The Low-Density Urban Systems of the Classic Period Maya and Izapa: Insights from Settlement Scaling Theory

Michael E. Smith, Scott G. Ortman, José Lobo, Claire E. Ebert, Amy E. Thompson, Keith M. Prufer, Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo, Robert M. Rosenswig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


The peoples of southern Mesoamerica, including the Classic period Maya, are often claimed to exhibit a distinct type of spatial organization relative to contemporary urban systems. Here, we use the settlement scaling framework and properties of settlements recorded in systematic, full-coverage surveys to examine ways in which southern Mesoamerican settlement systems were both similar to and different from contemporary systems. We find that the population-area relationship in these settlements differs greatly from that reported for other agrarian settlement systems, but that more typical patterns emerge when one considers a site epicenter as the relevant social interaction area, and the population administered from a given center as the relevant interacting population. Our results imply that southern Mesoamerican populations mixed socially at a slower temporal rhythm than is typical of contemporary systems. Residential locations reflected the need to balance energetic and transport costs of farming with lower-frequency costs of commuting to central places. Nevertheless, increasing returns in activities such as civic construction were still realized through lower-frequency social mixing. These findings suggest that the primary difference between low-density urbanism and contemporary urban systems lies in the spatial and temporal rhythms of social mixing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)120-137
Number of pages18
JournalLatin American Antiquity
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Maya
  • cities
  • population density
  • settlement patterns
  • settlement scaling
  • urbanism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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