This thought-provoking book reconstructs the history of the Yucatán peninsula from the Classic period to the invasion and conquest by the Spanish, and in the process, challenges some well-worn tenets and popular stereotypes about Maya society. In the first of three parts, the author analyzes Classic Maya society; in the second, she focuses on mercantile activities, associated through legend with Quetzalcoatl-Kulkulcan, which united the Yucatán peninsula, the Mexican altiplano, and Honduras into one commercial region with a common medium of exchange, cacao.
In the last section, she clarifies the identity of the Itzae, arguing that the group was not ethnically distinct from the Maya. Indeed, the main difference between the groups was one of economic orientation. The Maya were an agricultural people who gave tribute to their leaders and did not engage in long-distance trade. The Itzae, by contrast, included tribute-paying peasants and cacao-producing slaves associated with long-distance, “intercountry commerce” (comercio entre países·, p. 17).
The author shows how the trade-minded Itzae came to dominate the Maya theocracy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She concludes that the degeneration of Maya society at the end of the Classic period was a direct effect of the introduction of a commercial system and an indirect effect of the conquest of the Itzá. She explains the growing militarism of Yucatecan society in the Post-classic period as a means to acquire slaves. These, in turn, were exchanged for cacao, necessary for ritual observations and for the reproduction of social relations. In short, the so-called Maya decline was not a “collapse,” as characterized by many scholars, but a “transition” (p. 206).
This hook is bound to be controversial. Archaeologists might find fault because it gives no clear indication that the author has taken into account the advances in the decipherment of Maya texts during the last two or three decades. Historians might wonder why a quotation that potentially could be an important part of her argument carries no date (p. 116), or why the author transcribes a 1571 source but does not discuss how much the exchanges might have been a reaction to colonialism and a reflection of the breakdown of pre-Hispanic relations (p. 124).
The author, furthermore, may be guilty of taking her Spanish sources too literally. The unqualified use of words like commercial and mercantile needs clarification. Such terms connote profit-oriented exchange, conducted to accumulate goods or wealth. Cacao-denominated exchange, however, might have had political-religious or social ends. The possible status-enhancing role of exchange is not considered.
Another example of this imposition of modern, Western interpretations on non-Westem peoples is the discussion of property rights (pp. 72 and 166). The author interprets a rather late (1582) quotation from Gaspar A. Chi in terms of “ownership” in the Western, fee-simple sense. Another interpretation of the quotation might suggest that land, for the native Yucatecans, had no value until it was used or improved (por algún respeto de mejoría). A native did not own the land, which was a type of goods, free in nature; one “owned,” in the Western sense, that which one created with one’s labor. This distinction coincides with Claude Levi-Strauss’s categories of “raw” (that is, unworked or unprocessed; such as uncleared land, wild animals) and “cooked” (worked or processed; plants that are the result of sowing a seed and tending fertile land). In short, ethnohistorians must take special care in looking backward and choosing categories and words so as not to confuse the emic with the etic.