Wealth and Well-being in an Ancient Maya Community

A Framework for Studying the Quality of Life in Past Societies

Abstract

Inequality is an intrinsic element of contemporary societies, with high income disparity impacting everything from life expectancy to violent crime. While inequality in today’s society is complex and multifaceted, the prominence and persistence of inequality that existed throughout human history raise important questions about its broader impacts in the past. In this paper, we discuss the concept of quality of life (QOL) for archaeology and introduce methods for studying multiple dimensions of wealth and well-being in past societies. Using previously published burial data from the ancient Maya site of Altar de Sacrificios, we illustrate this approach employing notions of personhood that treat individuals embedded in complex socio-material relations. These data enable diachronic analyses in the degree and kinds of inequality that characterized this Maya community over a span of nearly 2000 years. We further discuss how these techniques can apply to other units of archaeological analysis and comparative case studies. Tracing the disparities in material wealth, social well-being, and health through time enables a more detailed analysis of the specific contexts and historical processes that gave rise to varying degrees of inequality in the past.

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Acknowledgements

This study could not have been completed without the careful and diligent work of the following students who contributed to the data collection and validation: Jacqueline Croteau, Jazmin Jones, Michaela Thode, and Catherine McCarty. We are grateful for the comments and suggestions from three anonymous reviewers. Any errors or omissions are our own.

Funding

Support for this project was provided by the Archaeological Institute of America, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and Lycoming College.

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Munson, J., Scholnick, J. Wealth and Well-being in an Ancient Maya Community. J Archaeol Method Theory (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-021-09508-8

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Keywords

  • Inequality
  • Wealth
  • Well-being
  • Quality of life
  • Personhood
  • Gini
  • Maya