Different parts of the Maya world reached their heights of power and glory at different times. Great city-states such as El Mirador and Tikal emerged in the central region as early as 500 BCE. In particular, El Mirador became the dominant power in the geopolitics of the southern lowlands. Other cities, including Palenque in the west and Copán in the east, thrived during what is known as the Classic period, from around 250 to 900 CE.
The ancient city of LaMilpa is located in the Three Rivers region toward the eastern edge of the Petén Karst Plateau in what is today northwestern Belize. Like many Maya cities in the Petén, La Milpa is situated in proximity to several upland bajos, large karst depressions that today contain seasonal swamp forests and agriculturally problematic Vertisol soils. Over the past several years, geo-environmental archaeological investigations have revealed that as late as the Protoclassic period some of these bajos contained perennial wetlands and shallow lakes (Dunning et al. 2002), habitats similar to those known to have been highly attractive to early Maya settlers (Pohl et al. 1996). Over the course of several centuries, erosion on surrounding uplands choked the bajos with huge quantities of clayey sediment, hydrologically transforming the minto seasonal swamps (Dunning et al. 1999).While similar environmental degradation may have contributed to the demise of the large Preclassic urban centers of Nakbe and El Mirador ( Jacob 1995), at La Milpa and many other southern lowland centers, the Maya successfully adapted to their changing environment. One adaptation was the construction of centralized reservoirs within the urban area (Scarborough et al. 1995). This development probably contributed to growing social and economic inequalities in Maya society by vesting symbolic and, to a limited degree, actual control over a vital resource (water) as well as by increasingly skewing land values in favor of the site center and elite landholders (Dunning 1995). Nevertheless, smaller-scale water management features and more soiland water-conserving forms of agriculture came to characterize the cultivated areas of the La Milpa urban area (Hammond et al. 1998) as well as rural farmsteads throughout the region (Hughbanks 1998; Lohse, this volume; Lohse and Findlay 2000), particularly as population growth accelerated in the Late Classic.
Notably, many of the areas of highest rural population concentration in the Three Rivers region were along ecotonal boundaries such as escarpment edges and bajo margins (Dunning et al. 2003). For example, the Barba Group, an apparent corporate group settlement (mapped, excavated, and identified as a lineage compound by Hageman 1999a), is situated along the Río Bravo Escarpment, potentially giving residents access to the water and land resources of both the Río Bravo floodplain and the lands of the flanking karst uplands, as well as terrace systems on the escarpment itself (Figure 5.2). This rural settlement pattern is one that might best be predicted on the basis of risk management: a strategy of resource diversification that minimized risk (in the event of the failure of one resource) and maximized group resource control (see Levi 1996). In the settlement areas around the major site of Dos Hombres, Jon C. Lohse (2001, this volume) identifies two distinct types of settlement patterns: (1) hierarchically structured corporate groups, and (2) densely settled, structurally more homogeneous ‘‘micro-communities.’’ Notably, both types of settlement organization are viewed as specific adaptations to environmental circumstances and the requirements of local agriculture.