Posted December 20, 2000.

On Tuesday, December 19, 2000, an eye-catching color photograph on the front page of the New York Times appeared with the headline "Signs of Suburbia Near Mayan Ruins". Readers were directed to a the front page of the prestigious "Science Times" section, where an extensive article related an exciting new hypothesis by archaeologists Dr. Diane Z. Chase and Dr. Arlen F. Chase about the site of ancient Caracol .

(The article itself was headlined "In Maya Ruins, Scholars See Evidence of Urban Sprawl". Mesoweb's astute readers will note that the Times used "Maya" correctly in the "Science Times" headline, if not on the front page. The proper rule, as propounded by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, is that "Mayan" is reserved for referring to the Mayan language.)

Below, Mesoweb presents a press release about the new discovery and also new evidence about ancient Caracol's sudden demise. In addition, we alert our readers to the following resources:

The Caracol Project website

Order information for Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute Monograph 3: Investigations at Caracol, Belize: 1985-1987 by Arlen F. Chase & Diane Z. Chase.

(A new monograph by the Chases is forthcoming from the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.)



ORLANDO, Fla. - The ancient Maya were suburban in nature, and their cities' layout confirms the latest notions of urban theory, according to two archaeologists whose groundbreaking research on Caracol, the ancient city they have uncovered in Belize, has spanned the last 16 years.

"We've known for some time that they had something like a middle class, which contradicts the long held notion that Maya society consisted of elites and commoners," said Diane Chase, an anthropology professor at the University of Central Florida, who spends every spring at the Caracol site with her husband, Arlen Chase, also an anthropology professor at UCF. "What we now have discovered is how their society was organized, where people lived, and how wealthy they were."

The Chases presented their findings at an academic conference in Spain last month. They've concluded that Maya were suburban in nature by mapping, excavating households, and analyzing the diet of residents through bones taken from burial sites throughout the 150-square-kilometer settlement that they have painstakingly excavated over the past decade and a half.

Interpretation of the dietary analysis undertaken by Christine White and Fred Longstaffe of Western Ontario University shows that people ate best in the palaces at the city center, and ate worst in a ring right outside the palaces, the Maya equivalent of the industrial ring outside the city epicenter. Then, diets improved in suburban settlements further removed from the city center.

In excavations from 3 to 8 kilometers from the city center, the Chases also found evidence of places somewhat like "strip malls," areas where markets were mingled with health and government facilities.

"The settlement pattern we observe in Caracol is almost exactly the same as that described by modern urban theorists like Joel Garreau in his book Edge City," says Diane Chase. Significantly, the Chases' findings refute the commonly held notion that the ancient Maya organized their cities in concentric rings, with the richest living in the middle, and the poorest on the outside.

"Data on the layout of Caracol and on the growth of the city suggest an unplanned development similar to that of contemporary urban edge cities, but with a scale more appropriate to foot travel rather than to wheeled carriage or automobile travel," write the Chases in their paper, "The Maya Urban Landscape: The Integration of Constructed Space and Social Structure at Caracol, Belize."

"The similarities in growth patterns between ancient Maya and contemporary urban forms is striking and suggests that similar societal stimuli may have been operating in the past, albeit on a different scale," they write. "Both the 'malling' and 'suburbanization' of modern society appears to be reflected within the Caracol data. The dispersed residential pattern, which increased physical space between people and families, likely led to better health within the urban population. And, Caracol's special-function termini - the prototypical edge cities - surely functioned as distribution nodes for administration and economics (in other words, as markets or malls), given the huge size of the site."

In another dramatic discovery, the Chases gathered proof this year that at least part of Caracol's society was terminated suddenly, possibly the result of an invasion of some sort in 895 A.D.

"The Maya of Caracol were undergoing a major building boom at the time when they left suddenly in 895 A.D. We found evidence of incomplete building efforts throughout the center of the city," Arlen Chase says. "If you leave an unburied child on the floor of a palace and human skeletal parts on the surface of buildings, you know it was something drastic."

Investigations show that outlying parts of Caracol and its suburbs continued to be occupied, but that the society's elite, who had increasingly separated themselves from the rest of society through their use of valuable foreign tradewares, stone palaces, and a better diet, suffered an abrupt and violent end.