For centuries, archeologists have been extrapolating from the tantalizing clues left sprinkled throughout the remains of the Mayan empire in order to determine what life might have been like for its inhabitants. The majority of this information has been gleaned from the ruins of palaces, temples and astronomical buildings, all of which have provided an insight into the lives of the Mayan elites. However, new research published in the journal Latin American Antiquity has finally shed some light on the lives of ordinary villagers, and suggests that Mayan citizens may have been more independent from their rulers than was previously thought.
Having been preserved in ash since a catastrophic volcanic eruption around 1,400 years ago, the village of Ceren in El Salvador offers a vivid look at what daily life was like at the moment of the disaster. Such is the level of preservation that even details such as finger marks on ceramic bowls could be discerned by researchers working at the site. Led by Professor Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado Boulder – who first discovered the village back in 1978 – the team has gained new evidence suggesting that the running of village life was left largely up to locals, thereby challenging previous understandings of the Mayan empire as a "top-down" society.
For instance, researchers have discovered houses containing a number of tools and other artifacts that suggest the villagers themselves were in charge of maintaining community structures and organizing agricultural activities. One building also contained a row of large benches in the front room, leading Sheets to propose that it may have acted as a meeting place for village elders to discuss key matters and make decisions affecting the lives of locals.
According to Sheets, the evidence all points towards the fact that the 200 or so residents of Ceren had minimal contact with the Mayan elites, and probably only encountered them when trading goods at local markets. Within the village itself, however, the empirical rulers appeared to have had “no influence and certainly no control.” These findings are significant as they represent the clearest picture yet of everyday life in the Mayan empire, with Sheets explaining that “This is the first clear window anyone has had on the daily activities and the quality of life of Maya commoners back then.”
Indeed, until now, most Mayan archeological findings had come from spectacular ruins such as Chichen Itza in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala – with the latter having provided the setting for the rebel base on the planet Yavin 4 in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope." Yet thanks to the 5.2 meters (17 feet) of ash that lay upon Ceren for almost a millennium and a half, researchers now have their finest example yet of an ordinary village.
However, while there is no debate as to the cause of Ceren’s demise, the village offers no evidence to explain the enigmatic downfall of the Mayan empire as a whole. Having been one of the mightiest civilizations in Mesoamerica for over 2,500 years, its rapid disappearance around 900 C.E has left archeologists baffled, opening the door for a plethora of theories ranging from military defeat to alien abduction. More recently, researchers have proposed that climatic changes, coupled with excessive deforestation, may have caused the sudden downfall of the Mayan empire.