Constitution Daily

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How would the Mayans handle the fiscal cliff?

December 21, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


All things Mayan are getting a lot of publicity this week, and one topic we’ve tossed around is how would such an advanced society handle a current problem: the fiscal cliff scenario?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In reality, researchers are discovering new clues and facts about the Maya every day, and no one knows for sure how they would tackle modern problems.

But the question is interesting because a lot of information is available about the legal and government systems used in Mayan society, which probably dealt with such problems quickly.

And as we all know, the Mayans were pretty good with math, and they had a tendency to toss people off cliffs for various reasons.

A key researcher into the Maya was the late Robert J. Sharer at the University of Pennsylvania. Sharer passed away in September, and he left a legacy worth investigating if you’re really interested in Mayan culture.

Sharer and other researchers have unearthed a lot of facts about a very advanced society that mastered astronomy and math and had political and legal systems that were highly organized.

There also is an online archive at the University of Texas’ Tarlton Law Library that has an overview of the Mayan legal and political system, based on research from Sharer and others.

From that, we can glean a few character traits that show how the Maya dealt with organizational problems.

The Mayan world consisted of a set of city-states that shared a similar culture and language, much like the classical Greek city-states. There was no Mayan nation or country, but they did trade with each other--and attack each other.

Within each city-state there was usually a monarch, the halach uinic, who was the head of state and religion. The office was a hereditary one, much like a European monarchy. (In some cases, a group of nobles would lead instead of an absolute leader.)

The social and political structure, not by coincidence, was in the shape of a pyramid. The leader was at the top, with a group of nobles and then commoners in the middle. Serfs and slaves made up the bottom of the pyramid.

Mayan custom had a clear set of laws that dealt with politics, social issues, crime, property, marriage, litigation, and external politics. There’s no evidence of a Mayan-type constitution, since the Spanish destroyed most Mayan writings.

Here are some interesting facts that show common themes in the Mayan rule of law, some of which may look familiar--and some not so much.

1. The Maya had a (limited) balance of powers system

While the leader could have near-absolute power, there were different branches of government that handled administrative and judicial tasks and the military. Administrators collected taxes and tribute from towns to fund the central government.

Sharer said the halach uinic had broad powers, but he also consulted with a group of chiefs, priests, and town officials about policies. Some of these were his relatives. Priests were also a key part of society.

So the leader had many powers, but he also had to take political considerations into account.

2. "Cliff" is a bad word if you were a Mayan politician

Actually, the Maya didn’t have political parties (the Americans can take partial credit for that modern invention), but the counselors and administrators were responsible for raising money.

So if some scenario existed where there was a financial shortfall, that would be a bad thing if it was determined you were responsible.

Getting tossed of a precipice or cliff was one of several forms of Mayan capital punishment.

3. There was no Mayan Supreme Court

The legal system in the Mayan world was defined, and there were equivalents of people we would call judges and attorneys today. There were different classes of crimes and different punishments. Being sentenced to slavery was an option. More serious crimes were punished by death, as was trespassing.

The one thing the Mayans didn’t have was a jail system. If you were the accused, you were tried in public and justice was served.

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And once an official made a ruling in a public case, the decision was final. Unless you could convince a victim to forgive you, there was no appeals process. The punishment for bad debt could lead to being sold into slavery.

4. War was always an option to solve financial problems

When some Mayan states ran into financial problems, due to trade issues, poor crops, or something else, attacking a neighbor was always a solution.

The leader had a full-time military leader called a nacom, who could call up troops, like our National Guard, to form an army of conquest.

The goal of conquest wasn’t just the wealth of a neighboring state: Prisoners were sacrificed to the gods to improve the prospects of a city-state, or they could be used as slaves in the labor force.

And the infrastructures of the conquered were probably left intact, so the conquered people could be taxed to add more value to the state.

The Mayans didn’t really have currency, although they used cacao beans and other objects in trade. So adding more goods through conquest was an important factor in solving government financial problems.


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