SCRAP Reading Group, Week 32: Water, Agriculture, & Society

Last Thursday, we had our first meet-up of the new year. We had a good time catching up with each other, talking about future field research plans, and having a lot of laughs. Lorraine selected a new article for us to discuss, focused on the deep history of water management, agriculture, and society in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Summary and associated discussion questions are below.


Šprajca, Ivan, Dunning, Nicholas P., Štajdohara, Jasmina, Gómez, Quintin Hernández, López,
Chato Israel Marsetič, Aleš, Ball, Joseph W. G ngora, Sara Dzul, Olgu n, Octavio Q. Esparza,
Flores, Atasta Esquivel and Kokalja, Žiga. “Ancient Maya water management, agriculture, and
society in the area of Chactún, Campeche, Mexico.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
Volume 61, March 2021, p. 1 – 21.

In this article, the authors discuss the results of the Chactún Regional Project (CHRP). The CHPR
area is located in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which is within the Elevated Interior Region
of the Maya Central Lowlands in the eastern part of the State of Campeche, Mexico. They direct
their focus on the three relatively newly discovered (2013 to 2014) and undisturbed urban centers
of Chactún, Tamchén, and Lagunita and to a lesser degree the surrounding spatial units. In their
evaluation of the area, they attempt to demonstrate the importance of using remote sensing
methods, such as their ALS (lidar) data obtained in 2016, in conjunction with field studies, to
validate their interpretations. The authors go into depth in the reconstruction of the area-specific
intensive agriculture and water management strategies and their coincidence with sociopolitical
and biosphere aspects not only within the study area, but also relationships with the Maya
worldview. Based on the earliest evidence of water sourcing and Pre-Mamom ceramics (~1000-
400 BCE), they surmised that Tamch n was one of the earliest Preclassic settlements in the
Central Lowlands and, as follows, in the CHRP area. This center fluoresced during the Middle
and Late Preclassic periods until Chactún and Lagunita seemingly overtook, thus perpetuating
the demise of Tamchén. Using demographic attributes, the authors put forth that it was most
likely during the Last Classic – probably around 750 CE – that the population reached a
maximum of ~ 15,000 in the CHRP area. These authors argue that it was the extensive
landscape modifications and environmental stressors, such as prolonged droughts of the 9th and
early 10th centuries of the Late Classic, that saw critical soil and wood depletion that in turn
contributed to sociopolitical and ideological instability. This ultimately resulted in the near
abandonment of the study area and led to the Classic Maya culture’s final demise in the Central

(1) How would you define the “final demise of Classic Maya culture” that is said to have spanned
from about CE 750 to 950 CE? Is your definition in line with the authors’ premise of what
occurred in the CHRP area? Would the concept of “transformative relocation” and/or “path
dependency” be more in keeping with what not only happened at the CHRP study area but
elsewhere in the Maya world(view)?

(2) How do the following water management systems fit with the relative locations of Tamchén,
Chactún, and Lagunita and their respective landscape modifications?
(a) top-down, autocratic system–>elite control
(b) top-down, collective system–>bureaucratic control
(c) bottom-up, autocratic system–>household control
(d) bottom-up, collective system–>local control
(e) all of the above
(d) none of the above

(3) Is it plausible that a major factor of the shift to Chactún and Lagunita could be attributed to
the collapse of the seasonal karst system at Tamchén (i.e. they simply could not meet the water
needs of the growing demographics)? Were the gods angry!?!

(4) Given the various assumptions, are the demographics feasible? How might there be more
concise parameters employed to mitigate errors?

(5) Do Chactún, Tamchén, and Lagunita, in fact, fit into what would be considered “urban