Reconsidering the History and Prehistory of the Champotón Region
Ethnohistoric sources provided a wealth of information about the nature of the city of Champotón/Chakanputun at the moment of Spanish contact. Recent archaeological research in the region have documented a long history of human occupation, extending back to the early Middle Formative Period. The results of this project provide a holistic regional case study of the Classic to Postclassic transition within multiple dimensions of variability: the political, economic, social and ecological domains.
Within the political domain, there is abundant archaeological and epigraphic evidence that central Campeche and the Rio Champoton drainage was incorporated into the political network dominated by the Kanu'l Dynasty of Calakmul, an expansive hegemonic state that extended across much of the Maya Lowlands during the seventh century AD. During this period, Calakmul's power in the region was exercised indirectly through control of Edzná, likely to control the strategic riverine trade route extending from the Gulf Coast via the Rio Champoton and Edzna canal system. Political links between Late Classic centers in the region with Edzná are clearly reflected in the ceramic assemblage from sites such as Ulumal and San Dimas, and all three centers experienced periods of political flourescence during this period. The decline of Calakmul in the mid-8th Century AD instigated major changes in the geopolitical landscape, the impacts of which reverberated in the northwestern boundaries of the zone controlled by the Snake Dynasty. As the power of the Kaan’ul Dynasty of Calakmul began to wane, Edzná became embroiled within increasing political turmoil and instability. This period of political volatility would culminate in the termination of the local Edzná ruling dynasty and emergence of new rulers with strong links to the Gulf Coast. This change in the political landscape would usher in major changes in the Champotón region, with a shift in political affiliation towards emerging coastal interaction networks. By the Postclassic Period, Champotón would rise to regional prominence as port city and seat of a regional state that controlled much of central Campeche.
Within the economic domain, the Classic to Postclassic transition is characterized by major changes in subsistence systems as well as production and distribution systems of luxury and utilitarian goods. There was a major shift in the subsistence economy from an agriculturally based food production strategy in the Late Classic to extensive exploitation of marine food resources in the Terminal Classic Period, then diversification in the Postclassic Period. Production and distribution of ceramic and lithic goods shift from smaller-scale regional networks of the Classic Period toward participation in an increasingly integrated and commercialized economic system in the Terminal Classic and Postclassic Period. These dynamics were part of broader pan-Mesoamerican transformations towards increasing internationalism and economic integration.
In the ecological domain, changes in settlement patterns were part of a fundamental reorganization in the ways that societies interacted with the environment. Large low-density urban centers of the Late Classic were consistently located near ecotones between hilly uplands and the Río Champotón alluvial plain, facilitating exploitation of diverse agricultural resources and mitigation of risks due to unpredictable rainfall. This set of coupled socio-ecological dynamics – termed the Low-Density Urban Rainfall Agriculture (LURA) regime – is part of a broader tradition of low-density urbanism that extends across much of the interior Maya Lowlands. By the end of the Late Classic Period there is a demographic transition to dispersed communities along the coastal margin. This was part of a new set of human environmental dynamics with a clear and notable difference in food production systems, with a shift towards exploitation of highly productive fisheries in marine and estuary ecozones. This emergent set of human-environmental interactions is termed the Dispersed Coastal Marine (DCM) regime. In the Postclassic Period, there was a second demographic shift back to a more concentrated settlement pattern, with populations increasingly focused within nucleated urban center, including the expanding city of Champotón (Chakanputun). This Postclassic socio-ecological regime – termed the Regional Intensive Diversified (RID) regime – included integration between more specialized communities in diverse ecological zones, with coastal fishing complemented by intensive inland agriculture.
During the period that witnessed the collapse and abandonment of large inland city-states in the Southern Maya Lowlands, the high degree of resilience among communities in the Río Champotón drainage during this period of turmoil was due to several key factors: an ecological setting that facilitated relatively rapid transformation in food production strategies in the face of climatic instability; the strategic location along the Gulf Coast maritime trade route that would become the dominant trade thoroughfare by the end of the Classic Period; and the successful political reorientation among states in the region from peripheral participation in inland-focused Petén-centric spheres to the emergent international systems of the Postclassic Period.