Expert opinion
Research at Oxtankah
Archeological research carried out by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) during the last two decades in the pre-Hispanic city of Oxtankah and neighboring areas has had the objective of reaching a closer understanding of the social processes of the ancient Mayan groups who lived in this region of southern Quintana Roo. The scope of the research has been defined from a perspective which covers a wider geographical area than the footprint of this city.

The social processes experienced by human groups in pre-Hispanic times must be visualized within the context of the physical environment of the region which they chose to settle, since it was precisely the physical characteristics of the geography and its biological diversity which determined the variations in the natural resources which they could access, and their opportunities to exploit them.

The permanence and social development of a human group depended to a large extent on the systems or strategies which they could apply to the exploitation of the natural environment, by methods which made use of nature and the means of production which they used for its management. Natural resources could be conserved if used rationally. The basic needs of subsistence of the group and access to regional market systems for excess production, could have been achieved by harnessing nature in a multiplicity of ways, based on clearly established production systems.

The tropical ecosystem of the Mayan region lowlands is still of special importance on account of its biological diversity. The evidence indicates that the region’s inhabitants achieved a high degree of ecological sustainability which allowed them to diversify the local economy, supported by the exploitation of natural resources from the sea, coasts and lakes, also from agriculture, hunting, gathering, bee keeping and salt production. Since Oxtankah was inhabited and developed for more than 1500 years at various periods of pre-Hispanic history (Late Preclassic 300 BC to 150 AD, the Early Classic 200 to 600 AD, the Late to Terminal Classic 600 to 900 AD), it achieved significant political and economic power, mainly from its absolute control of the coasts.

The group that settled in Oxtankah in the Middle Preclassic (900-600 BC) was of a moderate size. The utensils discarded in everyday life indicate that they came from the western lowlands, possibly from Ceibal, Altar de Sacrificios or Uaxactun in Guatemala, from Chalchuapa in El Salvador, or from Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas, Mexico.

During the second half of the Middle Preclassic (600-300 BC), the groups inhabiting the region maintained a certain degree of social cohesion. At this point, the inhabitants of Oxtankah were the focus of power supported by secondary centers in the town of El Cocal (known today as Luis Echeverria Alvarez) and in the south of the island of Tamalcab. The utensils thrown away by these communities indicate that they maintained a close relationship with the Mayan communities of the Central Peten of Guatemala, a situation which continued throughout their history. The strategic position of the sea port located in the town in the south of the island of Tamalcab made it possible for the inhabitants of Oxtankah to interact and link themselves with the groups settled in the channels and in the bay, but also with those situated on the shores of the Yucatan peninsula. From this time onwards it should be assumed that there were well established long distance water trade routes which operated in an exchange system for products including foodstuffs, prestige items and primary materials.

In the Late Preclassic (300-150 BC) the economic sustainability model of the previous period was strengthened, since in the population density increased and the sphere of activity expanded. The inhabitants of Oxtankah continued to hold onto power, supported by the communities settled in El Cocal and Nohichmul. The settlement pattern of the groups which participated in the economic model established by the people of Oxtankah shows a degree of dispersal, as evidenced by the presence of 17 settled areas, and they were certainly linked to particular activities, for example the salt producers established their residences in areas close to bodies of water. The maintenance of social cohesion, as well as the unity and discipline of these groups reflects the presence of authorities of a certain rank in the residential areas, who made use of pyramid structures built from stonework, and who were accustomed to performing the religious ceremonies necessary for this purpose. Water transport continued to be developed using the sea port on the south of the island of Tamalcab, whose population continued to increase.

In the Early Classic (200-600 AD) the region’s inhabitants enjoyed a flourishing culture. The apparatus for social cohesion was handled by Oxtankah’s dominant group, which set the guidelines for the society as a whole, supported by the populations settled in Cocal, Nohichmul and Tamalcab-Estrecho, which functioned as secondary centers of power. The groups settled on the shores of the Guerrero lake and the surrounding channels were fully engaged in salt making, and production continued to develop solidly in this period. Maritime business activities based on fishing and the exchange of goods via the waterways were strengthened and the port communities were very active. It is possible that the population settled in the pre-Hispanic city of San Andres shared power by some means. This is a possibility on account of the very high population density and monumental buildings at San Andres at this time. It is important to mention that at this time the city of Ichpaatun had a reduced population, which initiated the construction of Structure II.

Oxtankah was at the peak of its power at this time. From then onwards it would decline. The population had tripled in the previous period and economic success made it possible to construct magnificent buildings. The proportions of the buildings commissioned in the core area of the city were double the size of the existing ones. Construction in the plazas of Iguanas, Wild Boar, Toucans, Manatee and Armadillo to south of the city brought significant expansion. Nevertheless it is evident that in order to maintain hegemony in the region it was necessary to establish a strong control apparatus, which is clearly reflected in the settlement pattern of the social groups participating in the established economic model. It is a pattern that demonstrates the rigidity of centralized power which kept the population settled in nine areas, where the ruling powers had their residences, which helped to strengthen cohesion, unity and the discipline of society members, celebrating traditional collective rituals of a religious nature which they customarily held on the stonework pyramids.

In the Late Classic (600-800 AD) the inhabitants of Oxtankah continued to dominate the region, but now they were more rigid in their manner of and they were supported solely by the people settled at El Caracol, which continued to function as a secondary center. The evidence indicates that in order to preserve control of the society it was necessary to strengthen the model, by imposing it as an ideological dogma, making use of one of the facades of the main buildings of Oxtankah, where stucco murals were placed exhibiting a message conveyed visually by signs and symbols to the members of the community who participated in the ceremonies carried out in the center of the city. The message conveyed by myths and rites told of the continuity of the cosmological narrative as a cohesive force which maintained the unity of the community, but above all it legitimated the dynasty in power, justifying its status as the dominant group and as the guide of all social and political activity. Architectural activity continued at Oxtankah. Some of the buildings from the earlier period were covered by larger ones. Several of the rulers were buried in tombs. However the evidence suggests that at this time people migrated from the region, and there was a drastic reduction in population density as a whole. El Cocal, Nohichmul, Tamalcab-Estrecho and Tamalcab-Sur were lightly populated, nevertheless, the place where the city of Ichaatun would later be built attracted a significant number of inhabitants, who continued building notable structures.

The settlement pattern of the groups suggests that the group in power succeeded in levying tributes from the thin regional population which was concentrated solely into five areas, and controlled by a lesser number of rulers who monitored the unity and disciple of the people. The population distribution indicates that the production of salt and the inland activities continued, as did long distance water trade on the routes established in previous periods, making it possible to continue the relationship with other Maya groups settled in the peninsula, as testified by the utensils coming from these places. At the same time a local pottery tradition started.

Subsequently during the Terminal Classic to early Postclassic (800-1100 to 1200 AD), the evidence points to the disappearance of a centralized power and the rise of shared government. The settlement pattern from this time indicates the existence of a social pattern in which the population concentrated in ten areas, although with a low density. The core area of the city of Oxtankah was abandoned at that time and the few inhabitants preferred to use the plazas located to the south. The ancient secondary centers of power at El Cocal and Nohichmul had reduced population levels, but this was not the case in Tamalcab Estrecho, which experienced an increase, and the fact that it there was a custom of leaving offerings on the buildings points to a possible religious importance. The evidence indicates that the inhabitants of the region started to merge with the cultural tradition that was growing in Calderitas and that contact was maintained with the settlements of the Peten in Guatemala, the north of Belize, the east coast of the peninsula, Coba and Mayapan via the established water routes, however these activities did not continue in the port situated in the south of the island of Tamalcab, which was abandoned at this time.

The overall settlement pattern shows that the groups dedicated to inland activities such as bee keeping, hunting, gathering and farming as well as those focused on the shores of bodies of water such as salt production and water transportation continued to increase. The ten population groupings must have shared government with local authority figures whose role must now have focused on domestic ceremonies rather than subjugation, since at this time authority figures were not only to be found in the vicinity of population groups, but dispersed, associated with settlement areas dedicated to production, which suggests that the traditional collective religious rituals which had been carried out on the stonework pyramid structures by the elite were now shared by individuals of equivalent status. The general government of the region might well have been rotated among the areas.

Everything appears to indicate that this form of shared government developed a model which incorporated the ten dispersed population groups, maintaining balanced production relationships in which the mainland and shore activities were maintained, indicating that the communities worked together in an organized and united fashion, enabling the producers to break with the centralized control imposed by the dominant groups settled in Oxtankah. Maybe at this stage the economic model focused on the production of everyday goods were required to satisfy the utilitarian needs of the population, rather than emphasizing the production of goods with exchange value or elite goods, such as the sumptuary goods used by the group in power. It seems that the application of this model did not come to polarize the society as a whole during this period, however, the fact that a considerable number of individuals settled in the territory between Calderitas and Ichpaatun and because the region’s inhabitants began to accept the traditional pottery culture which came from the town of Calderitas there is a suggestion that this area began to exercise control of the region.

During the Late Postclassic (1200-1450 AD) foreign Maya groups arrived in the region and imposed a centralized economic model on the inhabitants. Evidence indicates that the external systems were imposed by force, with an attitude of domination rather than negotiation. The model must have been clearly exclusive and it seems that it was not easy to subjugate the population or to impose and formalize the government structure since the new elite established their residences behind a wall in the city of Ichpaatun. The population began to regroup in this period, now centering on 13 areas, whose spatial distribution suggests the strengthening of activities relating to the sea and the continuation of the inland activities. The apparatus of social cohesion was managed by the dominant social group which lived in Ichpatuun, supported by the people of Calderitas which played a very important role in the power structure, taking responsibility for the internal order of the groups settled in their vicinity. It must not have been easy to maintain centralized power in Ichpatuun since a greater number of authority figures would have been required to dominate the inhabitants settled in the vicinity of the walled city, whose population was very high.

At this time the city of Oxtankah remained abandoned and it was only visited sporadically by people accustomed to worshiping the ancient gods, who left offerings at the foot of the buildings. Raudales, Nohichmul and Tamalcab Sur remained equally depopulated. The evidence suggests El Cocal continued to be lightly populated and that contact was maintained with the settlements of the Peten in Guatemala, the northeast of Belize, the east coast and Mayapan via the established water routes. Tamalcab Estrecho was also thinly populated but the city was a preferred site for offerings.

The new pottery traditions brought by foreign groups were of a very poor quality compared with previous times. The new economy produced crudely finished goods which seem to have been finished in a hurry, without dedicating sufficient man hours to the work, a deficiency which is also evident in the buildings they erected.
Under translation
Under translation


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