The geography of the Maya: does central place theory apply to ancient Maya settlements?

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Oct 112012

An interesting historical example of central place theory is described in Ancient Mesoamerica: a comparison of change in three regions. Central place theory suggests that places of similar size (or occupying a similar level in a region’s urban hierarchy) should form a distinctive spatial pattern. They will be roughly equidistant from one another.The pattern is conceptualized as a series of hexagons, with a settlement at each apex. Such a pattern permits an equidistant spacing in all directions, and has no “gaps” where any territory falls outside (beyond) the “sphere of influence” of one or other of the settlements.

Several archaeologists interested in the Maya have suggested that central place theory offers a way to help explain the pattern of Maya sites in the Yucatán Peninsula and further south into Guatemala. They have postulated that Maya settlements may indeed form a hierarchy in terms of size and importance, with a relatively small number of major regional centers overseeing a larger number of smaller centers. Furthermore, where such a pattern exists, it suggests a high degree of political organization.

This particular example comes from the south-east corner of Campeche, near the Guatemala border.


The major regional center in this case is Calakmul (a World Heritage site since 2002). Calakmul is surrounded by six smaller centers, which are close to equidistant from each other, as well as from Calakmul. In turn, Uxul has several smaller subordinate settlements around it.

Settlement order around Calakmul in Classic Period (Blanton et al, 1981)

Settlement order around Calakmul in Classic Period (from Blanton et al, 1981; figure 4.11)

In this example, the average distance between settlements is about 33 kilometers (20.5 miles), which is approximately one day’s walk and/or canoe trip in this region. So, an individual could leave somewhere like Altamira in the morning and reach Calakmul before nightfall, and vice versa.

Not all Maya archaeologists believe that central place theory is helpful in explaining the distribution of settlements in the region. Some argue that the daily travel distance is the key, and that patterns such as that found around Calakmul are as much due to coincidence as any kind of overriding pattern.

The original theory, as proposed by German geographer Walter Christaller in 1933, was based on various assumptions. In particular, the region was assumed to be an unbounded isotropic (flat) plain, homogeneous in all significant physical aspects (soil, access to water, vegetation, etc), and population was assumed to be evenly distributed. The Yucatán Peninsula is certainly an area of low relief, but access to water and vegetation vary significantly from one area to another, so Christaller’s basic assumptions are not met in the region. On the other hand, there is no denying that a highly structured society might decide (even without having studied  AP Human Geography or A-level Geography) that regularly-spaced settlements are an ideal solution to issues of transportation, administration and control.

For a more academic discussion of the merits of central place theory in Maya research, see Brown and Witschey’s The Geographic Analysis of Ancient Maya Settlement and Polity [pdf file], a paper presented in 2001 at the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, City University, Hong Kong.


Blanton, Richard E., Stephen A. Kowalewski, Gary Feinmann and Jill Appel. Ancient Mesoamerica: a comparison of change in three regions. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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The geographic center of Mexico

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Apr 142010

Where is the geographic center of Mexico? Well, believe it or not, Mexico has more than one geographic center. This is why, whenever I’ve been asked this question in the past, I’ve always deliberately fudged my reply.

Several locations lay claim to being the center, but it’s all a question of definition. Does center mean “the point where the minimum distance to the ocean in any direction is as large as possible” or does it mean “the center of mass of the country, located by complicated mathematics or by reproducing its outline on a sheet of cardboard and then balancing it on a pin”? But (I can already hear you cry), that doesn’t take into account where the mountain ranges are!  “Aren’t they heavier than the flat coastal lowlands? Don’t they affect the center of mass?”. In addition, what we’ve said so far fails to take into account the uneven distribution of population in Mexico…

So, there is definitely more than one answer to the original question, “Where’s the center of Mexico?” Let’s take a look at some of the contenders.

Plaque marking Tequisquiapan's claim to be the center of Mexico

The townsfolk of Tequisquiapan, a spa town in the state of Querétaro, laid early claim to the idea that their town is the center,  erecting a monument to that effect with a plaque that clearly states “this is the geographic center of Mexico”. Hmm… unfortunately, I’ve absolutely no idea why this position could count as the center!

I’ve often been told by well-educated Mexicans that the true center is actually a point in Guanajuato state, very close to (or corresponding precisely with- opinions differ) the Cerro del Cubilete, the prominent steep-sided hill that rises above the interior plains between the cities of Silao and Guanajuato. I’ve never been clear on what basis this point qualifies for the “geographic center sweepstakes”, but the hill certainly does boast a huge religious statue on its top, and is a regular destination for thousands of pilgrims.

Another alternative is offered by the government mapping and statistics organization, INEGI. Maps displayed when the option “Centro geográfico” is selected on one of its web-pages show that a point in Zacatecas is likely to be the center of mass of the country, with the precise location depending on whether only mainland points are used in the calculation, or whether islands are also included. Strictly speaking, the INEGI calculation is based on averaging the furthermost points of Mexico in the four cardinal directions, rather than on a true “center of mass” calculation or demonstration.

The true center of mass has been calculated, according to a brief text by Homero Adame Martínez in Mexico Desconocido (January 2000), to be yet another point in Zacatecas, just south of the village of Cañitas de Felipe Pescador. Most conveniently for all railroad lovers, this point is very close to where the tracks of two major railroads (from Mexico City to Saltillo and Ciudad Juarez respectively) cross.

Readers with a little time on their hands might like to construct their own cardboard cutout of Mexico to determine if the center of mass they determine corresponds with any of these versions. (If you do try this, please post your result in our comments section.) Incidentally, Mr. Adame also relates how the city of Aguascalientes once laid claim to be the center, placing a plaque (sadly no longer there) to that effect on a post in the city’s central plaza…

Well, having explored the issue of “Where’s the geographic center of Mexico?”, let’s end with a related but much simpler to answer question: “What’s on the opposite side of the globe to Mexico?” This is the point where you would eventually emerge if you were able to dig an unbelievably deep hole straight through the center (core) of the earth. If you began digging outside the National Palace in Mexico City, you’d emerge… in the middle of the Indian Ocean, relatively close to the tiny Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Click here for the original article on MexConnect