Not to scale? Maya civilizations show strange correlation

mayan
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers who study urban areas have long observed a connection between size and proximity—namely, that cities become more dense as they gain in population. The more people live in a place, the closer together they live and work.

This closeness is important: It likely accelerates learning and facilitates the sharing of ideas. It's readily demonstrated by data on civilizations separated by time and space, from pre-conquest Central Mexico to Medieval European cities to present-day metropolises.

But some societies buck the trend. Archaeologists have found evidence of "low-density urbanism" around the globe, including Maya sites in Mesoamerica. These populous areas didn't undergo a density increase as their numbers swelled; in some cases, they followed an inverse correlation.

"The existing data we have for Maya society shows the opposite pattern," says anthropologist and SFI External Professor Scott Ortman (University of Colorado-Boulder). As the Maya population rose, the city spread out, and the density fell. People didn't live closer together; they spread out.

Together with External Professor José Lobo at Arizona State University, Ortman leads the Social Reactors Project. At a working group at SFI this August, Lobo and Ortman will bring together a group of early career scholars to examine the challenge posed by low-density Maya settlements to the idea that density increases with population.

In recent years, scholars' abilities to probe Maya history and culture have increased thanks to LiDAR surveying technology. LiDAR, a remote- sensing tool, is particularly useful in mapping rugged terrain. It works by ring laser pulses over an area from above, then measuring the return time of the pulses to produce a three- dimensional map of landforms and buildings, including those that might be hidden by jungle. Many scholars who will attend the August working group have expertise in using LiDAR on Maya sites.

Ortman says that by revealing the hidden boundaries of settlements, LiDAR might help scholars understand how low-density societies align with the general scaling framework observed in other civilizations, old and new. The data from Maya studies challenge not only the correlation between population and density, but also the very idea of what it means to be a city.

"What we're not sure about is whether the difference we see implies that Maya society worked in a different way," says Ortman, "or if it's just a function of the way Maya archaeology has been done."


Explore further

Experts discover hidden ancient Maya structures in Guatemala

Provided by Santa Fe Institute
Citation: Not to scale? Maya civilizations show strange correlation (2018, August 21) retrieved 22 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-scale-maya-civilizations-strange.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
38 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 21, 2018
I believe the Maya populace mostly fed themselves rather than purchasing food grown by others at an urban central market as was done most places in the Eastern Hemisphere. As a population grew then it would have to spread out since each family needed enough land to grow its own food.

When a civilization does not use a common currency and lacks wheeled transport and beasts of burden a centralized market economy allowing dense urban populations is less likely to arise. The Inca and Aztec had centralized food distribution schemes for their urban centers, perhaps the Maya did not find that option desirable.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more