University of New Mexico alumna Amy Thompson has been awarded the UNM Tom L. Popejoy Dissertation Award for her dissertation Comparative Processes of Sociopolitical Development in the Foothills of the Southern Maya Mountains

Thompson, who received a Ph.D. in Anthropology in December 2019, is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas (Austin).

Archaeologist Amy Thompson
Archaeologist Amy Thompson

“My dissertation examines past human behaviors that guided settlement selection. Specifically, my research focuses on Classic (250-800 CE) and modern (1850s – present) Maya communities in southern Belize, identifying neighborhoods, assessing differential access to social and environmental resources, and examining mechanisms that drove settlement decision-making in the past and today,” Thompson explained.

“… Incorporating spatial and statistical analyses, I tested how differential access to social and environmental resources affected inequality in these ancient communities, finding that older households had greater access to spot resources resulting in inequities among the households due to the intergenerational transmission of wealth,” Thompson said. Social resources include access to transportation routes for trade and ideologies, and social networks of kin and corporate groups. Environmental resources include access to fresh water, good soils for high agricultural yields, slope of the terrain, and underlying bedrock for construction materials.

“Finally, I expanded on my studies of the past to assess how settlement selection among modern Maya communities living on the same landscapes is affected by similar social and environmental variables... My analysis of modern Maya communities highlights the importance of social variables on settlement selection, which are often difficult to identify in the archaeological record. My dissertation informs how differential access to resources drives settlement selection and inequality in southern Belize in the Classic period and today, she concluded.

“I am honored to receive the UNM Popejoy Dissertation Award. While I cannot attend the ceremony in person because I am continuing my research, I will be there in spirit,” she remarked.

The Tom L. Popejoy Dissertation Prize was established as a permanent memorial to the late Tom L. Popejoy, president of the University of New Mexico from 1948 to 1968. The award recognizes and encourages the highest level of academic excellence. Competition for the prize is structured on a three-year rotation, so that in one year, the departments of Art and Art History (including MFA) and Humanities are asked to submit their best dissertations; in the next, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics & Statistics; and last, Social Sciences and Education.

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