Ancient Maya warfare: exploring the significance of lithic variation in Maya weaponry

K. Aoyama, E. Graham


Variation in the kinds of weapons used in Maya warfare—and, one could argue in warfare in general—or the ways in which weapons were manufactured has been given scant attention as a function of diverse cultures and traditions. The results of the study described here suggest that lances (thrusting weapons with long wooden shafts and chipped stone heads) were the weapon of choice among both the Preclassic and the Classic Maya. In the Classic period, from which we have pictorial as well as other archaeological evidence, Maya elites used lances in hand-to-hand combat. Atlatl darts are also present in the Classic-period record but are not as common as lance heads. Points used as arrowheads do not appear in the Maya lowlands until the Terminal Classic, and then only in certain places. These changes do not follow a pattern that can be attributed to technological advances in resource acquisition, e.g. hunting. We discuss the increase in the production and use of atlatl darts as well as bows and arrows during the Terminal Classic period, which we argue reflects cultural change in the practices of warfare. We go further to hypothesise that changing warfare practices were one symptom of the cultural destabilisation that led to the demise of Classic Maya political authority. Our paper derives from Maya research, but we think it has implications for the study of lithics more generally. Use of stone tools in the Old World, for example, is not normally associated with urbanism. The Maya example, in which neither the cultural nor technological context of urbanism involved the use of metals, can perhaps add a new social dimension to stone tool studies. With specific regard to the research described below, there is also the implication that the primary stimulus behind adoption of an artefact can be its role in competition or conflict— that is, in the socially sanctioned killing or harming of human beings—rather than its use in resource acquisition. Such a stimulus is as likely to have existed in the Palaeolithic as in the Bronze or Iron Age.

Full reference: Aoyama, K. & Graham, E. 2015. Ancient Maya warfare: exploring the significance of lithic variation in Maya weaponry. Lithics: the Journal of the Lithic Studies Society 36: 5–17.

Keywords: Maya civilisation, weapons, warfare, lances, atlatl darts, bows and arrows

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