Between 2002 and 2009, our international archaeological team surveyed and excavated the Chan site and collected roughly half a million objects of farmers' everyday lives, one of the largest archaeological samples from a Maya farming community.
The goal of the Chan Project was to understand the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Maya farmers and uncover the important roles that they played in the development of ancient Maya society. Given that 2,000 years is a long period of time, what did Chan’s residents do to ensure that their community endured? The project saw the work as an opportunity to build an understanding of the importance of the everyday lives of ordinary people in human societies.
Agricultural technologies and strategies
The Chan Project research documented that Chan’s ancient residents innovated conservation-wise agricultural technologies and forest management strategies that were some of the environmentally effective strategies that enabled residents to establish a long-lived community. Cooperating farm families constructed Chan’s terraced agricultural landscape and the agricultural system they developed expanded through time. Farmers’ terraces avoided soil erosion and maximized water infiltration, incorporating complex small-scale irrigation and water storage systems.
A forest maintenance strategy, maintained a diverse mature, closed-canopy, tropical forest even as population expanded during the Classic period (A.D. 250 – 900) and farmers had a growing need for fuel, construction material, and agricultural land. The type of sustainable forest management practiced by farmers at Chan is distinct from the more extractive practices seen at larger Maya civic-centers where royals culled the mature forest across the Classic period.
In social terms, the community avoided extremes of wealth and power, as all residents from humblest farmer to community leader had access to a similar range of exotic items and lived in perishable houses with similar outward appearances. Residents’ health remained consistent across Chan’s 2000-year history, in contrast to that seen at larger Maya civic-centers where residents’ health declined by the end of the Classic period. All residents were involved in community-wide ritual and political practices that focused on celebrating the community as a whole, rather than individual community leaders. Some of the ritual and political practices innovated at Chan were adopted by Maya royalty and incorporated into state practice and others were avoided by elites. Avoidance of extremes of wealth and power, more equitable distribution of goods, consistency in health, and communal focus of ritual and politics are some of the socially effective strategies that residents established to help ensure their community endured.
Remarkable daily life
From a traditional archaeological perspective Chan would be considered a minor center, unremarkable in terms of size and architectural elaboration, but this perspective misses the richness of everyday life at Chan. Opulent Maya civic-centers with their towering temple pyramids that usually are the focus of Maya archaeological research, may have been impressive in their time, but had rising and falling political histories. When we compare Chan’s longevity and its social and environmental strategies with much more opulent centers and their inequitable distributions of wealth, hierarchical political institutions, declining health, and deforestation, we see the ways in which we may learn some of our most important lessons about human societies, and the importance of social and economic sustainability, from everyday life at seemingly unremarkable place such as Chan.