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Big Man, Big Heart? A Mesoamerican View of the Emergence of Complex Society

  • Brian Hayden (a1) and Rob Gargett (a2)

The issue of whether elites in societies with developing socioeconomic complexity emerge as a functional response to the needs of the community or emerge in response to opportunistic possibilities of self-aggrandizement is of critical importance to an understanding of the emergence of complex hierarchical societies. Existing ethnographies do not provide adequate observations to enable the competing models to be tested. Original fieldwork was therefore conducted in the Maya area, focusing on communities that had been extremely isolated in the earlier part of this century and that had experienced crises in which elites could be expected to materially aid the community if the primary reason for their existence was a “functional” one. We interviewed a wide range of older individuals representing different statuses in formerly isolated traditional communities. The results are unequivocal. Elites, or incipient elites, provided no aid to their communities in times of crisis other than actions that were designed to enhance the advantages of the elites. We argue that the Maya cargo system constitutes a special case of the broader category of competitive feasting systems found among many ranked societies throughout the world, and that the competitive feast is the main mechanism by which ambitious individuals acquire disproportionate goods, influence, and power.

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Ancient Mesoamerica
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