Noblesse Oblige: The Elites of Altun Ha and Lamanai, Belize

  • Noblesse Oblige: The Elites of Altun Ha and Lamanai, Belize

by David Pendergast




The phrase that heads the title of this paper is an apposite one for ancient Maya society, as it is for any in which nobility or other elite rank or status separated a controlling group from the remainder of the populace. Such separation conferred upon the upper echelon a set of rights and privileges, but also established a reciprocal relationship of obligation to the nonelite community. The existence of that obligation renders any characterization of the elite incomplete unless it rests in part on an understanding of the people they controlled, from whom they drew their sustenance.

There is no question that the degree of separation from the masses can be assessed with reasonable accuracy in any Maya polity for the nobility, and with varying but lesser accuracy for other elements of the elite on the basis of a variety of archaeological evidence. Information on aspects of the reciprocal relationship between elite and commoner may also be extracted from artifacts and fro site plan, but the data base for commoners’ material culture is never very likely to approach the solidity of that for the Maya upper crust itself.. it is evident, however, that the most profitable approach to the elucidation of the obligations borne by the elite should rest equally on an examination of the richness of upper-class life and an attempt to discern the benefits that accrued to the community at large in return for services rendered.

The internal coherence that derives from extensive excavation may at least assist in setting the data in a solid framework. In this respect, both Altun Ha and Lamanai provide conspicuously fertile ground for examination of ancient Maya elites and their socioeconomic roles. Several significant questions can be addressed by close scrutiny of the archaeological record at the two sites. First, what criteria of elite status are discernible in the archaeological remains, and what is the degree of their reliability? Second, what can the evidence tell us about the histories of the elites within the historical frameworks of their communities? Finally, can one proceed from the characterization of an elite to a real elucidation of the relationships between the group and the other segments of the society? In the following discussion, these matters are examined in as orderly a progression as possible for data from two comparatively proximate but often sharply different sites.



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Keywords: Lamanai, ancient maya, elites, nobles, archaeology, Altun Ha



Suggested APA reference: Pendergast, D. M. (1992). Noblesse oblige: the elites of Altun Ha and Lamanai, Belize. Mesoamerican Elites: An Archaeological Assessment, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 61-79.


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