Pine, Prestige and Politics of the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize

Article excerpt


Most studies of Precolumbian Maya trade and exchange base their inferences on the distribution of artefacts made of durable material such as ceramic, chert, obsidian, shell and jade. Charting the trade and exchange of plant products that are susceptible to decomposition is more elusive. Despite the challenges of retrieving plant materials from open sites in the Neotropics, systematic paleoethnobotanical sampling at three Late Classic sites, Xunantunich, San Lorenzo and Chan Noohol, in western Belize (Figure 1) produced a broad array of carbonised plant remains. In-depth analysis of the wood component of those remains revealed a non-random distribution of charred pine (Pinus spp.) in archaeological sediments. This paper discusses the implications of these unexpected results for the Late Classic political economy.


Pine in the Maya area, present and past

The natural vegetation around Xunantunich today is Neotropical deciduous forest dominated by broadleaf hardwoods. The largest nearby pine stands are in the Mountain Pine Ridge, 17km to the south-east (Figure 1). The acidic soils of the Mountain Pine Ridge, highly weathered and derived largely from granite bedrock, are unsuitable for agriculture, accounting for the low density of Precolumbian and modern habitation. The soils, however, do support extensive open-canopied pine forests in which the visual dominants are Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea vat. hondurensis [Senecl] Barr. et Golf.) and, at higher altitudes (600800m), red pine (P. oocarpa Schiede) (Perry 1991: 199-200; Balick et al. 2000: 49).

Modern Maya people employ pine for a variety of purposes. The Tzotzil and Tzeltal of highland Chiapas use pine to make furniture, domestic utensils, fences and houses (Berlin et al. 1974; Breedlove & Laughlin 2000). The Mopan and Kekchi of southern Belize also use the wood for house construction (Thompson 1930).

Pine is commonly burned for fuel, but because it produces a smoky fire, some contemporary Maya convert pinewood to charcoal first (Breedlove & Laughlin 2000; Wisdom 1940). Charcoal burns more cleanly, and it is lighter than untreated wood. This latter quality is important to traders who transport charcoal and other pine products to sell in regional markets (e.g. Wisdom 1940: 21). Maya carboneros from Cajole, Guatemala, harvest pine and hardwoods, burn the wood to make charcoal and then carry it in 36kg loads to the Quezaltenango market, 16km distant (Hehr 1967: 62). Because of its copious resin, pine heartwood is ideal for torches and fire-starting splints (Atran & Ucan Ek' 1999; Barrera Matin et al. 1976; Breedlove & Hopkins 1971; Breedlove & Laughlin 2000; Oakes 1951), and the Chorti often give pine torches to travellers as a gesture of hospitality (Wisdom 1940: 25).

Beyond these mundane applications, Maya people employ pine in rituals. In the highlands, pine boughs and needles adorn crosses and altars, and the resin serves as incense (Berlin et al. 1974; Breedlove & Laughlin 2000; Deal 1988; Tedlock 1982; Vogt 1969; Wisdom 1940). In the lowlands, the Lacandon (McGee 1990) and the Itza (Atran & Ucan Ek' 1999) burn pine resin as incense, sometimes mixed with copal resin. Pine also has medicinal properties; the Tzotzil use pine resin to make a tea to treat loose teeth and spider bites (Breedlove & Laughlin 2000).

Paleoethnobotanical data demonstrate the long history of utilitarian and ritual uses of pine in the Maya area. Pine occurs in diverse domestic contexts in Maya sites, especially middens and platform fill (Dickau & Lentz 2001; Lentz 1991, 1994, 1999; Lentz et al. 1996, 1997; Miksicek 1983, 1991; Morehart 2001, 2003; Wiesen & Lentz 1999). Archaeologists have also reported finding pine in caves, which were points of communication with the underworld (Morehart 2001; Morehart et al. 2003), and in caches at Caracol (Chase & Chase 1998: 317), tombs at Copan (Lentz 1991) and offerings at La Milpa (Hammond et al. …