Classic Maya Settlement Systems Reveal Differential Land Use Patterns in the Upper Belize River Valley

John P. Walden, Julie A. Hoggarth, Claire E. Ebert, Scott L. Fedick, Michael Biggie, Brett Meyer, Kyle Shaw-Müller, Yijia Qiu, Weiyu Ran, Olivia P. Ellis, Tia B. Watkins, J. Britt Davis, Rafael A. Guerra, Christophe Helmke, Jaime J. Awe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Land use practices have had important implications for structuring household inequalities and broader political systems in the past. Our contribution examines settlement patterns in relation to political structure, household wealth, ecological productivity and agricultural techniques. Combining settlement pattern data with high–precision soils data, we examine the extent to which different trajectories of polity formation impact the settlement location and land use practices of intermediate elites and commoners. The Classic Maya (CE 250/300–900) polities of Baking Pot and Lower Dover in the Upper Belize River Valley serve as enlightening case studies because despite being situated near one another, the two centers emerged along very different trajectories. Whereas the polity of Baking Pot arose slowly, in tandem with surrounding demography, the neighboring polity of Lower Dover arose rapidly in the Late Classic period (CE 600–900) in an area which was already home to established local populations. Our analysis shows that while Baking Pot had substantial settlement clustering around its epicenter, populations at Lower Dover aggregated around secondary and tertiary centers farther away from the polity core. Analyses also demonstrate that most commoner and intermediate elite residences were situated on the most productive agricultural lands in the region, though some intermediate elite households were situated on hilltops or in border zones with marginal soil productivity for political and tactical reasons. Commoner households were situated on a range of productivity zones reflecting diverse land–use practices which had implications for household wealth. Our case study illustrates the importance of integrating land use practices into our reconstructions of ancient political hierarchies, especially in terms of understanding political strategies and household wealth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number483
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2023


  • agricultural strategies
  • ancient Maya
  • household inequalities
  • intermediate elites
  • political dynamics
  • settlement patterns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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