addition, of hundreds of smaller polities, though these were mostly “minor by comparison” and were not included in their study.2

The Classic-Era Maya World: Many Strong States and Centralized Domestic Politics

The most centralized period in Mayan history was the Classic period (roughly 250–950 AD). As anthropologist Antonia E. Foias explains, “At the heart of Classic Maya polities was the divine ruler, or k’uhul ajaw, who lived in the royal court in the epicenter of an independent political capital, from which he conducted the affairs of the state.”3 The k’uhul ajaw’s rule was complemented by two to four strata of political officials and the royal household. The political elite enriched itself through the goods that they expropriated from commoners and subordinate states (if any) as tribute, as well as through their subjects’ labor, which they used in massive public works projects.4 Power was concentrated in the k’uhul ajaw, however, who was deified and whose reign and its events were commemorated in large stone monuments called stelae.5

The Classic era was marked by the emergence of states, a growing number of polities born through fissure, and the rise of several massive cities with a strong regional influence.6 As Hispanicist Lynn V. Foster explains,

The 100 years beginning around 672 witnessed the flowering of many great cities…. Competition among these Maya cities fueled more wars and demand for tribute; wealth generated building booms and increased production of luxury goods. The result was a period fraught with political tension and warfare but also one in which artistic production culminated in the greatest works of Maya civilization.7

But although secession produced more states, they were tainted by the conceit of political privilege internally and externally. From roughly the 600s to the 900s, as Foias explains,

[t]he elite class grew in numbers and prerogatives as hieroglyphic texts and monuments that had previously been exclusively associated with Early Classic royals became more widespread…. More and smaller sites declared themselves independent seats of royal power with their own emblem glyphs…. The extensive noble class and the increasing number of royals must have felt intense competition as areas of possible expansion diminished over time and as warfare continued and intensified.8

For reasons that are heavily disputed and multifaceted—but that very likely have something to do with these states’ expansionist ambitions and the war and rising economic exploitation they entailed—Mayan civilization suffered a political “collapse” at the end of the Classic era that saw the dissolution of many of the existing states between roughly 800 and 1100.9 The collapse was “marked by abandonment, migrations, death, and other terminal modes of political extinction—not by consolidation or integration into fewer, larger, or more complex polities,” as Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, who see the Mayan civilization’s lack of political integration as a failure and the root of its demise, take pains to emphasize.10 Contrary to the term’s connotations, the so-called collapse also saw the rise of many new smaller polities and ushered in a period of increased political decentralization.11

The Postclassic Maya World: More Petty States, More Trade, More Freedom

The Postclassic era (950–1542) saw the rise of new powers, but this time there were fewer large regional states and more city-state chiefdoms, and Cioffi-Revilla and Landman recorded fewer “significant” polities overall.12 Foias describes the Postclassic geopolitical landscape as ranging from

the small Yucatec cah [“the basic Maya municipal community consisting of both the residential site and the territorial lands controlled by the town”] ruled by a batab [local ruler] to regional polities ruled by a halach uinic [regional overlord] to the militarized and expanding states of the K’ich’ean kingdoms of highland Guatemala and finally to the hegemony of the Itza in the Central Peten lowlands.13

The stelae to rulers went away, there were less expensive monumental projects, more trade, and the source of political power broadened to encompass the elite court of the halach uinic in the larger states and local councils.14 During this period states do not seem to have interfered much in people’s production of goods, which continued to be geared toward local markets and regional trade networks, beyond, of course, parasitically siphoning off part of it.15 As a result, there was plenty of entrepreneurial activity, social mobility, and a “widely integrated mercantile economy.”16 Mayanists Marilyn A. Masson and Carlos Peraza Lope observe that “[t]he distribution of many classes of material in households of all sizes implies that opportunities for economic affluence may have been fluid for some non-elites.”17 Elites “maintained their distinctions … through investment in domestic and ritual architecture and through the control of important calendrical ceremonies celebrated at Maya communities.”18

Unfortunately, though they were an improvement over the more expansionist states of the Classic era, the Postclassic-era Mayan states also had the issue of competing for power, and the period was plagued by war, as implied by the prominence of war motifs in artwork and the incidence of defensive walls.19 Cioffi-Revilla and Landman accordingly trace a second political collapse beginning in the 1490s, just after the circa-1450 fall of the large regional power of Mayapán (present-day Yucatán State, Mexico), and predating the Spanish conquest and in fact continuing through it.20 Of course, sovereign Mayan civilization ultimately failed to rebound from this collapse and was subsumed under the Spanish and Latin American states.

But the conquest of the Mayas was extremely protracted, only finalized centuries after contact. And the death of Mayapán was also the birth of at least sixteen petty states.21 The Mayan tale of multiple decentralized polities followed by the rise of large bellicose states, the birth of more small (but not always unambitious) states through secession, and, finally, the political collapse of many of these states, both large and small, therefore, is not one of decentralization’s failure, as Cioffi-Revilla and Landman contend.22

The collapse of a state must never be equated with the demise of a people, and, in fact, frequently such an event ushers in their liberation, if temporary, from state tyranny, as well as more humble and therefore more accommodative political arrangements. Cioffi-Revilla and Landman’s own model of two cycles of political “development” and “collapse”—which, remember, excludes the smallest polities and thereby downplays the extent of decentralization before and the number of states during the “collapses”—shows this.

Although the Mayan civilization’s structure of numerous decentralized states was still plagued by the issue of individual states’ attempts to expand and centralize authority, the structure allowed Mayan subjects greater power to exact political retribution on the most exploitative, aggressive states. How did Mayan commoners punish the political class? Simple. They abandoned them, often following an ambitious (or power-envious) faction of the elite as they clove into a new state, as happened at Mayapán.23 Indeed, during the late Classic and early Postclassic periods, the populations of coastal Belize, highland Guatemala, and northern Yucatan grew as many Classic-era cities were being abandoned.24 As Mayanist and archaeologist Takeshi Inomata argues, Classic-era Mayan nonelites had “a certain level of spatial mobility and of the freedom to change political affiliation.”25 Foias seconds this, noting that “[t]he low labor investment of Maya commoners in house construction and agriculture suggests that they may have been relatively mobile.”26 This tradition of mobility continued into the Hispanic era, and as we will see, the Mayan penchant for elite-driven secession and voting with one’s feet allowed Mayan sovereignty to persist for far longer than the latest political elite ever expected.

The Hispanic Conquest of the Mayas, 1517–1697 … and 1847–1901

The Spanish monarchical state’s efforts to absorb Mayan territory began with failure in 1517, when Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and his men were ambushed at Cabo Catoche (present-day Quintana Roo State, Mexico), threatened at Campeche (or Can Pech, present-day Campeche City, Campeche State, Mexico), fled, and then were attacked near Champotón (present-day Campeche State, Mexico) when they came ashore again for water after attempting to communicate peaceful intent to the locals.27

The next year, Juan de Grijalba was better prepared to confront the Mayas at Champotón, stopping there on the way back to Cuba to avenge the last expedition. The locals fought back hard, injuring many, but they were forced to flee. The only three people the conquistadors found in the city were sent to fetch the ruler with a supposed peace offering, but they never returned. Grijalba next came near Potonchán (present-day Tabasco State, Mexico). Having heard about the goings-on at Champotón, the Chontal Mayas of Tabasco warned Grijalba against attacking them, saying that they had many troops ready at their capital and in the area. Grijalba reassured them of his peaceful intentions and the two sides traded. Grijalba returned to Cuba without having established a headquarters.28

The infamous Hernán Cortés followed Grijalba in 1519 and was received with hostility at Potonchán, however. Cortés managed to defeat the Mayas of Tabasco and founded a town called Santa Maria de la Victoria at the site of the Mayan capital. The natives made peace with the Spanish state by making Cortés a tribute offering of goods and women and became vassals of the crown, though this alliance appears to have been fleeting.29 Cortés, of course, then made his way north to conquer the Aztecs (whose riches and extensive territory Grijalba had become aware of during his expedition30), alternately conquering and allying with the people living in between.

Spain’s paid mercenaries had better luck in what is now Guatemala. There, Pedro de Alvarado conquered the huge predatory Quiché state in 1524, establishing a capital at Iximché, a city controlled by his Cakchiquel Mayan allies (who, by the way, had seceded from the Quiché in 147531). Still, Alvarado’s victory was precarious: the Cakchiquel allies revolted and Alvarado was forced to move the capital in 1527. The Spanish endured Cakchiquel hostilities for several years, but this time they managed to hold their position: a mudslide from a nearby volcano destroyed the city in 1541, but it was soon reestablished for good at present-day Antigua, Guatemala.32

The Spanish crown’s claim to the Yucatan remained weak and disputed after Grijalba’s 1518 victory at Champotón. Later efforts to conquer the Yucatan did not fare much better at first: Francisco de Montejo’s 1527–28 and 1531–34 campaigns both ended in retreat and the abandonment of several garrison “towns” they had founded at or near conquered Maya cities, though Montejo did succeed in subduing the Mayas of neighboring Tabasco (who apparently did not remain passive after their 1519 defeat), and founding a town called Salamanca in 1529 (present-day Tabasco State, Mexico).33 On the fifth try, the Spanish state finally conquered the Yucatec Mayas. In 1541 Montejo’s son and namesake created a headquarters at Campeche, where many local Maya leaders submitted to the Spanish state without resistance after being summoned. After defeating the Canul Mayan state, which would not come quietly, Montejo established a firm foothold at Mérida (present-day Yucatán State, Mexico) in 1542, on the ruins of Ti’ho (or T’hó).34

But Mérida’s founding was not the end of the story. Although the Mayan states of the western Yucatan stayed down, the various eastern Yucatec polities—Cupul, Cochua, Sotuta, Chaktemal (or Chetumal), and Taze—rebelled multiple times, independently and in concert. They were not fully conquered until 1546, when most of them formed a confederation and were jointly defeated.35

Many Mayas fled Spanish rule, deserting their cities and heading for settlements on the frontier. As Hispanicist Lynn V. Foster explains, “Quintana Roo, the eastern half of the Yucatán Peninsula, remained free of Spaniards, and runaway Maya settled there. Others fled to established settlements in the Petén and Belize interior, such as Tah Itzá (Tayasal) [present-day Flores, Petén Department, Guatemala] and Tipú [present-day Belize].”36 These remote areas were visited only by missionaries, and on one occasion, in 1619, the latter were expelled violently from Tah Itzá. An attempt by the government of Yucatan to retaliate in 1622 ended in defeat in 1624, with the Itzá Mayas keeping the conquistadors at bay for several decades.37 In 1638, moreover, previously conquered Mayas of Dzuluinicob [present-day Belize] and Chaktemal [present-day Chetumal, Quintana Roo State, Mexico] rose up and shook Spanish rule off again until 1695.38 The Itzás remained independent until 1697, when the Spanish state finally conquered Tah Itzá, extinguishing the final remnant of Mayan sovereignty.39

Even after the dissolution of the last Mayan state, many Mayan communities persisted in the eastern Yucatan Peninsula, isolated and sovereign de facto. For example, Foster notes that the Lacandón Mayas “moved into the Usumacinta region around Bonampak [present-day Chiapas State, Mexico], where they managed to elude foreigners until mahogany loggers encountered them in the 20th century.”40 In fact, the Caste War of Yucatán broke out in 1847, when independent Mayan communities saw their farmlands being encroached on by sugar plantations (and Hispanic Mexican society by extension). After displacing many people from the area and destroying the sugar industry, many of these communities signed a truce in 1853 that allowed them to live semiautonomously in Chenes region of Campeche, but the Cruzob Mayas of Quintana Roo held out until 1901, when federal and Yucatec troops violently broke their rebellion. Even more shocking was the Movimimento Chamula of the 1860s, in which Mayas of the Ciudad Real district of Chiapas founded their own non-Catholic sect and “a barter-based market independent of the church, teachers, merchants, and hacienda owners of Ciudad Real” in the town of Chamula. The Mayas laid siege to the area after the detention of the movement’s leaders, and the Mexican authorities were forced to release them. This revolt was not quelled until the 1870s.


Although the Mayan civilization was ultimately absorbed by Spanish and Latin American states, it took centuries to close the frontier, and a big reason for this was the Mayas’ geopolitical arrangement of myriad independent polities subject to secession by disgruntled elites and desertion by unhappy commoners. Moreover, although the problems inherent to states repeatedly led to building diplomatic tensions among Mayan states and, as a result, strain on their populations, political fragmentation and the weaker polities that would come of it seem to have allowed for an appreciable scaling-back of endemic state tyranny and exploitation, even if not forever. That is certainly more than can be said of the period of almost ceaseless centralization most of the world finds itself in today.

It must be noted that despite their multiplicity and limited jurisdiction, the state structures of Mayan civilization did have the consequence of being a conduit for Spanish state power postconquest (not to mention control by imperialistic Mayan states41). As Foster explains,

Initially, the Spaniards were too few to rule without the assistance of the Maya, so they substituted themselves for the Maya nobility at the top of the governmental hierarchy and left the rest of the political hierarchy basically intact. Maya lineage chiefs collected tribute for the Spaniards in the form of food, labor, clothing, and, in the Guatemala highlands, gold panning. In return, the Maya governors were permitted to dress like Spanish gentlemen, ride horses, and even carry arms—and, of course, continue to collect their own tribute and own their personal slaves.42

The state’s vulnerability to co-optation and its propensity for ever-increasing foreign and domestic aggression is something that proponents of the strategy of secession and decentralization must always bear in mind. Though political secession and decentralization can indeed roll back tyranny and increase liberty, the smaller states it creates are still built on a foundation from which they can grow into steamrolling monstrosities given the leeway, in contrast to complete anarchy. Proponents of secession and decentralization must be ready to secede again, to move again, as Mayas did for centuries, if they are to retain their gains. More crucially, they must continue to promote full individual sovereignty as the ultimate ideal if the cycle of interventionism is ever to be truly broken and truly voluntary societies based on full private property rights established.

1.Antonia E. Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013), p. 7.

2.Claudio Cioffi-Revilla and Todd Landman, “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System,” International Studies Quarterly 43 (1999): 559–98, esp. 564–65, 568 (quote). See also Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 9; Lynn V. Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World (New York: Facts on File, 2002), pp. 127–34; and Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. (Stanford: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 90–91, 93–96, 299–301.

3.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 74.

4.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, pp. 160–61, 127, 193, 322; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 85–86, 88–90, 93–94, 296–97, 635–36, 697–700.

5.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 53; Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, pp. 11–12; Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 88–90, 91–93, 96, 298–99.

6.Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System,” p. 568.

7.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 53.

8.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 14. See also Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 56–58, 63–64; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 514–15, 716.

9.Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 499–503, 509–10, 626; and Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 60.

10.Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System,” pp. 572 (quote), 585, 591; Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, pp. 14–15; Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 60; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, p. 505.

11.Sharer and Traxler take issue with this term and the mainstream collapse narrative as well, though they don’t reject it completely. See Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 503, 525.

12.Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System,” p. 580; and Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 64, 72–73.

13.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, pp. 96–99, 97 (bracketed quote), 106 (quote).

14.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, 60, 72–74; Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, 16–17, 98–99; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 525–26, 702.

15.Marilyn A. Masson and Carlos Peraza Lope, “Commoners in Postclassic Maya Society: Social versus Economic Class Constructs,” in Ancient Maya Commoners, ed. Jon C. Lohse and Fred Valdez Jr. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), pp. 197–224, esp. pp. 199, 201, 212. See also Bruce H. Dahlin, Christopher T. Jensen, Richard E. Terry, David R. Wright, and Timothy Beach, “In Search of an Ancient Maya Market,” Latin American Antiquity 18, no. 4 (2017): 363–84. On the Classic era, see Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 633–35.

16.Masson and Peraza Lope, “Commoners in Postclassic Maya Society,” pp. 199, 212, 213 (quote); and Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 74.

17.Masson and Peraza Lope, “Commoners in Postclassic Maya Society,” p. 214. See also Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 139.

18.Masson and Peraza Lope, “Commoners in Postclassic Maya Society,” p. 199.

19.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 17.

20.Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System,” p. 580.

21.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 76.

22.See Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System,” pp. 584–91.

23.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 76, 138; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 597–98, 603–04.

24.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 211.

25.Takeshi Inomata, “The Spatial Mobility of Non-elite Populations in Classic Maya Society and Its Political Implications,” in Ancient Maya Commoners, ed. Jon C. Lohse and Fred Valdez Jr. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), pp. 175–96, esp. 183.

26.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 210.

27.Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, p. 759; and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera De La Conquista De La Nueva-España (Madrid, 1632), chaps. 2–5.

28.Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, p. 760; and Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera De La Conquista De La Nueva-España (Madrid, 1632), chaps. 9, 11, 16.

29.Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera De La Conquista De La Nueva-España, chaps. 31–36.

30.Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera De La Conquista De La Nueva-España, chap. 13; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, p. 760.

31.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 77–78.

32.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 80; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 758, 763–66.

33.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 20; Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 80–81; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 758, 767–71.

34.Foias, Ancient Maya Political Dynamics, p. 20; Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 81; and Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 758, 771–72.

35.Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 771–72.

36.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 82.

37.Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 773–74.

38.Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 758, 772–78.

39.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, p. 82; Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 758, 772–78.

40.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 82.

41.When Mayan states absorbed other states, they too would sometimes leave the indigenous state structure and even ruling class intact, simply subordinating it to their own, perhaps due to a lack of resources to replace it. See Sharer and Traxler, The Ancient Maya, pp. 700–02.

42.Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, pp. 81–82.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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