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Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos

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Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos
By Prudence M. Rice. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2004. Pg. xxii, 352. B & W Illustrations, Line Drawings, Maps, and Tables.) ISBN: 0-292-70569-7.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - January 3, 2005

The make-up of the ancient Maya political organization has long been a contentious issue amongst Mayanist. Most scholars have cloaked the political organization of the Mayan in the mantel of Western political organizations, comparing the Mayan political model to that of the Athens City States, Thai Galactic Polities, African Segmentary States, and many others. Prudence M. Rice has taken a different tract. Rather than try to ascribe another's culture political organization to the Mayan, she theorizes that the Mayan had a unique political-religious structure that was based upon a 256-year calendar cycle called the may. This calendrical-based system influenced all aspects of Mayan organizational life; especially those related to their rituals, ballgames, warfare, and leadership structure. For example, she explains how the political geography and power of the Classic lowland Maya routinely changed - based on the 256-year calendar cycle and the Maya view that the cosmos was divided into four cardinal directions (quadripartition).

Rice explains her theory of the Mayan calendric-based political organization, and how she developed this theory in her new book, Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos. In addition to outlining her theory, within the pages of this book she also describes the methodology she used to formulate her theory, the evidence that supports it, and the implications of her model of Mayan political organization. Furthermore, she explores the historical interpretations of Mayan political organization, and how new advances in glyph deciphering and archaeology have altered our perception of Mayan life.

In constructing her hypothesis, Rice made use of data from a variety of sources, including ethnohistoic, epigraphic, and archaeological data. In support of her theory, she shows how her idea of Mayan political science mesh with what is known of the Classic Lowland Maya (A.D. 179-948). In order to reconstruct the political organization of the Classic Maya she made use of the technique of Direct Historical Analogy. In other words, looking at documented historical data and modern peoples, she extrapolated backwards to determine which ancient traditions may have persisted through to the modern day. This 'continuity of tradition' methodology is an inexact science, but it does offer some tantalizing hints that may help us to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about the Classical Mayan. In employing this direct-historical approach, Rice made use of five main sources of information that are examined in detail in the text. These five sources are: A respected Mayanist, archaeologist, and educator, Rice is a specialist in the Maya archaeology of Guatemala. In the course of explaining her theories on Mayan political science, in Maya Political Science< she also examines Mayan ideology and cosmology. Furthermore, she provides a comprehensive overview of how the Mayan calendar was developed and how it worked. In addition she provides a comprehensive, up-to-date bibliography that will enthrall both scholarly and general readers interested in the ancient Maya.

Rice's model of Classic lowland Maya political organization will, undoubtably, be the subject of much debate among Maya scholars. Even if her theory does not withstand the test of time, she has still made a tremendous contribution into our concept of Mayan political organization by forcing scholars to take a step back and try to look at the Maya political organization from a Mayan perspective, rather than by trying to fit the Maya into an alien historical model. In the meantime, readers of Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos will find Rice's arguments toward a calendrical based political organization compelling and creditable. As Rice points out, it appears that the Maya were obsessed with time and that it helped to shape their world view. It does not take much of a leap to concede that they may well have based their politico-religious structure on the same calendar that they referenced so extensively in their glyphs. This is a 'must read' for anyone interested in Maya studies and for anyone wishing to understand the ongoing debate surrounding the political organization of the ancient Maya.

Related Reviews:

Maya Calendar Origins, by Prudence M. Rice.
Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time: a detailed overview of the origins of the Maya calendar, and its impact on ancient Maya cosmological, ideological, and social development.

The Maya and Teotihuacan - Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, Edited by Geoffrey E. Braswell.
A comprehensive overview of the theories regarding the origins of the Maya and how new data concerning the interactions between the Early Classic Maya and Teotihuacan is influencing our understanding of Mesoamerican history and the development of the Mayan civilization.

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