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J Archaeol Res (2006) 14:265–312

DOI 10.1007/s10814-006-9006-3
ORIGINAL PAPER

Recent Trends in Theorizing Prehispanic


Mesoamerican Economies

E. Christian Wells

Published online: 2 November 2006



C Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Abstract Theoretical frames for modeling prehispanic Mesoamerican economies have been
informed mostly by political economy or agency approaches. Political economy models ex-
amine the ways in which power is constructed and exercised through the manipulation of
material transfers, mainly production and distribution. Research along these lines empha-
sizes regional redistribution, wealth and staple finance, debt and reciprocity, and regional
integration through core/periphery relations. Agency models, on the other hand, explore the
social aspects of manufacture, circulation, and consumption to infer the processes by which
power is negotiated and contested. Work using this framework focuses on the manner by
which meaning and value are assigned to, and become fixed in, social valuables, as well as
the moral and emotional dimensions of allocation and consumption. Political economy and
agency approaches are converging in Mesoamerican research to forge a new, hybrid theoret-
ical construct, “ritual economy,” which strikes a balance between formalist and substantivist
views by considering the ways that belief systems articulate with economic systems in the
management of meanings and the shaping of interpretations.

Keywords Mesoamerica . Political economy . Agency . Ritual economy

Introduction

Economists increasingly have acknowledged that a major limitation to economic theory is its
reluctance to incorporate human values and emotional propensities as motivational factors in
decision making (Elster, 1998; Frank, 1988; Loewenstein, 2000). However, recent theoretical
developments in the field (e.g., Ensminger, 2002; Jacobs et al., 1998; Laffont, 1995) continue
to “underconceptualize our constantly experienced knowledge of the complexity of human
mental processes and action” (Cowgill, 1993a, p. 555). In other words, the methodological
individualism of neoclassical microeconomics (where rational actors are the primary units

E. C. Wells ()
Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620
e-mail: cwells@cas.usf.edu
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of analysis) remains insufficient to account for formal and functional variability in economic
behaviors and the cultural matrices in which they are embedded. One solution has been to
use folk models from cultural economics (e.g., Geertz, 1963; Robben, 1989; Wilk, 1991),
but these tend to be historically contingent and synchronic and, therefore, limited in their
ability to address change over space and time. Alternatively, Halperin (1994, p. 9) and others
(Earle, 2003, p. 19; Feinman, 2004, p. 5; Isaac, 1996, p. 331) declare that the only suitable
remedy is to incorporate archaeological studies, which can offer more holistic perspectives
by way of long-term, comparative approaches among groups of similar historical tradition
(e.g., Brander and Taylor, 1998; Henry, 2004; Temin, 2001).
Recent archaeological research on prehispanic Mesoamerican economies is making
essential—yet unrealized—contributions to informing and enriching economic theory by
investigating the diverse pathways in which belief systems articulated with economic sys-
tems to fashion and fix structural inequalities. Drawing from varied approaches to political
economy and agency, these studies form an emerging theoretical construct that focuses on
the manner by which cultural agents materialize and challenge socially negotiated values
and beliefs through ritual action and, in the process, express what Wolf (1990, p. 587) calls
“structural power.” I refer to this construct as “ritual economy” and view it as a historical
outgrowth of the central questions asked by social scientists about relations among human
agency, worldview, economy, and power.
In examining and synthesizing the contemporary literature on economic processes in
ancient Mesoamerica, my goal is to reconcile economic theory with social theory by showing
that many economic choices and corresponding activities are diacritically marked by ritual
practice. To do so, I first review the prominent behavioral models for social change generated
by political economy approaches since their introduction to Mesoamerican studies in the
early 1970s. Many of these models developed out of the formalist/substantivist debate
of the 1950s and 1960s (Dalton, 1967; Polanyi et al., 1957; Sahlins, 1965) and variably
emphasize the relative importance of economic or social factors in determining patterns
of production, distribution, and consumption. These models examine both the degree of
social content versus economic rationality in individual transactions (a formalist approach)
and how economic processes relate to social structure and how institutions shape economic
arrangements (a substantivist approach).
Next I examine current trends in economic studies that take political economy ap-
proaches to task for not granting enough attention to the social aspects of produc-
tion, the cultural contexts of the circulation of socially valued goods, and the moral
barriers to appropriating these items for expressing social distinctions. Recent studies
address these shortcomings by emphasizing agency approaches that consider the eco-
nomic dynamics of craft manufacture, gift exchange, and festive consumption involving
a wide social spectrum. I conclude that current theories of Mesoamerican economies
appear to be converging to forge a new, hybrid conceptual framework, ritual econ-
omy, which takes into account nonmaterial motives of production, distribution, and
consumption.
The literature reviewed here focuses on theoretical studies published over the past five
years and is not necessarily representative of different geographical areas of Mesoamerica.
As a result, there is a slightly greater emphasis on work conducted in central Mexico and
southern Mesoamerica. My review emphasizes the conceptual tools used to investigate
and interpret archaeological materials rather than specific case studies of production or
exchange; the literature published on the latter topic is voluminous—even over the past few
years.

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Political economy approaches

Behavioral models adapted from, or inspired by, political economy approaches have increas-
ingly played a leading role in reconstructing prehispanic Mesoamerican economic systems.
Grounded in studies of labor and exchange relationships (Marx, 1964; Weber, 1978), politi-
cal economy is a broad, theoretical framework that attempts to account for the processes by
which surplus goods and labor are channeled through social systems to create material wealth
and finance political institutions. Over the years, there have been many insightful reviews
of “anthropological political economy” (Roseberry, 1988; Wolf, 1982) and “archaeological
political economy” (Cobb, 1993; Hirth, 1996). Earle’s (2002) recent treatment of the subject
considers how elites and political factions emerge in chiefly societies by mobilizing and
manipulating basic resources and valuables.
In Mesoamerica, political economy is often invoked to explain the role of elite in
expropriating resources (material and nonmaterial) from the broader population through
manipulation of the social and demographic environments (Marcus, 1983). Thus, Mesoamer-
icanist models derived from political economy tend to have a Marxist cast, where social
relations are defined in terms of access to wealth and power. Since elites often can be
recognized in the archaeological record, the basis for elite resource control can be inferred
from the social, economic, political, and religious functions they perform (Hirth, 1996).
By studying the activities of the elite, especially those that relate to the accumulation,
management, and reinvestment of resources, the organizational structures of political
economies can be discerned and compared across different levels of society (Cobb, 1993).
The archaeological identification of elite social segments and the political consequences of
their activities, however, are contested issues in Mesoamerica (e.g., Chase, 1992; Garraty,
2000; Yoffee, 1991). Some recent models (e.g., Masson, 2003a,b; Robin, 2003; Schortman
and Urban, 2004; Smith, 2003a) take a “bottom-up” view of political economy, focusing on
the economic activities of nonelite social segments and the political significance of nonelite
productive labor in communities, polities, and regions.
A number of influential studies published by Mesoamericanists in the 1970s and early
1980s (e.g., Berdan, 1977; Blanton and Feinman, 1984; Brumfiel, 1980; Carrasco, 1982;
Flannery, 1968; Freidel, 1979, 1981; Hirth, 1978; Pailes and Whitecotton, 1979; Parsons
and Price, 1971; Phillips and Rathje, 1977; Rathje, 1971, 1972, 1973; Rathje and Sabloff,
1973; Rice, 1981; Sabloff et al., 1974; Smith, 1979; Tourtellot and Sabloff, 1972) stimulated
their colleagues’ engagement with political economy, but especially with political variables
of craft specialization and long-distance exchange. This diverse body of work demonstrated
that it was possible to conceive and implement research designs for various archaeological
contexts that could yield empirical data required for evaluating hypotheses about the nature
of economy and society, including the ways in which elites funded political enterprises.
The resulting work focused on examining the process of establishing and exploiting debt
through reciprocal-return obligations or patron-client relationships (Firth, 1983; Sahlins,
1972), prestige-goods theory and conspicuous consumption (Dupre and Rey, 1973; Friedman
and Rowlands, 1977), wealth and staple finance (D’Altroy and Earle, 1985; Polanyi, 1968,
pp. 186–187, 321–324), and world-systems theory or core/periphery models (Frank, 1967;
Wallerstein, 1974a).
To apply this explanatory framework to prehispanic societies in Mesoamerica, archae-
ologists had to make three adjustments. First, they had to infuse political economy with
“cultural rationality” (Earle, 1991) and “nonrational propensities” (Cowgill, 1993a), in part
by shifting the focus of analysis from the utilitarian motives of individual actors to the oper-
ations of the larger processes of which individuals are a part. These studies viewed economic
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behavior as culturally constituted and embedded in broader social and political institutions,
where the tensions between self-interest and socially shared values contextualize individual
choice as it is confronted with technological or ecological constraints (e.g., Charlton, 1984;
Clark and Lee, 1984; Freidel, 1983; Spence, 1982; Weigand, 1982; Zeitlin, 1982). Doing
so made archaeological political economy generally less formal and more substantive, such
that it could escape from being “too economic, too strictly materialist” as Ortner (1984,
pp. 142–144) once complained.
Second, Mesoamericanists had to take Hirth’s (1984a, pp. 284–291) advice and study
economic systems as integrated phenomena (see chapters in Bey and Pool, 1992; Costin
and Wright, 1998; Ericson and Baugh, 1993; Feinman and Nicholas, 2004a; Isaac, 1986;
Masson and Freidel, 2002; McAnany and Isaac, 1989; Smith and Berdan, 2003a), where
appropriation of raw materials, production of both staples and durables, circulation, and
consumption are understood as interdependent, coevolving processes that are variously
contingent on changing social, political, and ecological conditions. Many Mesoamericanists
no longer find Polanyi’s (1957) generic distinctions—redistribution, reciprocity, marketing,
and householding—useful for characterizing economic systems (Smith and Berdan, 2003b,
p. 11; see also Yoffee, 1977), although some continue to use the terminology (Foias, 2002;
Sheets, 2000). Smith (2004, pp. 75–76, 84–85; Smith and Berdan, 2003b, pp. 11–12; Smith
and Schreiber, 2005, p. 197) criticizes this scheme; because Polanyi believed noncapitalist
economies are organized around the exchange mechanisms of reciprocity and redistribution,
there is no possibility for noncapitalist commercial exchange, such as that of many Late
Postclassic Mesoamerican economies. Most Mesoamericanists recognize that households in
more or less complex societies provision themselves through a variety of acquisitive acts,
including trading and bartering, marketing, reciprocal gifting, redistributive exchanging, and
various kinds of resource sharing, all at the same time (Hirth, 1998; McAnany, 1991, 1992,
1993, 2004a; McKillop, 1996; Smith, 1987; Smith et al., 1999).
The third adjustment was scalar. Integration of political economy, especially world-
systems perspectives (e.g., Alexander, 1999; Berdan and Smith, 1996; Blanton and Fein-
man, 1984; Feinman and Nicholas, 1992; Kepecs et al., 1994; Nelson, 1994; Pailes and
Whitecotton, 1979; Rathje, 1971; Santley and Alexander, 1996; Schortman and Urban,
1987, 1994, 1996; Urban and Schortman, 1999), into archaeological explanation required
archaeologists to redefine the fundamental unit of analysis as the total social system rather
than as a bounded cultural entity (Wolf, 1982, pp. 18–19). By recognizing that societies are
not “incarcerated” by space or culture (Appadurai, 1988, p. 37) but emerge as historically
changing, multiple, and branching alignments of social groups and segments, without fixed
boundaries or stable internal constitutions, Mesoamericanists moved away from studies of
cultural evolution (e.g., Sanders and Webster, 1978). Instead, they turned to considerations of
how, and to what extent, such properties as inequality, differentiation, scale, and integration
can vary independently (e.g., Feinman, 1999), along the lines of what de Montmollin (1989, p.
9) calls “bundled continua of variation.” This shift led researchers to acknowledge explicitly
the polythetic character of complexity (e.g., Feinman, 1998; McGuire, 1983; Nelson, 1995).
As a result, recent work has revealed a great deal of organizational diversity in economic
systems, both at the community or polity level and on a regional scale (compare chapters
in Fedick, 1996; Hirth, 1984b; Killion, 1992; Masson and Freidel, 2002; McAnany, 2004b;
Pool, 2003; Scarborough et al., 2003). This perspective also fostered appreciation for how
groups with different economic organizations experiencing different degrees of complexity
were linked across space, for instance, how rural subsistence economies supported market
systems of towns and cities (e.g., Berdan et al., 1996; Hassig, 1985; Hodge and Smith, 1994;
Marcus and Flannery, 1996; McKillop, 2002; Stark et al., 1998; Voorhies, 1989; Voorhies
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and Gasco, 2005). Such interconnectedness and “economic layering” (Upham, 1992, p. 145)
is seen as imposing a dynamic on regional systems that results in a fabric of alliances and
oppositions facilitating or impeding interaction and the flow of goods and information at
different tempos.
Despite these advances, political economy in prehispanic Mesoamerica is not yet an in-
tegrated theoretical movement but, rather, remains a collection of materialist approaches
that share a common concern with documenting and explaining variability in the dialectic
between politics and economics (see Smith, 2004, p. 37). These sundry approaches are valu-
able, nevertheless, because they direct us to consider certain contexts in which individuals
make choices, specifically the political implications of choices made in economic contexts.
As Mesoamerican archaeologists have adjusted political economy to fit the constraints of
an imperfect cultural material record, four suites of models have emerged to explain the
economic basis for political development and social complexity. These are managerial (“re-
distribution”) models and three interrelated sets of political (“control”) models, each variably
emphasizing finance strategies, debt relations, and world-systems theory. Although anchored
in empirical data, these models are theoretical abstractions that do not necessarily account
for any particular case, although some models are certainly more appropriate than others.

Managerial models

One of the reasons why Mesoamerican archaeologists have been interested in the relationship
between economic systems and political organization results from pioneering ethnographic
work on Polynesian middle-range societies in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Sahlins, 1972;
Service, 1962, 1975), which posited a “managerial” or “redistribution” model to explain
the development of centralized leadership in complex societies. This model characterized
power as highly contingent on the mobilization of labor and resources to take advantage of
ecological diversity and to reduce the risk of subsistence failure. In their quest for ascendancy,
Hawaiian chiefs were seen as successful managers of economies based on redistribution (e.g.,
Fried, 1967; Halstead and O’Shea, 1972; Isbell, 1978).
Subsequent historical and archaeological studies have questioned the accuracy of man-
agerial interpretations and challenged their relevance to other parts of the world (e.g., Earle,
1977, 1978; Feinman and Neitzel, 1984; Peebles and Kus, 1977; Rathje and McGuire, 1982).
Still, these models have played an important role in theorizing prehispanic Mesoamerican
economies, especially from an “adaptationist” (i.e., functionalist) or “ecosystem” perspective
(Brumfiel, 1992, pp. 551–553). Rathje (1971), for example, proposed the idea that lowland
Maya elites had access to surpluses of food and other commodities produced by commoners
as well as to their labor. He argued that long-distance exchange allowed elites to become
managers of trade in deficient resources, such as obsidian, groundstone, and salt (Rathje,
1972, 1973; Rathje and Gregory, 1978). However, others point out that some goods, such as
obsidian, were not necessary, and others, including groundstone, could be obtained locally
(Nations and Nigh, 1980; Puleston, 1976; Sanders, 1973).
Apart from Rathje’s early ideas about regional redistribution, the idea that Mesoamerican
elites emerged as a functional response to the needs of communities has been proposed mainly
to account for water management facilities and the cultivation of food using irrigation. In arid
highland central Mexico, for example, researchers in the 1960s and 1970s posited managerial
models along the lines of Wittfogel’s (1957) hydraulic hypothesis, which advanced the idea
that the organization necessary for the construction, maintenance, and operation of large-scale
irrigation systems required centralized management that eventually yielded coercive power to
irrigation managers (Price, 1971; Sanders, 1968; Sanders and Price, 1968; Wittfogel, 1972).
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These ideas were challenged in central Mexico by Adams (1966, 1983) and Flannery (1972),
who pointed out that large-scale irrigation appeared only after urban centers had formed.
However, recent research documents floodwater canal irrigation during the Middle (ca. 1050–
650 B.C.) and Late (ca. 650–150 B.C.) Formative periods in the eastern Guadalupe Range
(Nichols, 1982) and in nearby Morelos (Nichols and Frederick, 2001). Doolittle (1989) and
others (Nichols et al., 1991; Parsons, 1991) identify irrigation facilities at Terminal Formative
(ca. 150 B.C.–A.D. 200) Teotihuacan. For some (e.g., Angulo, 1993; Nichols and Frederick,
1993, p. 131), these new data have once again opened up the possibility of a connection
between resource management and political development. Still, large-scale irrigation was
rare in central Mexico, and explanations for political growth tied to water control should not
be generalized outside of these specific cases.
Throughout the 1970s, managerial models also were invoked to explain cultural evolution
in the northern Maya lowlands, where water can be especially scarce (e.g., Harrison, 1977;
Harrison and Turner, 1978; Matheny, 1976, 1978; Matheny et al., 1983; Puleston, 1976).
More recently, Scarborough (1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998; Scarborough and Gallopin, 1991;
Scarborough et al., 1994) and others (Davis-Salazar, 2003; Lucero, 1999, 2002) argue for
some degree of elite management or control of reservoirs, canals, and associated subsistence
resources in water-rich environments in the southern Maya lowlands. These arguments,
however, do not explicitly see elites as resource managers in the traditional way that Service
(1962, 1975) intended, where elites are needed to administer redistributive exchange systems
that articulate locally specialized economies. Rather, these studies view elites as managers
(or “allocators”) of rare and critical resources who strategically exploit their positions to
construct and protect political power: “by placing water and its management apparatus in the
center of their elevated Classic-period communities, the Maya permitted a controlling elite
to manipulate the resource” (Scarborough, 1998, p. 136). In these cases, water management
took place after state development and so is not part of the initial processes associated with
the growth of complex societies. Instead, it is a byproduct of state formation, representing
the efforts of Late Classic community leaders and nascent elite to maintain and extend
their power base by appropriating the labor and products of collective resource management
(Davis-Salazar, 2003, p. 294).

Finance models

In the early 1980s, Earle and D’Altroy (1982) argued that while one function of redistribution
is to coordinate regional exchange of locally specialized products, a more typical function
is to finance the operations of centralized government, as Polanyi (1968, pp. 186–187, 321–
324) described. Redistribution takes place by mobilizing goods from subsistence producers,
“either as a fraction of their production or as the produce from reserved lands worked by
commoners. Goods collected in this way are then used to pay for the full range of elite and
governmental activities” (Earle and D’Altroy, 1982, p. 266). This alternative understanding of
redistribution of staple goods—amended by also considering “wealth finance” (D’Altroy and
Earle, 1985; Earle, 1987, 1994; Earle and D’Altroy, 1989)—prompted some Mesoamerican
archaeologists to focus on the ways in which rulers provisioned themselves and funded their
interests and activities, as well as on the forces that weighted and leveled wealth imbalances
and corresponding social inequality.
Wealth finance involves the manufacture and procurement of certain products that are
used as a means of payment for services rendered. These products often have established
values with respect to other goods of similar nature but may vary in their convertibility into
staples (e.g., Bohannan, 1955; Friedman and Rowlands, 1977; Kopytoff, 1986). Wealth- or
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prestige-enhancing items may be amassed as direct payment from subservient populations or


they may be produced by craft specialists attached to central authorities. In the latter case, raw
materials may be given as tribute and are subsequently used in the manufacture of these goods,
and the craftspeople may be provided as part of a labor obligation from local communities
(see Peregrine, 1991). For example, Rathje (1972; see also Chase, 1998, pp. 31–33; Chase
and Chase, 2001, p. 278) proposes that rather than monopolizing aspects of production,
Maya political elite may have been interested in controlling certain types of distribution
through the operation of regional markets, which would have provided opportunities for
tribute extraction and taxation of merchants, retailers, and market participants. Material
wealth is thus collected and held by the ruling elite as payment for political officials and
other personnel, such as ritual specialists and war captains, who work for the polity (e.g.,
Dalton, 1967; Schneider et al., 1972). The items also can be used as payments to other polity
leaders to secure important alliances or in exchange for locally desired staple products (e.g.,
Brumfiel, 1980). Smith (2004, pp. 86–87), however, suggests that wealth finance may not be
a viable explanatory model for understanding government finance in ancient states because
the resolution that archaeological evidence provides tends to be too coarse to make the
kinds of distinctions necessary for determining sources of finance, for instance, the material
differences between tribute, tax, and rent.
These “political models” (Brumfiel, 1987a, pp. 3–4) take a “top-down” approach and
give elite factions (versus the domestic mode of production; see Sahlins, 1972) a key role
in organizing manufacture and exchange, by which they, rather than the populations they
administer, become the primary beneficiaries. From this perspective, rulers and their activities
are focal points of social and political change. Mobilization of surplus labor and goods is a
key factor in political development because it sustains local elites and enables them to fund
new institutions and activities calculated to extend their power (Earle, 1997).
In prehispanic Mesoamerica, understanding production, exchange, and conspicuous con-
sumption of “primitive valuables” (Dalton, 1977, p. 198; Herskovitz, 1952, p. 244) and
other prestige-enhancing items is often seen as an important variable in attempts to discern
how social relationships are created and maintained and how power networks are negoti-
ated and legitimized. The underlying premise is that the movement of prestige goods often
takes place through a maze of interconnected and multilayered networks encompassed by a
variety of social and political relationships. In societies exhibiting social ranking, one way
elites advertise and maintain their social status and finance their political operations is by
controlling access to and manipulation of basic and critical resources such as food surpluses,
exotic goods, and esoteric knowledge (e.g., Clark, 1986; Frankenstein and Rowlands, 1978;
Helms, 1988; Kipp and Schortman, 1989; Renfrew, 1982). Fundamental to this process, elites
“usurp,” “co-opt,” “preempt,” or “exploit” the labor of dependent producers (McGuire, 1986,
pp. 252–253; Tilley, 1984, pp. 112–114), thereby removing dependents from the appropria-
tion of the results of their own labor and excluding them from any role in determining both
the conditions of production and the amounts of surplus products appropriated (Saitta, 1994a,
p. 27). However, primary producers can resist elite demands for labor should conditions war-
rant (e.g., Bender, 1990; Dirks, 1992; Farriss, 1984), and elites also can contribute surplus
labor (e.g., Friedberg, 1977; Helms, 1993; Inomata, 2001a). Schortman and Urban (2004)
review the specific role of craft manufacture in these processes and point out some of the
challenges to inferring elite control over production and distribution in the archaeological
record.
Recent models (e.g., Brumfiel, 1996a,b, 1998) place a greater role in social change
to nonelite segments of society, recognizing that the ultimate success of rulers’ efforts at
resource appropriation is dependent on the continued participation of nonelite. From this
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perspective, Graham (2002, p. 413) argues that it is problematic to think in terms of elite
control; rather it is more productive to examine the relationship between elite demand and
social compliance, since control implies a specific role for elites that cannot be supported on
the basis of present evidence in Mesoamerica (see Potter and King, 1995; Rice, 1987; West,
2002). The degree of social compliance is contingent on the condition that nonelites continue
to get what they consider to be appropriate benefits and have a reasonable expectation of
continuing to do so (Aldenderfer, 1993, p. 8). In this manner, these studies explore the
process of political domination as well as resistance to it (Clastres, 1989).
Robin (2003) discusses how economic decisions of nonelites (or “commoners”) impact
political sectors of the economy. Some decisions foster compliance with elite attempts to
consolidate power, while others challenge and erode elite power. New evidence from central
Mexico (Brumfiel, 1998; Otis Charlton, 1993; Rattray, 1988; Smith, 2003a; Smith and
Heath-Smith, 1994; Spence, 1989), the Gulf Coast (Hall, 1997; Stark et al., 1998), the Valley
of Oaxaca (Feinman and Nicholas, 1993, 2004b; Middleton et al., 2002), the Maya lowlands
(Kovacevich et al., 2004; Masson, 2003a,b), and southeastern Mesoamerica (Aoyama, 2001)
supports the view of a broad involvement in prestige economies by nonelites. In some of
these cases, nonelite specialists appear to have been commissioned for certain products, or
their work was patronized or administered by elite personnel. In other cases, high-quality raw
materials and evidence for various stages of manufacture of sumptuary artifacts have been
recovered from nonelite residences. These findings undermine the long-held assumption that
the residential populations of cities were mostly “peasant” farmers, disconnected from the
elite luxury economy.

Debt models

Recognizing the complex relationship between patrons and clients, archaeologists throughout
the 1990s explored the possibility that elites emerged in response to opportunistic possibilities
for self-aggrandizement. Recent attempts to deal with these issues draw largely from the logic
of finance models and the “aggrandizer” concept (Clark and Blake, 1994), which posits that
one of the principal guiding forces behind social action is self-interest. In their quest for
political power, aggrandizers strategically seek to indebt others by controlling production
and distribution in such a way as to create reciprocal obligations (e.g., Godelier and Strathern,
1991). Often, the target of elite interests is prestige goods, which, as Mauss (1990 [1925])
demonstrated, have social meaning such that their exchange materializes social relations.
These items are displayed and distributed in the context of elaborate feasts and other public
rituals that provide ostentatious showcases for pomp and pageantry, demonstrating one’s
social status and prestige (see Gosden, 1989). Firth (1983) calls such dramas “indebtedness
engineering.”
The establishment of contractual debt relationships is important because it prolongs and
maintains the status associated with feast and gift-giving as long as the feast or gift has
not been repaid, which may take many years. Unpaid debts can lead to socioeconomic
rupture between social groups (Dalton, 1977) or to opportunities for aggrandizers to convert
debts directly into political power by permitting debtors to default on return obligations in
exchange for their acquiescence in political arenas (Wiessner, 1996). Similar to aggrandizers,
“accumulators” (Hayden, 1990), “strivers” (Maschner, 1995), and “entrepreneurial elites”
(Hayden, 1995a) have been identified in many cultural systems, and the political effects of
competitive feasting and gift-giving have been discussed for these and other social groups
(e.g., Dietler, 1996, 2001; Dye, 1995; Hayden, 2001a,b; Junker, 1999; Kan, 1986; Kirch,
2001; Knight, 2001; Kohler and Van West, 1996; Potter, 2000). Hayden (1995a) refers to
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these characters as having “triple A” personalities and provides an insightful essay on how
their behaviors are expressed in nonranked societies.
Debt models in Mesoamerica explain the institutionalization of social inequality as the
result of a protracted process of escalating “competitive generosity” in which ambitious
individuals seek to garner status and prestige through gift-giving and sponsorship of festivities
(e.g., Clark, 1997; Clark and Blake, 1994; Fox, 1996; Hayden and Gargett, 1990; Hendon,
2003; Hill and Clark, 2001; LeCount, 2001; Rathje, 2002; Yaeger, 2000). Clark and Blake
(1994) argue that the earliest (Barra phase, ca. 1550–1400 B.C.) pottery in southern coastal
Chiapas, Mexico, represents a foreign “prestige technology” (Hayden, 1995b) adopted and
guarded by Mokaya aggrandizers in their pursuit of prestige. They propose that monopoly
over the manufacture and distribution of fancy pottery, which imitated gourd vessels used in
ritual feasts and other competitive displays of wealth and generosity, allowed aggrandizers
to attract loyal followers and possibly their surplus labor. This idea has since been revised to
recognize the diverse ways that aggrandizers behave and the potential reasons for prestige
building (Clark, 2000, 2004a; Hill and Clark, 2001). More recently, Rathje (2002) proposes
that Formative Maya communities engaged in a sort of “nouveau elite potlatch” where
material investments in socially significant symbols of community (e.g., burial temples,
public plazas, etc.) allowed aggrandizers to demonstrate generosity while also displaying
their “wealth,” or power (i.e., access to surplus labor), within socially acceptable parameters
of ritualized behavior. The economic effect of this kind of strategic investment was to take
sacred or symbolic objects out of circulation and thereby limit competitors’ access to them,
while also creating a lasting legacy for the individual(s) who constructed the symbol.
Despite their substantial contributions, these models hinge on the critical assumption that
it is universally desirable, and perhaps even morally acceptable, for community leaders to
indebt their supporters in societies where egalitarian ethics shape the structure of social
intercourse (Mitchell, 1988; Wiessner, 2002). Furthermore, these kinds of models allow only
for the development of hierarchy when individuals act against their own economic auton-
omy by providing surplus labor and by accepting higher levels of sociopolitical integration
(Stanish and Haley, 2004, p. 57). In contrast, many ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts
of modern and historical communities in Mesoamerica indicate that individual distinctions
are often actively stifled and obvious prestige-building, status-seeking displays and creations
of debt-obligation relationships are socially unacceptable practices (e.g., Chapman, 1985;
Hayden and Gargett, 1990; McGee, 1990; Redfield and Villa Rojas, 1934; Rosenbaum, 1993;
Vogt, 1969; Watanabe, 1992; Wisdom, 1940), a situation unlike more complex, state-level
entities where this kind of behavior often is required of individuals for success in factional
competitions (Brumfiel, 1994). In these settings, the ethos of egalitarianism nips competi-
tion in the bud, effectively creating formidable barriers to the exercise of social inequality
(Wiessner, 2002, p. 251).
A few recent studies show that long-term debt obligations used for prying concessions
from certain segments of society does not necessarily result from aggrandizing behavior in
nonstate societies (e.g., McAnany, 1995; Monaghan, 1996; Rosenswig, 2000). For example,
I studied the manner by which communal work-party feasts served to mobilize surplus labor
for agrarian tasks and possibly for the manufacture of craft items used in ritual performances
among historical Lenca groups and at the Terminal Classic (ca. A.D. 850–1100) site of El
Coyote in northwest Honduras (Wells, 2003a). While work-party feasts provide immedi-
ate reciprocity for labor and close the debt incurred by the work project (see Dietler and
Herbich, 2001), I argue that over long periods of sustained practice at El Coyote, the material
requirements and consequences of these kinds of activities created some of the conditions
conducive to the development of inequities in access to resources at the community level.
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Festive labor mobilization, therefore, may have engendered debt relationships among the
participants in the absence of aggrandizing behavior. By exposing some of the variability in
labor mobilization and surplus capture, these studies join Wiessner (2002, p. 249) and others
(e.g., Boehm, 1993; Brandt, 1994; Flanagan, 1989; Poyer, 1993; Saitta, 1994b; Strathern
and Stewart, 2000) in questioning whether “aggrandizers” are meaningful units of analysis
in cases where personal welfare is embedded in cooperative egalitarian coalitions. This ar-
gument is thus linked to broader debates about the role of individualizing behavior in the
development of complex social systems (Blanton, 1998; Blanton et al., 1996; Drennan, 1991;
Feinman, 1995, 2000a,b,c; Feinman et al., 2000; Johnson, 1982; Keesing, 1991; Renfrew,
1974; Schneider et al., 1972; Stanish, 2004).

World-systems models

In Mesoamerica, the manufacture and circulation of prestige goods also have been examined
in macroregional economic networks. These studies are based on Wallerstein’s (1974a,b,
1979) “world-systems theory,” which describes the modern world’s capitalist economy in
terms of integrated, intersocietal networks consisting of cores and peripheries (and some-
times semiperipheries) that exchange raw materials, products, and information. Generally
speaking, in a world system the “first world” core extracts resources from an economically
and politically “underdeveloped” (Frank, 1966), “third world” periphery. The sociospatial
pathways through which cores and peripheries interact are complex and often involve multi-
ple, competitive cores that differentially exploit an undercapitalized periphery composed of
a range of sociocultural systems. At the most basic level, the core provides low-bulk, finished
products to the periphery in return for high-bulk, staple resources, thereby creating a hierar-
chical system of development and integration based on dependency. Such relations invariably
favor cores while impoverishing peripheries. In this way, world-systems models broaden the
principles of finance and debt models to intersocietal exchange networks. Cores are those
societies whose participating populations monopolize resources that are crucial to the oper-
ation of the entire network, such as staple or durable goods, transportation technologies, or
religious knowledge. Without these monopolies, which are sometimes enforced by military
might, no one society has an edge over others and cannot dictate the terms of exchange to
them; hence, no development of underdevelopment (Schortman and Urban, 1987).
While cores and peripheries are almost invariably defined in economic terms, this may not
always be the most productive way of conceptualizing intersocietal relations (Schortman and
Urban, 1992). Recognizing this possibility, world-systems models for ancient Mesoamer-
ican cases have derived largely from three critiques of their application to noncapitalist
situations (see Chase-Dunn and Hall, 1991; Kohl, 1989; McGuire, 1996; Schneider, 1977).
First, Wolf (1982, pp. 22–23; see also Skocpol, 1977) has pointed out that the core/periphery
relationship favors a hierarchical approach to culture change, where innovations in the core
are passed down to the periphery, itself a “watered-down version” or “pale reflection” of
the core. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1991), however, have suggested an important distinction in
core/periphery relationships—those that are hierarchical versus those that are differentiated.
In hierarchical relationships, one society, either in the core or in the periphery (but usually
the core), is economically dependent on the other. A differentiated core/periphery is seen as a
mutual interdependency with neither the core nor the periphery necessarily structurally dom-
inating the other. This distinction is crucial for prehispanic Mesoamerica because there were
no politically unified world systems (Blanton and Feinman, 1984), although Price (1971)
has suggested that Teotihuacan may have been one. Instead, prehispanic Mesoamerica was
probably made up of multiple competing cores and multiple competing peripheries, such
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that cores and peripheries were variably differentiated politically, militarily, and/or ideolog-
ically, as well as economically (Carmack, 1996). For Postclassic Mesoamerica, Smith and
Berdan (2003c, pp. 24–31) identify as many as nine core zones (areas of high populations
and concentrated political power) and eight “resource-extraction zones” (areas peripheral
to core zones where important nonagricultural raw materials were extracted) throughout
the 11th through 16th centuries. In addition, they introduce the concept of “affluent pro-
duction zones,” which they describe as “areas of high populations and intensive economic
activity (both production and exchange) that lacked the powerful polities and large urban
centers found in core zones” (Smith and Berdan, 2003c, p. 26). This useful new concept
draws attention to areas of the Mesoamerican landscape outside of major political centers
that played an important economic role in macroregional economic systems. Smith and
Berdan (2003c, pp. 27–28) divide Mesoamerica into 12 zones, although they neglect the
resource-rich lands of southeastern Mesoamerica, which supplied markets with cacao, salt,
cotton, greenstone, obsidian, and a variety of other highly desired products (Pagden, 1986,
pp. 338–447; Scholes and Roys 1968, pp. 320; Strong, 1935, p. 17; Tozzer, 1941, pp. 94–96).
Second, Blanton and Feinman (1984) and others (e.g., Alexander, 1999; Feinman and
Nicholas, 1992; Kepecs and Kohl, 2003; Kepecs et al., 1994; Santley and Alexander, 1996;
Smith and Berdan, 2000) argue that the definitions for “core” and “periphery” as originally
posed by Wallerstein are not adequate to deal with the tremendous variety of social com-
plexity and intersocietal interactions in prehispanic Mesoamerica. Pailes and Whitecotton
(1979) were among the first to modify world-systems theory for use in noncapitalist set-
tings to describe the relationship between prehispanic Mesoamerican states and groups in
the American Southwest. Schortman and Urban (1987, 1994) conceive of Mesoamerica as
composed of multiple cores and multiple peripheries manifesting different kinds of rela-
tionships. Where one core maintained ties with multiple competing peripheries, elites in the
core could dictate the terms of interaction and thereby create true political and economic
underdevelopment (Frank, 1966). Indeed, core economic growth is strongest and most stable
in situations where these states have a diversified economy (Smith, 1984). In cases where
multiple cores existed and competed for resources derived from a single periphery (common
in prehispanic Mesoamerica), societies in the periphery could dictate the terms of exchange,
essentially playing one core off against the other (e.g., McAnany, 2004a; Schortman and
Urban, 1994; Smith, 2003a; Stark et al., 1998). However, there also must have been cases
in which multiple cores and multiple peripheries interacted in very complex social networks
such that the precise limits or boundaries of cores and peripheries were fluid and constantly
in flux (see chapters in Smith and Berdan, 2003a).
Third, Braudel (1981) and others (e.g., Blanton and Feinman, 1984; Frankenstein and
Rowlands, 1978; Kepecs and Kohl, 2003; Kipp and Schortman, 1989; Schneider, 1977;
Smith, 2003b) have noted that “luxury goods” (Appadurai, 1986, p. 38; Douglas and
Isherwood, 1979, p. 97), as well as other kinds of durable wealth, are sometimes more
important for fueling political development than staples in core/periphery systems, espe-
cially in prehispanic Mesoamerica where transportation technology often limited the long-
distance exchange of perishable items (Cowgill, 1993b; Drennan, 1984a,b, 1985; Hassig,
1985; Sluyter, 1993; Smith, 1990). Moreover, the circulation and consumption of luxury
goods were sometimes crucial to the reproduction of many Mesoamerican societies, since
belief systems often were materialized by ancestor veneration (McAnany, 1995) and external
contacts (Stark, 1999) that required the use of such goods. Pohl (2003) uses information from
eastern Nahua mythohistories, as related in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca and the Mapas
de Cuauhtinchan, to discuss the growth and development of pilgrimage-market centers. He
shows how pilgrimage fairs brought together individuals and groups from diverse geographic
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locales and provided them with opportunities for trade and exchange in conjunction with
religious festivals, along the lines of Freidel’s (1981, 1983) suggestion for the Maya low-
lands. Thus, most evaluations of world-systems models in Mesoamerica follow Blanton and
Feinman’s (1984) lead and consider luxury goods (Dupre and Rey, 1973) and wealth finance
(D’Altroy and Earle, 1985), while recognizing that some utilitarian goods such as obsidian
(Spence, 1996) could have served as either a staple or a luxury item depending on its social
and economic context. Stark and colleagues’ (1998, p. 9) analysis of the prehispanic cotton
industry reveals that “cotton had a dynamic role throughout Mesoamerican history because it
could at once become more widespread in access and still be elaborated as a prestige item.”
Theorizing when, where, why, and how world systems operated in prehispanic Mesoamer-
ica has led to a renewed emphasis on understanding the commercial effects of market systems
(Blanton, 1996, 2001; Blanton and Hodge, 1996; Hirth, 2000; Hodge, 1992; Minc, 1994;
Nichols et al., 2002; Smith and Hodge, 1994) and the identification of marketplaces in the ar-
chaeological record (Chase, 1998; Chase and Chase, 2001; Dahlin and Ardren, 2002; Hirth,
1998; West, 2002). Ethnohistoric sources note the prevalence and importance of markets
in all Aztec cities (Blanton, 1996) and some Maya cities in northern Yucatan (Roys 1957,
pp. 17, 51–52), and recent excavations reveal a high level of nonlocal products in these
settlements. Nichols et al. (2002), for example, use compositional studies of ceramics from
Cerro Portezuelo, Chalco, and Xaltocan in the Basin of Mexico to examine the changing
role of markets in economic systems throughout the Postclassic. They suggest that produc-
tion and distribution of Epiclassic serving wares were highly localized, conforming closely
to a solar market model. Ceramic exchange within the basin increased during the Early
and Middle Postclassic, in some cases paralleling political alliance networks. Finally, the
Late Postclassic marketing pattern incorporated both increased regionalism and increased
exchange between rural and urban locales. Market exchange was thus a critical element of
Postclassic world systems because it served to economically integrate dispersed populations
on a regional scale (Brumfiel, 1980; Blanton, 1983; Carrasco, 1983; Smith, 1979).
Based on work in other areas and periods of Mesoamerica over the past 20 years, mar-
ket exchange also may have played a role in connecting household production to wider
economic spheres and in regionalizing economic systems (Feinman and Nicholas, 2004b).
Recognizing that households are both the primary suppliers and the consumers of commodi-
ties exchanged in the marketplace, Hirth (1998) identifies market exchange at Xochicalco
by comparing household artifact inventories as a measure of differential involvement in a
common distribution network. Blanton (1983) interprets site-size distribution and other data
as indicative of a politically controlled solar marketing system centered on Teotihuacan.
Based on the distribution of different types of serving vessels in the central Maya lowlands,
Fry (1979) suggests that Tikal connected local and regional markets. However, Stark et al.
(1992) raise important questions about the effectiveness of market institutions as mechanisms
for interregional exchange. They caution that while states may have encouraged specializa-
tion and market exchange within their own administrative bounds, this does not necessarily
demonstrate regional articulation of autonomous economic systems.
In northern Mesoamerica, the northwest frontier has been depicted as a zone rich in
natural resources (Smith and Berdan, 2003c, p. 29), which included chalchihuites (mainly
greenstones, turquoise-like stones, and soapstones), obsidian, marine shell, copper, and salt,
among other items (e.g., Braswell, 2003; Hosler, 2003; Kepecs, 2003; Williams, 2004). It
has long been thought that core entities in central Mexico, such as Classic (ca. A.D. 200–
600) Teotihuacan, Early Postclassic (ca. A.D. 900–1200) Tula, and Late Postclassic (ca.
A.D. 1300–1521) Tenochtitlan, extracted resources from north and west Mexico, perhaps
even establishing colonies to do so (Kelley, 1976). One of the more direct applications
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of world-systems models in this region was set forth by Blanton and Feinman (1984),
who use conquest- and colonial-period sources to argue that the Late Postclassic Aztec
empire extracted both staple and luxury goods from its adjacent geographic periphery,
and from sources farther afield in the Maya region and beyond. Others have posited a
hierarchical relationship between core states in central Mexico and peripheral groups in the
west or northwest (e.g., Weigand, 1992). For example, Nelson (1990, 1994) suggests that
the Epiclassic (ca. A.D. 700–900) florescence of social complexity in northwest Mexico
could have been a direct result of societies in this region being released from the “structural
underdevelopment” (Frank, 1966) imposed by a world system. He argues that, after the
dissolution of the Teotihuacan state in central Mexico at the end of the Metepec Phase, around
A.D. 700, Epiclassic societies in northwestern Mexico were able to funnel local resources
into local economies, which spurred local growth (both demographic and economic) on a
scale unprecedented for the region.
In southern Mesoamerica, archaeologists have depicted the southeast frontier zone as
an area rich in resources, which included greenstone, obsidian, “exotic” bird feathers (e.g.,
macaw, quetzal), cacao, and cotton, among other products (e.g., Boone and Willey, 1988).
They have posited a hierarchical “world-system-like” relationship between Maya states and
seemingly less complex non-Maya groups, where Maya states, such as Copan and Quirigua,
extracted raw materials from neighboring non-Maya ranked societies. Schortman and Urban
(1987, 1994, 1996; Urban and Schortman, 1999) use behavioral categories of material culture
(social, technological, ideological, and proxemic; see Schortman, 1986) to evaluate a world-
systems model of the relationship between the Late Classic (ca. A.D. 600–900) capital of
the Naco Valley, La Sierra, and the presumed core entity of Copan in western Honduras.
They find that the Naco Valley was largely politically and economically independent of
the Maya core states, yet some interdependencies may have existed; for instance, La Sierra
supported at least one shell-processing workshop, the products of which likely ended up at
Copan. In addition, La Sierra’s rulers appear to have been rather selective in their borrowing
of the trappings of elite Maya culture, perhaps because the Maya etiquette of rulership
involved symbols designed to integrate large, state-level entities, which were not necessary
or particularly useful for the residents of the Naco Valley. Recent work on this model (e.g.,
Schortman et al., 2001) takes into account the politics of identity formation and how symbols
critical to this process were manipulated by those seeking to maintain interaction networks
while creating localized corporate identities. Thus, the so-called “underdeveloped periphery”
was actually quite complex and maintained differentiated (versus necessarily hierarchical)
relationships with core states.
In a major new synthesis, The Postclassic Mesoamerican World (Smith and Berdan,
2003a), the authors examine world-systems applications in great detail, concluding that
Postclassic populations were engaged in a highly complex interaction system involving
various modes of commodity exchange that operated simultaneously and interchangeably. In
this work, Kepecs and Kohl (2003) redefine world systems, emphasizing the integration of
numerous economic regions interlocked through a regional division of labor and interregional
exchange. Smith and Berdan, along with the other contributors to the volume, view the
Postclassic landscape in terms of a world system populated by “international trade centers,”
“affluent production zones,” “resource-extraction zones,” and “unspecialized peripheries,”
which articulated in complex and often unexpected ways. By deemphasizing problematic
concepts for noncapitalist situations, such as “core” and “periphery,” this new framework
and corresponding vocabulary allow for different kinds of “cores” operating simultaneously
and for “peripheries” to be viewed as potentially complex and powerful in their own right.
This reworked configuration of world systems is more theoretically satisfying than direct
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applications of the theory because it attempts to capture more of the variation in organizational
strategies of late prehispanic Mesoamerican societies.

Agency approaches

While political economy concerns the behavioral outcomes of agents (e.g., managers, elites,
aggrandizers), the concept of “agency” in these approaches derives ultimately from under-
standings of social action such as those of Parsons (1951; Parsons and Smelser, 1956), who
conceived of individual actors as being “motivated in terms of a tendency to the ‘optimization
of gratification’ and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and
mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols” (Parsons, 1951,
p. 9). The agents in political economy approaches are intrinsically competitive and strive
toward efficiency: “since more is better (more resources = more power), the political econ-
omy is inherently growth oriented” (Earle, 2002, p. 9). Thus, political economy approaches
(especially those with a Marxist orientation) allow for the concept of agency, but only to the
point of examining how people manipulate economic processes for personal gain.
Recent work by Mesoamerican archaeologists departs from this understanding of agency
and instead follows alternative concepts such as “personhood” (Gillespie, 2001; cf. Houston
and McAnany, 2003). This and other concepts are informed by Giddens (1979, pp. 55–65),
who sees action not as an adaptive reflex constrained by culture and personality but as a
repetitive and patterned “flow of conduct” of “situated practices” that are “deeply layered”
in time and space. Although criticized for its lack of attention to the social significance
of interpersonal interaction (Gillespie, 2001, p. 80), this concept of agency is useful for
archaeologists seeking to understand economic systems because it has both cultural and
economic components embedded in it. It provides “the theoretical linkage between cultural
ideas and economic behavior” (Robb, 1999, p. 3).
This concept of agency discourages a retreat back to methodological individualism
(McCall, 1999) by shifting the target of study from individual agents to social systems and
how such systems are constituted by agents in the process of “structuration” (Giddens, 1984),
that is, the ways in which structure and agency act recursively over time to (re)constitute insti-
tutions (e.g., Lefebvre, 1991; Sahlins, 1981). In practical terms, this means investigating how
everyday practices produce and are produced by cultural norms (Bourdieu, 1990). This does
not imply, however, that Mesoamericanist agency approaches are not concerned with power,
inequality, and hierarchy. Rather, as Giddens (1984, p. 257) argues, power derives from
human agency because it represents “the capacity to achieve outcomes.” In this view, power
is conceptualized as a negotiated arrangement that can be contested and renegotiated in the
face of conflict and resistance (Bloch, 1977; de Certeau, 1984; Foucault, 1982; Mann, 1986).
This perspective is similar to that taken by Wolf (1990), in which he considers “structural
power” as an aspect of all human relations. For Wolf (1990, p. 587), structural power is
the capacity to define “the social field of action so as to render some kinds of behavior
possible, while making others less possible or impossible.” Structural power can be
generated by control over productive activities in ritual (e.g., Burns and Laughlin, 1979) or
the materialization of ideological systems (e.g., DeMarrais et al., 1996) and by dominating
political and economic interests through social coercion or the threat of physical violence.
As an element of political strategy, materialization of specific ideologies can be especially
important, because it can be manipulated to promote, disguise, and justify elite objectives
(DeMarrais et al., 1996, p. 17) and more generally “to guide social action” (Earle, 1997,
p. 10). Control over ritual performance and political ideologies also draws on a second
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form of power, “organizational power,” or “the ability to control a setting in which power
is displayed and enacted” (Wolf, 1990, p. 586). These forms of power are particularly
important in situations where material resources are difficult to control. Mesoamericanist
agency approaches thus treat power as a property of ideational systems and institutional
structures rather than individual actors. In this way, agency perspectives can be thought of
as “substantive approaches” to political economy (e.g., Dannhaeuser and Werner, 2002).
This kind of “multicentered” or “depersonalized” view of power implies that inequality
is inherent in all social relations (Foucault, 1982) and not limited to hierarchical political
relations (Robb, 1999, p. 5). Taking this kind of multidimensional perspective has allowed
Mesoamerican archaeologists to explore many different aspects of inequality in economic
systems, for example, the social context and ideologies of production (Inomata, 2001a;
Lesure, 1999a), the role of gender in structuring material transfers (Gillespie and Joyce, 1994;
Joyce, 2000), and the basis for moral authority in storing economic surpluses (Hendon, 2000;
Smyth, 1996). Collectively, these studies challenge political economy models by revealing
that they do not grant enough attention to the social relationships involved in the organization
of manufacturing activities, the cultural contexts in which transactions are made, or the moral
barriers to appropriating socially valued goods for expressing social distinctions. As a result,
Mesoamericanist agency approaches can be divided heuristically into three general themes:
those that deal with the social aspects of production, those that treat the cultural contexts of
circulation, and those that explore the moral dimensions of consumption.

Social aspects of production

Through work on skilled crafting, Mesoamerican archaeologists have begun to explore the
ways in which the social aspects of production and the meaning and value of the resulting
products are interrelated phenomena. Some social relations, including gender, rank, status,
identity, and kinship, can be recorded in or transcribed onto the physical and technological
properties of finely crafted objects (e.g., Bailey, 1998), making these items “socially valued
goods” (Spielmann, 2002, p. 195). These goods are skillfully crafted products, “whose
principal use is rhetorical and social, goods that are simply incarnated signs” (Appadurai,
1986, p. 38). They represent “high culture” (Baines and Yoffee, 1998, p. 235) and are
characterized by qualitative concepts of “ideal behavior, honor, and eliteness, with persons
of political influence, with aesthetics, and thus with the concept of morality” (Helms, 1993,
p. 149). In essence, socially valued goods are materializations of cultural and moral order and
encapsulations of cosmic power, often evidenced by distinctive markings, designs, colors,
brilliance, and sounds. Hosler’s (1994) work, for example, reveals that some West Mexican
societies manipulated the physical properties of metals to produce certain sounds and colors.
Bells made of varying alloys were especially important because they served as costume
elements and musical instruments in rituals to enhance the phenomenological experience of
the performance through reflective golden or silvery colors, which referenced solar and lunar
qualities, respectively. In this way, sound and color combined to constitute an expression of
divine power, such that those who could manipulate these properties embodied supernatural
qualities. These associations would have been significant, particularly for the ruling elite,
because such celestial ties underwrote the legitimacy of their more pragmatic activities as
political leaders (Helms 1979, p. 92).
Two projects that have recently employed agency approaches to examine the social
aspects of craft production raise important questions about the manner by which certain
craft items are endowed with prestige-enhancing or sacred qualities and how these qualities
can be transferred to their possessors. The first project is a study of elite involvement in
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craft activities at the Classic Maya center of Aguateca, Guatemala, by Inomata (2001a;
Inomata and Stiver, 1998; Inomata and Triadan, 2000; Inomata et al., 2002). Informed by
Bourdieu’s (1984) concept of “cultural capital,” Inomata argues that elite families exercised
and demonstrated their competence by engaging in highly skilled craft activities that resulted
in the production of ideologically charged objects. Archaeologists working in other Classic
Maya royal courts also have observed evidence for the manufacture of specialty items, such
as paper, textiles, polychrome pottery, obsidian eccentrics, pyrite mirrors, polished axes, and
shell and greenstone ornaments (e.g., Andrews and Fash, 1992; Ball, 1993; Hendon, 1997;
Kovacevich et al., 2004; Reents-Budet et al., 1994; Urquizú et al., 1999; Webster et al., 1998).
However, in most cases it is unclear precisely how these objects functioned as cultural capital,
apart from statically embodying the knowledge of skilled crafting and possibly some kind of
aesthetic formulation. Unfortunately, the level of archaeological detail may be insufficient
to answer this question. For Inomata, however, the social relations involved in the crafting
process, primarily elite Maya culture based on historically informed aesthetics and esoteric
knowledge, conferred meaning and value upon these products. As a result, these objects
allowed Aguateca’s elite families to materialize, assert, and sustain their political ideologies,
which played a crucial role in power relations and competition among elite factions. The key
to maintaining elites as a distinct group was in limiting the knowledge necessary to encode
and decode messages stored in crafts—an argument that relates to Hayden’s (1995b, 1998)
idea of “prestige technology.” Such technologies are difficult to identify archaeologically,
however, and cannot be demonstrated simply by observing that certain social groups did not
appear to have knowledge of skilled crafting because they did not (or were not allowed to)
express it in the way elites did.
The second project examines women’s involvement in craft production in Aztec central
Mexico (Brumfiel, 1987a, 1991, 1996a,b, 1997, 1998). Based on archaeological and ethno-
historical data from Huexotla, Xico, and Xaltocan, Brumfiel argues that women in Aztec
society accessed prestige in the process of making cloth and other politically significant
craft activities. There, the act of production may have held more significance than the final
products, partly because such practices provided opportunities for social evaluation, and also
because the social relationships that structured productive action—gender, occupation, class
(and possibly age and ethnicity)—allowed artisans to invest their products with their own
beliefs and values that were sometimes at odds with those of the state (Brumfiel, 1996a).
For example, “women who cooked and wove competently were women who were most ca-
pable of advancing men’s claims to positions of status and power” (Brumfiel, 1991, p. 245)
because men presented political allies with the products of women’s labor, such as cloth,
food, and drink. In this way Aztec women were not always “passive victims of emerging
political power” but sometimes “participated in the definition of its limits” (Brumfiel, 1991,
p. 246; see also Burkhart, 1997). Thus, aspects of social identity were embodied in skillfully
crafted objects, which circulated beyond the household and were used to gain status and
prestige in a variety of ways. This work, and that of Hendon (1995, 1997, 1999a) and others
(Beaudry-Corbett and McCafferty, 2002; Hamann, 1997; Joyce, 1992, 1993; McAnany and
Plank, 2001; McCafferty and McCafferty, 1991, 2000; Nelson, 2002), reveals that some
women’s craft activities are culturally constituted, situated in “prestige structures” (Ortner
and Whitehead, 1981), and richly imbued with symbolic meaning.

Cultural contexts of circulation

A second focus of recent research on Mesoamerican economies is the cultural context of


material transfers, specifically, the means of acquiring or provisioning oneself with socially
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valued goods through gift exchange (e.g., Foias, 2002; Garraty, 2000; LeCount, 1996, 1999,
2001; Lesure, 1999b; Stanton and Negrón, 2001). Such contexts can have powerful implica-
tions for determining and fixing the value and meaning of specialty items (Werner and Bell,
2004), as well as for creating, sustaining, and testing social relationships (Osteen, 2002). The
importance of this approach is revealed in Mauss’s (1990 [1925], pp. 5–6) observation that
gifting represents a “system of total services,” where the process of reciprocal exchanges
engenders a constant flow of resources and wealth, while at the same time it condenses a
number of different dimensions—political, economic, religious, artistic—into a single mo-
ment or mechanism (Godelier, 2004, p. 11). In this way, gifting provides a way of “giving
something up” while “keeping something coming” (Weiner, 1992). For Mesoamerican ar-
chaeologists, gift exchange systems are important analytical domains because they represent
microcosms, however deeply layered, of the overall society in which they are embedded.
LeCount (1996, 1999) explores the ways in which decorated pottery from the lowland
Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize, and a nearby hamlet, San Lorenzo, served as prestige goods
that circulated through gift-exchange networks during ritual feasts to further elite political
ambitions. She finds that, during the Late Classic II phase (ca. A.D. 670–790), elaborately
decorated pottery was concentrated in elite households at Xunantunich, suggesting that gift
exchange took place horizontally within elite Maya culture. During the Terminal Classic
(ca. A.D. 790–1000), however, when Xunantunich was in decline, these types of pottery
were found dispersed equally among households of all statuses. She argues that to maintain
power local elites abandoned competitive or rival displays of prestige goods and attempted to
consolidate community support by gifting luxury items down through the social hierarchy.
While the spatial and contextual evidence does not necessarily differentiate gifting from
other types of exchange at Xunantunich, this study is still important because it provides
a framework for investigating how the economic, political, and religious aspects of gift
exchange can interrelate simultaneously and how gift exchange can be dynamic, changing
over time to meet the needs of shifting social or political conditions.
The observation that gifts can be used to attract and hold clients and to build alliances
with peers (e.g., Cancian, 1965; Ekholm, 1972; Helms, 1979; Strathern, 1971) suggests that
reciprocal exchange systems in noncapitalist economies may be linked to strategic modes
of acquisition that allow one to call on others to accomplish certain tasks. One of these
modes is characterized as a “moral economy” (e.g., Bowles and Gintis, 1998; Cheal, 1989),
where exchange is regulated by traditional norms that define an individual’s social status, and
where access to goods and services is shaped more by social obligations than by calculated
returns. Although outside the scope of this review because it concerns a historical economic
system, an example by Monaghan (1990a, 1996) is nevertheless useful to consider because
it has potential implications for prehispanic cases. Monaghan analyzes the microeconomic
processes by which fiestas, including both life-crisis events (baptisms, marriages, funerals)
and civil-religious hierarchy duties (mayordomı́as or cofradı́as), have been financed through
the Mixtec saa sa’a gift exchange in Santiago Nuyoo, Oaxaca, since the early 1800s. The saa
sa’a system is structured in such a way that it permits individuals to ask fellow community
members for assistance in the form of “gifts” of money and staples (e.g., tortillas, beans,
firewood) needed to fund a fiesta. Because every household in the community periodically
hosts a fiesta, asking for gifts is an acceptable way to provision one’s household in preparation
for a fiesta. Written records of gift exchanges are never discarded because they chronicle a
history of reciprocal social relations that can indicate who is likely to reciprocate in the future.
Similar to Appadurai (1986) and others (Gell, 1992; Myers, 2001), Monaghan observes
that the strategic dimension of the gift reveals broad continuities between gift and other kinds
of exchange. This allows him to view goods “not as ‘gifts’ or ‘commodities’ in an absolute
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sense but as moving through phases, with overlapping social features, such as exchangeability
and alienability, emphasized or de-emphasized at different times” (Monaghan, 1996, p. 501).
The archaeological importance of this observation is that the exchange patterns we observe in
the material record cannot be explained in rigid terms of either gift or commodity exchange
(e.g., Sheets, 2000; Spence, 1996) but rather must be understood as the composite result of
a wide range of acquisition choices in response to changing political, economic, social, and
ecological circumstances (e.g., Cancian, 1990). While diverse acquisition strategies might
obscure the material outcomes of gift exchange in the archaeological record, it is nevertheless
important to recognize the crucial role of reciprocity in gifting for local social transactions,
such as marriage, homicide, and funerals. For example, Pohl (1994, 2003, pp. 176–177)
describes the social and economic significance of mutual gift exchange in negotiating bride-
price in Late Postclassic Nahua, Mixtec, and Tlaxcalan marriages in which the relatives of
both the bride and the groom exchanged gifts of cacao, cotton, textiles, and precious stones
and metals that advertised the prestige of the givers, solidified their social standing in the
community, and formalized the bonds between their kin groups.

Moral dimensions of consumption

By examining the structure and organization of feasting and other festive activities,
Mesoamericanist archaeologists have considered the relationship between the contexts of
consumption and the moral dimensions of consumptive behavior. Context and action together
shape the possibilities for asserting claims to positions of status and power and for validating
relationships of hierarchy and alliance (Brumfiel, 2004a; Carrier and Heyman, 1997; Douglas
and Isherwood, 1979). Consumption can be viewed as politico-symbolic drama that provides
an arena for highly condensed symbolic representations of social relations (Cohen, 1974).
In Brumfiel’s (1987b, p. 676) study of Aztec elite feasting and gifting at Huexotla, she con-
cludes that consumption provides an “idiom of political negotiation.” Similarly, throughout
Mesoamerica, agricultural festivals, political banquets, tribute feasts, and pilgrimage fairs
offered the potential for manipulation by individuals or groups attempting to make state-
ments about their relative positions in the social order (e.g., Clendinnen, 1991; Durán, 1971;
Farriss, 1984; Sahagún, 1950; Tozzer, 1941). In recent years, Mesoamericanists have con-
tributed a number of useful studies of the social relations of feasting and consumption (e.g.,
Brown, 2001; Brumfiel, 2004a; Clark and Blake, 1994; Fox, 1996; Garraty, 2000; Hendon,
2003; LeCount, 2001; Lesure, 1999c; Masson, 1999; Reents-Budet et al., 2000; Smith et al.,
2003; Yaeger, 2000). Some of these studies combine analyses of consumption with those of
craft production and gift exchange, resulting in novel arguments about long-term changes
in the social relations of economic systems (see Smith and Schreiber, 2005, pp. 202–203).
For example, LeCount (2001) examines the social relations of gift exchange at Late Classic
Xunantunich during “diacritical feasts” (Dietler, 1996, p. 98), which are marked by high
cuisine and styles of consumption that serve to naturalize concepts of ranked differences in
social status. She proposes that specialized serving paraphernalia served as political currency
that was strategically displayed and gifted by their possessors to establish diplomatic ties
while underscoring social distinctions. Chocolate was especially important in the feasting
process because its high value and cosmological significance endowed its consumers with
prestige and cultural capital: “cacao condensed religious, economic, and social meaning into
a single referent and, as a drink, was the symbolic cue for the consummation of political
rituals” (LeCount, 2001, p. 948). In the end, LeCount suggests that political competition and
alliance building among elite factions at Xunantunich stimulated production of these items
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and possibly increased the frequency and lavishness of diacritical feasts during which they
were exchanged.
In another example, Fox (1994, 1996) examines the ways in which the built environment
articulates with social values and practices related to consumption at ballgames and feasts
among the Lenca in west-central Honduras during the Late Classic. He argues that ballgames
as consumptive events provided strategic settings for the negotiation of power relations.
These rituals centered on the redistribution of food and wealth through wagers and gift
exchanges (see also Hill and Clark, 2001) and on the symbolic renewal of agricultural fertility.
Ballcourts, as places of powerful supernatural associations, served as stages for rituals in
which political conflict could be mapped onto and resolved through cosmological drama.
“The sequencing of these dramas included a phase in which social and cosmological conflicts
were acted out in the ballgame, with a feast then offered as a claim to resolution and an attempt
to transform competition and conflict into coordination and allegiance” (Fox, 1996, p. 494).
Thus, these settings were “focused gatherings” (Goffman, 1961, pp. 9–10) that created and
reconstituted communities through orchestrated participation in coordinated labor, shared
ritual, and collective consumption; they enabled certain behaviors while disabling others.
However, while ballcourts most likely were the foci of intense politicking (Santley et al.,
1991), it is hard to imagine that individuals who acquired power and prestige through the
ballgame could avoid the checks and balances that maintained value systems in other social
or economic realms.
The work of both LeCount and Fox indicates that the process of consumption did not
take place as an isolated sector of Mesoamerican economies; it was intimately bound with
demand, preference, and acquisition (see also Evans, 1998, p. 170; Folan et al., 2001,
pp. 251–253; Inomata, 2001b, p. 33; McAnany, 2004a, pp. 154–157). This observation
parallels Spielmann’s (1998, 2002) conclusion that ritual consumption can serve as an engine
for economic growth since the ritual context can define “the nature, timing, personnel, and
management of production” (Spielmann, 2002, p. 202). In Mesoamerica, conquest and
colonial accounts of feasts and festivals reveal that many of these proceedings were lavish
affairs that required great quantities of raw and processed materials as well as specialty crafts,
such as those that fashioned elaborate costumes, ritual paraphernalia, and serving dishes.
Such festive labor mobilization variably involves what Rappaport (1968, p. 410) refers to as
the “ritual mode of production,” in which ritual demands for foods, crafts, and gifts embed
productive activities in ceremonial contexts that regulate surplus production and communal
consumption (e.g., Firth, 1967; Friedman, 1975; Malinowski, 1922). In these situations,
production results in inalienable goods (Weiner, 1992), meaning that the social and political
relationships within which they are produced determine their value, circulation, and ultimate
consumption. The rights of allocation belong to the host or sponsor of the rite or ceremony,
which could be an individual patron, a social group (i.e., lineage, clan, sodality, “house”), or
the entire community.
Recent work at Cancuen in the Maya lowlands provides one perspective on how consump-
tion articulated with the ritual mode of production in reinforcing elite political ideologies
that structured the ways in which socially valued goods were produced and used. There,
Kovacevich and colleagues (2003, 2004) present evidence for nonelite participation in the
fabrication of ritual paraphernalia, including pyrite mirrors and greenstone ornaments. While
production appears to have been controlled or administered by elite personnel through a
monopoly on ritual and esoteric knowledge, they argue for a multistage or “segmented” man-
ufacturing process, with groups of various social ranks participating in particular production
stages. The resulting skillfully crafted goods were used as status-reinforcing objects during
public display and ritual and in funerary rites. Thus, as Demarest (1992) argues, ritual and
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ceremony, which were of key importance for building and justifying political power, served
as a motor for the production of wealth and subsistence goods that were required to finance
these affairs and the political elite necessary to manage them. However, within this web of
elite manipulation of ritual and economy, nonelite part-time artisans may have become, to
some extent, empowered actors able, through economic agency connected with production,
to negotiate their social and economic positions as well as the cultural restraints placed on
them. Thus, control over the materialization of worldview and ideology can be examined
archaeologically through conjunctive analysis of the social contexts of production and
consumption.

Toward a ritual economy approach

Current theorizing about prehispanic Mesoamerican economies increasingly situates the his-
torical particulars of power and economy in the broader social and cultural contexts in which
they are “entangled” (Thomas, 1991). This is being accomplished with what I refer to as rit-
ual economy, a theoretical construct that concerns the materialization of socially negotiated
values and beliefs through acquisition and consumption aimed at managing meaning and
shaping interpretation (Wells, 2003b). I am not suggesting that there was “a Mesoamerican
ritual economy,” as to emphasize one of many possible sets of economic activities directed at
nonutilitarian ends. Instead, I view ritual economy as a burgeoning theoretical and explana-
tory framework for generating research questions and corresponding test implications for
archaeological study. While the concept of ritual (most often in terms of “religious ritual”)
has long been used to explain certain aspects of economic systems in ancient Mesoamerica
(e.g., Conrad and Demarest, 1984; Demarest, 1992; Hammond, 1999; Hill and Clark, 2001;
Lesure and Blake, 2002; Masson, 1999; McAnany, 1995; Pohl, 2003), the concept of ritual
economy has been used much less frequently in anthropology, and usually for examining
the economic aspects of religious ritual (e.g., Hefner, 1983; Kim, 1994; Kockelman, 1999;
Metcalf, 1981) or the ritual structuring of manufacture and exchange (e.g., Piot, 1992;
Starrett, 1995; Teja, 2001).
Alternative to these kinds of studies, I see the ritual economy approach as representing
a newly emerging analytical trend that considers the varied economic pathways by which
worldview and belief are embodied in material culture—sometimes by way of religious
ritual but also through other kinds of ritualized practices (e.g., Clark, 2004b; McAnany,
2004b). Here it is useful to follow Rappaport’s (1999, p. 24) understanding of ritual, which
he characterizes as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts
and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.” Performance is a key aspect of
ritual for economic theory because it emphasizes communication and cultural reproduction,
which Rappaport (1999, p. 144) and others (Geertz, 1977; Turner, 1974) believe are facilitated
through speech as well as through the use and manipulation of material objects with symbolic
content that are sometimes distributed and sometimes withheld (Godelier, 1999, p. 33;
Weiner, 1992, p. 152). Douglas and Isherwood (1979, p. 65) refer to these actions as “marking
services” because “goods, in this perspective, are ritual adjuncts” and “consumption is a ritual
process whose primary function is to make sense of the inchoate flux of events.” Symbolic
content plays an important role because of the “coherent ties between different kinds of
meanings, which make political participation compelling, identity meaningful, and ritual
effective” (Robb, 1998, p. 330).
Recent discussion of Maya political organization emphasizes the heavy reliance on ritual
performance, symbolic communication of narrative, and the display and consumption of
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sacred objects as a basis of power for Maya rulers (Demarest, 1989; Fox and Cook, 1996;
Freidel, 1992; Harrison-Buck, 2004; Inomata, 2001a; Joyce, 1996; Sharer and Golden, 2003;
Stuart, 1998; Taube, 1998). However, in many of these cases it is unclear exactly how Maya
rulers derived power from these practices. What do performance, communication, and sa-
cred objects do exactly? It has been shown quite convincingly how such practices may have
legitimized power. Demarest (1992), for example, argues that the organizational structure
and the physical form (i.e., built environment) of the Maya state reflects a cosmological
model that reproduces, in microcosm, the ideals and values of Maya society through fantas-
tic ritual performances of Maya narratives in carefully designed ceremonial centers. Pomp
and ceremony thus served to explain and legitimize the world order. But the question re-
mains: Does ritual performance actually create power? Perhaps a more difficult question to
answer is how do certain goods condense and encode narratives as a means of encoding
social values and moral order? A very promising direction for future research on this issue is
Brumfiel’s (2004a, pp. 225–226; 2004b, pp. 241–242) use of the concept of “figured worlds”
(Holland et al., 1998), narratives and objectified moral behavior that materialize values and
beliefs about how the world should work and how people should act in it. She uses this
idea to argue that festive occasions in Postclassic central Mexico not only allowed individ-
uals to make statements about their own relative positions in Aztec society but also offered
opportunities for individuals to define the positions of others within a broader, morally com-
pelling cosmological order. Brumfiel employs pictorial documents and written descriptions
of contact-period Aztec culture to infer the meanings of design motifs and compositions on
pottery vessels. By comparing these attributes with pottery form and function, as well as the
different combinations of dishes used in feasts, she shows the contrasting ways in which the
Aztec expressed narratives—and the social and moral values they embodied—in material
form and through ritual action. She argues that Aztec narratives “were invoked not just to
legitimate actions by appealing to tradition, but to provide orienting models of the way that
the world should and did operate and to provide focus for the formation of identity and the
exercise of agency” (Brumfiel, 2004b, p. 258).
As a theoretical framework, ritual economy builds on political economy and agency
approaches in two ways. First, by viewing specialty crafts as socially valued objects, ritual
economy avoids the tautology of prestige goods, as Robb (1999) and others (Cobb, 1993,
pp. 64–65; Peregrine, 1992, pp. 69–70) point out, “prestige is what is gained through use
of prestigious goods, and prestigious goods are those whose use gives one prestige” (Robb,
1999, p. 6). In ritual economy, “prestige goods” are replaced with “social valuables” (Helms,
1993) or “socially valued goods” (Spielmann, 2002), thereby shifting the emphasis from
hierarchical relations of prestige structures to consideration of the diverse ways in which
goods condense and encode social principles, cultural or economic values, and sacred tenets
(e.g., Carrasco, 1999). Mills (2004), for example, argues that the concept of inalienable
goods is more constructive than that of prestige goods for understanding the role of social
valuables in societies where inequalities are based on ritual knowledge. This is an untested
loose end for ritual economy approaches in prehispanic Mesoamerica, however, and needs
to be evaluated systematically with empirical data.
In the ritual economy approach, the focus is on the dynamic and on-going processes
of negotiating and materializing a group’s values, morals, and ideals through ritual action.
This can be studied by investigating the conditions, contexts, and practices by which material
objects are endowed with symbolic or sacred characteristics through the nexus of production,
distribution, and consumption (e.g., Godelier, 1999), along the lines of Renfrew’s (2004)
theory of “material engagement” that seeks to expose the ways in which material objects
mediate human interactions with the natural world. Value and meaning of symbolic objects
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are associative properties and related to their life histories. Sources of value and meaning
derive from a variety of conditions, including their workmanship, associated iconography or
cosmic significance, the rare materials from which they are fashioned, and as evidence for
the owner’s ability to manage distant contacts with foreign cultures (e.g., Brumfiel, 1998;
Clark, 1996; Clark and Houston, 1998; Gillespie and Joyce, 1994; Gillespie, 1999; Helms,
1992; Hendon, 1999a; Hosler, 1994; Inomata, 2001a; Joyce, 2000; Moholy-Nagy, 1997;
Stark, 1999). Thus, these goods are significant above and beyond utilitarian or exchange
value because their substance and movement in the economic system materially embodies
and substantiates beliefs about sociality. Helms (1998, pp. 164–173; see also Helms, 2004),
for example, argues that “durable tangible objects” that embody various mystical powers
(such as crafted heirlooms, craft goods obtained from distant sources, and animal remains
that materialize cosmic forces) evidence privileged access to ancestors and thus have the
potential to influence or structure perceptions about social relations.
Lesure’s (1999b) analysis of value in early Mesoamerican hierarchical societies provides
one example. He argues that greenstone artifacts maintained gradations of value according
to their forms, composition, and cultural contexts of consumption, all of which may have
influenced their alienability. In another case, Hendon (2000) proposes that memory of the
history of use may influence an object’s value and its association with sacred individuals
such as ancestors. She suggests that burials, caches, and other kinds of “storage” (including
narratives) at Copan, Honduras, are important mnemonics of built space that remind their
inhabitants of past events and practices, thereby reinforcing or challenging the legitimacy of
claims to value and meaning.
The second way that ritual economy builds on the advances made in political economy
and agency theories is by understanding “power” not as a property or attribute of a person
that allows one to impose one’s will on others (i.e., Weberian views of “power to” and “power
over”) but more broadly as the management of meanings and the shaping of interpretations;
in this way, power is enabling as much as it is restrictive. Individuals and groups, differently
positioned in social relations and processes of domination, use economic resources available
to them to try to fix their interpretations of meanings, to prevent others’ interpretations
from being heard, and to garner the material outcome of these efforts. This is conceptually
similar to Wolf’s (1990) notion of “structural power,” which encompasses the “flow of
action” that enables some kinds of behavior and disables other kinds. Ethnographic and
ethnohistoric research in Mesoamerica (Farriss, 1984; Monaghan, 1996; Vogt, 1976) and
beyond (e.g., Brandt, 1994; Dillehay, 1992; Dye, 1995; Helms, 1979; Junker, 1999; Kertzer,
1988) indicates that individuals can derive a significant degree of power and authority by
organizing and managing ritual situations or “social dramas” in which symbols critical to
legitimizing authority (and their material correlates) are manipulated in public settings. Thus,
creating and expressing social power through ceremonialism in the context of controlling
sacred knowledge, as well as the organization of rituals that materialize it, characterizes one
pathway to power for cultural agents. In Enga society in New Guinea, for example, Wiessner
and Tumu (1998, p. 379) argue that performance and participation in regional ritual cults,
which manifest new ways of thinking about social and exchange relationships, served as a
way (and justification) for big men to obtain socially valued goods, prestige, and power from
other sources.
While this view of power recognizes the “conflicts and compromises among people
with different problems and possibilities by virtue of their membership in different alliance
networks” (Brumfiel, 1992, p. 551), it runs the risk of being equated too broadly with social
identity or the ability to experience (Robb, 1998, p. 339), making it difficult to escape
equifinality in the archaeological record (e.g., Joyce and Winter, 1996). However, if power is
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expressed by materializing worldview and belief, then we may be able to measure it along two
axes: acquisition and consumption. Acquisition of material culture critical to ritual practice
can involve the ritual mode of production (Rappaport, 1968), pilgrimage exchange (Freidel,
1981), and especially gift-giving (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979). Along these lines, Mauss’s
(1990 [1925], pp. 14–17) “fourth obligation” of gift-giving, sacrifice, may be particularly
useful for Mesoamericanists (see Fox, 1996; Monaghan, 1990b). Consumption can take place
at the household or community level through mortuary ritual (McIntosh, 1999), diacritical
feasting (Dietler, 2001), and potlatching (Codere, 1950), as well as at the larger scale of the
polity such as in theater states (Geertz, 1980) or galactic polities (Tambiah, 1977). These
examples are potential avenues of productive research for Mesoamerican archaeologists
interested in ritual economy (see also Brumfiel, 2004a,b; Demarest, 1992; Hendon, 1999b,
2000; Lesure, 1999a; McAnany, 1995, 2004b). The next step is to develop a unified analytical
vocabulary that can serve as a source of heuristics for future work.

Conclusion

This review of prehispanic Mesoamerican economies is far from complete because it glosses
over an array of complex conceptual issues that deserve more consideration than can be
provided here. Still, it is clear that the recent literature is shaped largely by political economy
and agency approaches. Political economy approaches tend to take the form of models that
variously emphasize the role of redistribution, finance, debt, and core/periphery relations.
The diverse agency approaches consider social aspects of production, cultural contexts
of distribution, and moral dimensions of consumption. Neither approach is an integrated
theoretical movement. However, by variously combining and interchanging methods and
theories, they increasingly share a common concern for the cultural logics of economic
systems and how culturally constituted economies expose opportunities for contests among
people in asymmetrical relations of power.
The approaches are distinct, however, defined by the various ways that production, dis-
tribution, and consumption intersect at any one point in time. Embedded in this equation
are questions such as, Who is involved in production and at what scales and levels of inten-
sity? Who controls the output of productive efforts? Who oversees distribution? and What
determines who gets what quantities of certain items to consume? Each variable defines a
continuum along which values and motivations are constantly shifting. Different political
economy and agency models examine different points in these shifting relations. Finance
or debt models, for example, may focus on situations in which a few full-time artisans
working for elite clients make high-value, low-bulk items whose allocation is strictly under
the control of their patrons. In contrast, agency approaches that consider the social relations
of manufacture may examine the social identity of the craftspeople to reveal the ways in
which artisans empower themselves through economic agency to negotiate the relations of
production. These models are not necessarily in conflict but instead seek to explain different
situations that may apply in some areas at some times.
In addition to studies that take political economy or agency as their interpretive frame for
understanding Mesoamerican economies, current research increasingly considers the vari-
ous ways in which material processes and nonmaterial motives intersect to create catalysts
for culture change. I refer to this emerging approach as ritual economy because it knits
together two areas of study that usually are sequestered within separate analytical domains.
The ritual economy approach focuses on the analysis of the process of materializing world-
view and belief, which opens up struggle and conflict over establishing, conveying, and
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managing meaning and value. Variation in the process of materialization leads to contrasting
developmental trajectories, which give rise to diverse organizational strategies and local,
historically contingent contexts for social action. In a broad sense, this approach questions
the analytical usefulness of dichotomizing human action as “rational” or “nonrational.” It
would be inappropriate and overreaching, however, to suggest that political economy and
agency approaches should be abandoned for ritual economy. Instead, I suggest that ritual
economy is viewed as a sort of “paradigmatic experiment” (Kuhn, 1970) that has the poten-
tial to reorient archaeological imagination toward understanding how premodern economic
systems articulated with other social dimensions and how they were involved in long-term
contests over meaning, value, and power.
Ultimately, a cultural theory of acquisition and consumption such as ritual economy must
bridge the essentialist opposition between individual agents and social institutions. This
will require a reformulation or clarification of our ideas of acquisition and consumption
(Douglas, 1982), and recognition that “goods and preferences are both product of and
players in a system of social communication” (Hefner, 1983, p. 675). It also is worth the
effort to devote more energy to discerning precisely which factors underlie the diverse
economic approaches discussed in this review, with the greater goal of exploring how their
complex interplay, driven by the actions of variably knowledgeable cultural agents, may
have shaped the societies we investigate. Moreover, we should take advantage of studying
dynamic and compounded relationships to sharpen our conceptual tools so we can better
imagine how these systems worked in diverse ways under variable circumstances. Finally,
we need to acknowledge much more explicitly that rational economic choice is culturally and
historically constituted and intimately tied to motivation, which presents specific challenges
to archaeological study. In addressing these kinds of problems, the study of prehispanic
Mesoamerican economies has much to offer economic theory, but only if archaeologists work
more closely with economic anthropologists and economic historians than has been the case.
One way this can be accomplished is by orienting future research toward transdisciplinary
studies that incorporate multiple, comparative perspectives on the operation of ritual and
economic systems over time.

Acknowledgments I would like to thank Gary M. Feinman and T. Douglas Price for their invitation to prepare
this article. Many of the ideas presented here derive from productive dialog with friends and colleagues over
the past few years, especially Frances F. Berdan, John K. Chance, George L. Cowgill, Karla L. Davis-Salazar,
Arthur A. Demarest, William L. Fash, Patricia A. McAnany, Ben A. Nelson, Enrique Rodrı́guez-Alegrı́a,
Edward M. Schortman, Barbara L. Stark, Patricia A. Urban, and John M. Watanabe. I am particularly grateful
to Davis-Salazar, McAnany, Schortman, Urban, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, Heather I. McKillop, and Michael E.
Smith, who shared with me information about their research, copies of their publications, and their thoughts
on Mesoamerican economies. Davis-Salazar, Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski, Schortman, Smith, and three
anonymous reviewers also kindly read drafts of this article and provided very useful comments that improved
the clarity and substance of my arguments.

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