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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
All relevant data are within the paper and its Supporting Materials files.
All relevant code is provided in the Supporting Materials.
Adams, R. E. W. (1971). Ceramics of Altar de Sacrificios, Guatemala (Vol. 63, No. 1). Cambridge: Harvard University.
Aizpurúa, I. I. I., & McAnany, P. A. (1999). Adornment and identity: Shell ornaments from Formative K’axob. Ancient Mesoamerica, 10(1), 117–127.
Arponen, V. P. J., Müller, J., Hofmann, R., Furholt, M., Ribeiro, A., Horn, C., & Hinz, M. (2016). Using the Capability Approach to Conceptualise Inequality in Archaeology: the Case of the Late Neolithic Bosnian Site Okolište c. 5200–4600 bce. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 23(2), 541–560.
Binford, L. R. (1971). Mortuary Practices: Their Study and Their Potential. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, 25, 6–29.
Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Bowles, S., Hertz, T., Bell, A., Beise, J., Clark, G., et al. (2009). Intergeneration Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies. Science, 326, 682–688.
Bowles, S., Smith, E. A., & Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (2010). The Emergence and Persistence of Inequality in Premodern Societies. Current Anthropology, 51, 7–17.
Carballo, D. (2011). Advances in the Household Archaeology of Highland Mesoamerica. Journal of Archaeological Research, 19, 133–189.
Carr, C. (1995). Mortuary practices: Their social, philosophical-religious, circumstantial, and physical determinants. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2(2), 105–200.
Costanza, R., Fisher, B., Ali, S., Beer, C., Bond, L., Roelof, B., & Danigelis, N. L. (2007). Quality of Life: An Approach Integrating Opportunities, Human Needs, and Subjective Well-Being. Ecological Economics, 61(2–3), 267–276.
Demarest, A. A. (2004). After the Maelstrom: Collapse of the Classic Maya Kingdoms and the Terminal Classic in Western Petén. In A. A. Demarest, P. M. Rice, & D. S. Rice (Eds.), The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands (pp. 102–124). Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Demarest, A. A., O’Mansky, M., Wollley, C., Tuerenhout, D. V., Inomata, T., Palka, J., & Escobedo, H. (1997). Classic Maya Defensive Systems and Warfare in the Petexbatun Region. Ancient Mesoamerica, 8(2), 229–253.
Deneulin, S., & McGregor, J. A. (2010). The capability approach and the politics of a social conception of wellbeing. European Journal of Social Theory, 13(4), 501–519.
DeWitte, S. N., & Stojanowski, C. M. (2015). The Osteological Paradox 20 Years Later: Past Perspectives, Future Directions. Journal of Archaeological Research, 23(4), 397–450.
Dixon, P. M., Weiner, J., Mitchell-Olds, T., & Woodley, R. (1987). Bootstrapping the Gini Coefficient of Inequality. Ecology, 68(5), 1548–1551.
Dobres, M. A., & Robb, J. (2000). Agency in Archaeology. London: Routledge.
Douglass, J. G., & Gonlin, N. (2012). Ancient Households of the Americas: Conceptualizing What Households Do. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Ellyson, L. J., Kohler, T. A., & Cameron, C. M. (2019). How far from Chaco to Orayvi? Quantifying inequality among Pueblo households. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 55, 101073. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2019.101073.
Fochesato, M., Bogaard, A., & Bowles, S. (2019). Comparing ancient inequalities: the challenges of comparability, bias and precision. Antiquity, 93(370), 853–869.
Fowler, C. (2004). The Archaeology of Personhood: An Anthropological Approach. London and New York: Routledge.
Gamble, L. H., Walker, P. L., & Russell, G. S. (2001). An Integrative Approach to Mortuary Analysis: Social and Symbolic Dimensions of Chumash Burial Practices. American Antiquity, 66(2), 185–212.
Gillespie, S. D. (2001). Personhood, Agency, and Mortuary Ritual: A Case Study from the Ancient Maya. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 20(1), 73–112.
Gjesfjeld, E. (2021). Networks and Catastrophes. In T. Brughmans, B. Mills, J. Munson, & M. A. Peeples (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Network Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (In press).
Gurven, M., Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Hooper, P. L., Kaplan, H., Quinlan, R., Sear, R., et al. (2010). Domestication Alone Does Not Lead to Inequality. Current Anthropology, 51, 49–64.
Hammond, N. (2015). The Big Sleep: Early Maya Mortuary Practice. In C. Renfrew, M. J. Boyd, & I. Morley (Eds.), Death Rituals and Social Order in the Ancient World: Death Shall Have No Dominion (pp. 237–255). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hammond, N., Estrada-Belli, F., & Clark, A. (1992). Middle Preclassic Maya Buildings and Burials at Cuello, Belize. Antiquity, 66(253), 955–964.
Hammond, N., & Gerhardt, J. C. (1990). Early Maya Architectural Innovation at Cuello, Belize. World Archaeology, 21(3), 461–481.
Healy, P. F., Awe, J. J., & Helmuth, N. (1998). An Ancient Maya Multiple Burial at Caledonia, Cayo District, Belize. Antiquity, 69, 337–348.
Hegmon, M. (Ed.). (2016). The Archaeology of the Human Experience. American Anthropological Association: Washington D.C.
Hegmon, M., & Peeples, M. A. (2018). The human experience of social transformation: Insights from comparative archaeology. PLOS ONE, 13(11), e0208060.
Hegmon, M., Peeples, M. A., Kinzig, A. P., Kulow, S., Meegan, C., & Nelson, M. C. (2008). Social Transformation and Its Costs in the Prehistoric US Southwest. American Anthropologist, 110, 313–324.
Hodder, I. (1984). Burial, Houses, Women and Men in the European Neolithic. In D. Miller & C. Tilley (Eds.), Ideology, Power and Prehistory (pp. 51–68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Inomata, T., Triadan, D., MacLellan, J., Burham, M., Aoyama, K., Palomo, J. M., et al. (2017). High-precision radiocarbon dating of political collapse and dynastic origins at the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.
Inomata, T. (2017). The Emergence of Standardized Spatial Plans in Southern Mesoamerica: Chronology and Interregional Interactions Viewed from Ceibal, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica, 28(01), 329–355.
Inomata, T., & Houston, S. D. (2001). Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya (Vol. Volume Two: Data and Case Studies). Boulder: Westview Press.
Inomata, T., MacLellan, J., Triadan, D., Munson, J., Burham, M., Aoyama, K., et al. (2015). Development of sedentary communities in the Maya lowlands: Coexisting mobile groups and public ceremonies at Ceibal, Guatemala. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 112, 4268–4273.
Joyce, R. A. (1999). Social Dimensions of Pre-Classic Burials. In D. C. Grove & R. A. Joyce (Eds.), Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica (pp. 15–47). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Joyce, R. A. (2000). Heirlooms and houses: materiality and social memory. In R. A. Joyce & S. D. Gillespie (Eds.), Beyond Kinship: Social and Material Reproduction in House Societies (pp. 64–76). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Joyce, R. A. (2008). Burying the Dead at Tlatilco: Social Memory and Social Identities. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 10(1), 12–26.
Kamp, K. A. (1998). Social Hierarchy and Burial Treatments: A Comparative Assessment. Cross-Cultural Research, 32(1), 79–115.
Kennett, D. J. (2012). Archaic-Period Foragers and Farmers in Mesoamerica. In D. L. Nichols & C. A. Pool (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology (pp. 141–150). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kohler, T. A., Smith, M. E., Bogaard, A., Feinman, G. M., Peterson, C. E., Betzenhauser, A., et al. (2017). Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica. Nature, 551(7682), 619–622.
Kohler, T. A., & Higgins, R. (2016). Quantifying Household Inequality in Early Pueblo Villages. Current Anthropology, 57(5), 690–697.
Kohler, T. A., & Smith, M. E. (Eds.). (2018). Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Kovacevich, B., & Callaghan, M. G. (2019). Fifty Shades of Green: Interpreting Maya Jade Production, Circulation, Consumption, and Value. Ancient Mesoamerica, 30(3), 457–472.
Krejci, E., & Culbert, T. P. (1995). Preclassic and Classic Burials and Caches in the Maya Lowlands. In N. Grube (Ed.), The Emergence of Lowland Maya Civilization (Vol. 8, pp. 103–116). Mockmuhl, Germany: Verlag Anton Saurwein.
Kusimba, S. (2020). Embodied value: Wealth-in-people. Economic Anthropology, 7(2), 166–175.
Lin, N. (1999). Building a Network Theory of Social Capital. Connections, 22(1), 28–51.
Lin, N. (2001). Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lindert, P. H., & Williamson, J. G. (2016). Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lohse, J. C. (2010). Archaic Origins of the Lowland Maya. Latin American Antiquity, 21(3), 312–352.
Lucero, L. (1999). Classic Lowland Maya Political Organization: A Review. Journal of World Prehistory, 13(2), 211–263.
Lucero, L. (2003). The Politics of Ritual: The Emergence of Maya Rulers. Current Anthropology, 44(4), 523–558.
Maler, T. (1908). Explorations of the Upper Usumatsintla and Adjacent Regions: Altar de Sacrificios; Seibal, Itsimté-Sácluk; Cankuen. Cambridge: Harvard University.
McAnany, P. A. (1995). Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society. Austin: University of Texas Press.
McAnany, P. A. (1998). Ancestors and the Classic Maya Built Environment. In S. D. Houston (Ed.), Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture (pp. 271–298). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
McAnany, P. A. (Ed.). (2004). K’axob: Ritual, Work, and Family in an Ancient Maya Village. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California.
McGuire, R. H. (1983). Breaking Down Cultural Complexity: Inequality and Heterogeneity. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, 91–142.
Milanovic, B., Lindert, P. H., & Williamson, J. G. (2010). Pre-Industrial Inequality. The Economic Journal, 121, 255–272.
Morley, S. G. (1937). The Inscriptions of Peten (Vol. 1-5). Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Munson, J., Mejía Ramón, A. G., & Paiz Aragón, L. (2019). Mapeo de Asentamientos en Alta Resolución con Sistemas Aéreos No Tripulados en Altar de Sacrificios, Guatemala. In B. Arroyo, L. Méndez Salinas, & G. Ajú Álvarez (Eds.), XXXII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, Tomo II (pp. 637–648). Guatemala City: Museo Nacional de Arqueología e Ethnología.
Nelson, M. C., Ingram, S. E., Dugmore, A. J., Streeter, R., Peeples, M. A., McGovern, T. H., et al. (2016). Climate challenges, vulnerabilities, and food security. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 113(2), 298–303.
Nussbaum, M., & Sen, A. (1993). Introduction. In M. Nussbaum & A. Sen (Eds.), The Quality of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ortman, S. G. (2016). Discourse and Human Securities in Tewa Origins. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 27(1), 74–94.
O’Shea, J. M. (1984). Mortuary Variability: An Archaeological Investigation. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Pader, E.-J. (1982). Symbolism, Social Relations and the Interpretation of Mortuary Remains. Oxford, UK: British Archaeological Reports.
Paiz Aragón, L., & Munson, J. (2017). Proyecto Altar de Sacrificios, Temporada 2017. Guatemala City: Instituto de Arqueológia e Historia.
Parker Pearson, M. (1993). The powerful dead: Archaeological relationships between the living and the dead. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 3, 203–229.
Parker Pearson, M. (1999). The Archaeology of Death and Ritual. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Peebles, C. S. (1971). Moundville and Surrounding Sites: Some Structural Considerations of Mortuary Practices II. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, 25, 68–91.
Peebles, C. S., & Kus, S. M. (1977). Some Archaeological Correlates of Ranked Societies. American Antiquity, 42(3), 421–448. https://doi.org/10.2307/279066.
Peterson, C. E., & Drennan, R. D. (2018). Letting the Gini Out of the Bottle: Measuring Inequality Archaeologically. In T. A. Kohler & M. E. Smith (Eds.), Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences (pp. 39–66). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Phillips, D. (2006). Quality of Life: Concept, Policy and Practice. New York: Routledge.
Preucel, R. W., & Mrozowski, S. A. (2010). Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism (2nd ed.). London: Wiley.
Quinn, C. P., & Beck, J. (2016). Essential Tensions: A Framework for Exploring Inequality Through Mortuary Archaeology and Bioarchaeology. Open Archaeology, 2(1).
Core Team, R. (2019). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna, Austria: R Foundation for Statistical Computing.
Rathje, W. L. (1970). Socio-political implications of lowland Maya burials: Methodology and tentative hypotheses. World Archaeology, 1(3), 359–374.
Redman, C. L. (2005). Resilience Theory in Archaeology. American Anthropologist, 107(1), 70–77.
Robb, J., Bigazzi, R., Lazzarini, L., Scarsini, C., & Sonego, F. (2001). Social “status” and biological “status”: A comparison of grave goods and skeletal indicators from Pontecagnano. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 115(3), 213–222.
Robin, C. (2003). New Directions in Classic Maya Household Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research, 11(4), 307–356.
Rosenswig, R. M., Pearsall, D. M., Masson, M. A., Culleton, B. J., & Kennett, D. J. (2014). Archaic period settlement and subsistence in the Maya lowlands: new starch grain and lithic data from Freshwater Creek, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science, 41, 308–321.
Santley, R. S., & Hirth, K. G. (Eds.). (1993). Prehispanic Domestic Units in Mesoamerica: Studies of the Household, Compound and Residence. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Inc..
Saul, F. P. (1972). The Human Skeletal Remains of Altar de Sacrificios: An Osteobiographic Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Saxe, A. A. (1971). Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices in a Mesolithic Population from Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, 20, 39–57.
Scherer, A. K. (2018). Head Shaping and Tooth Modification among the Classic Maya of the Usumacinta River Kingdoms. In V. Tiesler & M. C. Lozada (Eds.), Social Skins of the Head: Body Beliefs and Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes (pp. 59–80). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Scherer, A. K., Wright, L. E., & Yoder, C. J. (2007). Bioarchaeological evidence for social and temporal differences in subsistence at Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Latin American Antiquity, 18, 85–104.
Schulting, R. (1995). Mortuary Variability and Status Differentation on teh Columbia-Fraser Plateau. Burnaby, B.C.: Burnaby Archaeology Press, Simon Fraser University.
Sen, A. (1989). Development as capability expansion. Journal of Development Planning, 19(1), 41–58.
Sen, A. (1993). Capability and well-being. In M. C. Nussbaum & A. Sen (Eds.), The Quality of Life (pp. 30–53). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sen, A. (2005). Human rights and capabilities. Journal of Human Development, 6(2):151–166.
Sen, A., & Hawthorn, G. (1987). The Standard of living. Cambridge University Press.
Shanks, M., & Tilley, C. (1987). Social Theory and Archaeology. Oxford: Polity Press.
Sheets, P. D. (2000). Provisioning the Cerén Household. Ancient Mesoamerica, 11, 217–230.
Signorell, A. (2019). DescTools: Tools for Descriptive Statistics.
Smith, A. L. (1972). Excavations at Altar de Sacrificios: Architecture, Settlement, Burials, and Caches (Vol. 62, No. 2). Cambridge: Harvard University.
Smith, E. A., Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Bowles, S., Gurven, M., Hertz, T., & Shenk, M. K. (2010). Production Systems, Inheritance, and Inequality in Premodern Societies. Current Anthropology, 51(1), 85–94.
Smith, M. E. (1987). Household possessions and wealth in agrarian states: Implications for archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 6, 297–335.
Smith, M. E. (2015). Quality of Life and Prosperity in Ancient Households and Communities. In C. Isendahl & D. Stump (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, M. E., Dennehy, T., Kamp-Whittaker, A., Colon, E., & Harkness, R. (2014). Quantitative measures of wealth inequality in ancient central Mexican communities. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, 2, 311–323.
Smith, M. E., Kohler, T. A., & Feinman, G. M. (2018). Studying Inequality’s Deep Past. In Ten Thousand Years of Inequality (pp. 3–38). The University of Arizona Press.
Steckel, R. H., Sciulli, P. W., & Rose, J. C. (2002). A Health Index from Skeletal Remains. In R. H. Steckel & J. C. Rose (Eds.), The backbone of history: Health and nutrition in the Western hemisphere (pp. 61–93). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stiglitz, J. E. (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J.-P. (2010). Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up. New York: The New Press.
Stuart, D. (1998). “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In S. D. Houston (Ed.), Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture (pp. 373–426). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Tainter, J. (1978). Mortuary practices and the study of prehistoric social systems. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, 1, 105–141.
Tiesler, Vera. (1999). Head Shaping and Dental Decoration Among the Ancient Maya: Archaeological and Cultural Aspects. In Society for American Archaeology. Presented at the 64th Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Chicago.
Tiesler, V. (2011). Becoming Maya: Infancy and Upbringing Through the Lens of Pre-Hispanic Head Shaping. Childhood in the Past, 4(1), 117–132.
Tilly, C. (2001). Relational origins of inequality. Anthropological Theory, 1(3), 355–372.
Triadan, D., Castillo, V., Inomata, T., Palomo, J. M., Méndez, M. B., Cortave, M., et al. (2017). Social Transformations in a Middle Preclassic Community: Elite Residential Complexes at Ceibal. Ancient Mesoamerica, 28(01), 233–264.
Ucko, P. J. (1969). Ethnography and archaeological interpretation of funerary remains. World Archaeology, 1(2), 262–280.
UNDP, U. N. D. P. (1994). New Dimensions of Human Security. New York: United Nations http://www.hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-1994.
Vésteinsson, O., Hegmon, M., Arneborg, J., Rice, G., & Russell, W. G. (2019). Dimensions of inequality: Comparing the North Atlantic and the US Southwest. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 54, 172–191.
Welsh, W. B. M. (1988). An Analysis of Classic Lowland Maya Burials. Oxford, UK: British Archaeological Reports.
Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Willey, G. R., & Smith, A. L. (1969). The Ruins of Altar de Sacrificios, Department of Peten, Guatemala: An Introduction (Vol. 62, No. 1). Cambridge: Harvard University.
Williams, J. S., & White, C. D. (2006). Dental modification in the Postclassic population from Lamanai, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica, 17, 139–151.
Windler, A., Thiele, R., & Müller, J. (2013). Increasing inequality in Chalcolithic Southeast Europe: the case of Durankulak. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(1), 204–210.
Wood, J. W., Milner, G. R., Harpending, H. C., Weiss, K. M., Cohen, M. N., Eisenberg, L. E., et al. (1992). The Osteological Paradox: Problems of Inferring Prehistoric Health from Skeletal Samples [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology, 33(4), 343–370.
Wright, K. I. (Karen). (2014). Domestication and inequality? Households, corporate groups and food processing tools at Neolithic Çatalhöyük. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 33, 1–33.
Wright, L. E. (2006). Diet, Heath, and Status among the Pasión Maya: A Reappraisal of the Collapse (Vol. 2). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
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.
Support for this project was provided by the Archaeological Institute of America, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and Lycoming College.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare no competing interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Quality of life