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Redefining Ancient Maya Culture Through the Study of the 99 Percent

Aug 7, 2019

Archaeological research often provides spectacular insights regarding temples and treasures of past. However, studying the lives of everyday people has led archaeologists, including Jerry Sabloff, down a path that has helped to revolutionize our understanding civilizations in new and more comprehensive ways.


An SAR board member and eminent archaeologist, Jerry Sabloff has devoted considerable effort to the study of settlement patterns in Mexico and Central America—the when, where and how non-elite Maya people lived and worked. Sabloff discusses his discoveries in a Q&A interview in the 2019 issue of Knowable Magazine.


In the piece, Sabloff notes that wealthy museums, foundations, and individuals used to set the agenda for archeological study, and they wanted spectacular finds, along the lines of King Tut’s tomb, to bring back to museums. However, after World War II, the field began to change so that by the 1960s, archaeologists were able to find support for researching entire settlements, not simply major buildings.

This approach, plus modern remote-sensing technology such as LIDAR, which uses lasers to map ground topography, has allowed archaeologists to expand our knowledge exponentially. Sabloff notes in the Knowable Magazine piece:

This concern with settlement pattern, with looking at the 100 percent instead of just the 1 percent, not only broadened our understanding, but completely changed it. The older view of the Maya was of a non-urban, peaceful people ruled by priest-astronomers. The elaborate temples people had found at Tikal and elsewhere were thought to be merely ceremonial centers with minimal populations, and not cities in their own right. But mapping projects at Tikal and other places showed that they weren’t just ceremonial centers—there were large numbers of remains of houses. These were actually urban centers of some kind. That totally changed the understanding of the pre-Columbian Maya.

The interview was prompted by the upcoming Annual Review of Anthropology October 2019 issue, which will feature Sabloff’s scholarly article “How Maya Archaeologists Discovered the 99% Through the Study of Settlement Patterns”.


Interested in finding out more about Sabloff’s long-term research and study of Pre-Columbian Maya culture? Join us for his In-Depth class at SAR this November

“An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Maya Civilization”

Learn more and register for the course here. Space is limited.



Sabloff received his Ph.D. In anthropology from Harvard University and his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and External Professor, Emeritus and Past President of the Santa Fe Institute.

Sabloff has been the editor or co-editor of several SAR Press books and participant in five former SAR Advanced Seminars. His SAR Press books include: Ancient Civilization and Trade, Tikal: Dynasties, Foreigners, & Affairs of State, Simulations in Archaeology, Late Lowland Maya Civilization, and The Ancient City. His Advanced Seminars include: Changing Perspectives on Tikal and the Development of Maya Civilization in 1999, After the Fall: New Perspectives on the Postclassic Period in the Maya Lowlands in 1982, The Use of Systems Models and Computer Simulations in the Study of Complex Societies: Future Trends in Archaeological Research in 1978, and Ancient Civilization and Trade in 1973, and The Collapse of Classic Maya Civilization in 1970.


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