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From Movement to Mobility: The Archaeology of Boca Chinikihá (Mexico), a Riverine Settlement in the Usumacinta Region


Current studies on the movement of goods among the ancient Maya have highlighted the variability existing in different regions in terms of degree of economic integration, control between main centers and outlying communities, and transportation modes. Yet, investigations on riverine ports, as locales of intra- and interregional economic networks, have been largely neglected, and until recently, biased by two main arguments. First, large exchange networks were not pivotal to the development of Classic period, inland Maya centers; and secondly, the development of a bustling trade economy emerged in later periods, when the conjunction of new political strategies and new coastal trade routes occurred. In light of recent data emerging in various riverine regions of the Maya area, researchers have started to question these assumptions and reassess the importance of riverine navigation for the development of inland Maya polities. This study explores the sophistication and internal variability of riverine route systems within the Maya Lowlands, focusing on the Upper Usumacinta Region, where such sophistication has been barely recognized, possibly due to the unpredictable nature of the river course. However, recent research in the area has shown that facilitating and controlling inland and riverine movement was important, politically and economically, for major polities in the region. In this scenario, I propose that during the Classic period, the site of Boca Chinikihá was a trade port in the Upper Usumacinta landscape. Boca Chinikihá’s communication routes, infrastructure, and internal distribution of imported goods reflect its strategic position along an important communication artery, and convey its role as a trade node. Furthermore, on a regional scale, I suggest that movement of people and goods was not only a way to secure every day and luxury wares, but was also part of a larger political narrative used by the Usumacinta polities to define themselves in contrast to, or in alliance with, other neighboring polities. To unpack the various facets of movement, I apply the concept of mobility to my analysis, originally proposed by social scientists to tackle the issue of physical movement, its representations, ideologies, and practices from an overarching perspective. By considering mobility as a series of social practices that give socio-political meaning to the act of movement, this work adds to ancient trade and transportation studies a new dimension of movement not as epiphenomenal to social life, but as an inherent aspect of politics and power relations in antiquity as in modern times.

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