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  • Writer's pictureKacey C Grauer

Commoner and elite (meta)physical access to water at the ancient Maya city of Aventura, Belize

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Humans engage both material and immaterial qualities of the environment to achieve political ends. Water is necessary for biophysical existence, but also holds symbolic and ideological power. Physically controlling access to water sources and communing with deities to control rainfall are both ways ancient Maya rulers exerted power over commoner populations. In some Classic Period (250–900 CE) city-centers governed by divine rulership, hierarchical control of water during episodes of drought led commoners to “vote with their feet” and abandon these cities. While many larger cities in the Maya area were undergoing vast sociopolitical reorganization and large-scale depopulation towards the end of the Classic Period, the medium-sized city of Aventura was thriving. In contrast to the hierarchical control of water seen at these other cities, in this article I demonstrate that commoners and elite alike at Aventura were able to access important water resources, and the city flourished. I argue that heterarchy is an appropriate model for the political ecology of Aventura because although there was inequality, people of all socioeconomic statuses had access to water, even in times of scarcity. Access to water resources cut across hierarchical lines, contributing to Aventura’s success at the end of the Classic Period.


•Excavations of two households at Aventura indicate that both commoners and elites had physical access to important water resources as well as access to the metaphysical qualities of water.

•Both of these households had access to water during the Terminal Classic Period (750–1100 CE), which was the height of Aventura’s population despite regional drought and sociopolitical reorganization that resulted in depopulation elsewhere.

•Access to water cut across hierarchical lines despite socioeconomic inequality, indicating heterarchical political ecology.

•Heterarchy can be applied to approaches to political ecology elsewhere, as a heterarchical model allows for examinations of different types of power at different scales.

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