Ancient Maya Subsistence Diversity: Root and Tuber Remains from Cuello, Belize

Article excerpt

A first notice of the mushy element in the subsistence base of the Maya realms.


The question of prehispanic subsistence in the Maya lowlands has been vigorously debated, since the assessment of Classic Maya (AD 250-900) structural development, particularly in terms of urbanism, has hinged, somewhat precariously, on the nature of their subsistence economy. A model based on retrodiction of the historic regime of swidden or milpa agriculture of predominantly maize, beans and squashes (e.g.. Morley 1946: 441-2) did not easily account for the population densities and proportion of non-farmers projected for Classic cities such as Tikal once survey revealed their unexpected size (Carr & Hazard 1961).

Bronson (1966) therefore reconsidered the subsistence economy of Classic Maya lowland society, suggesting the supplementation of maize with root crops: in this model agricultural yield is sufficiently increased and nutritionally enhanced to meet the needs of a population of greater density than would be possible under a standard milpa regime. Bronson considered that documentary and botanical evidence for four crops -- the sweet potato or camote (Ipomoea batatas); yam bean or jicama (Pachyrrhizus erosus); manioc (cassava, yuca) (Manihot esculenta); and malanga (yautia) (Xanthosoma spp.) -- suggested that the Maya region was a centre for either domestication or diversification. He argued that the Maya had a variety of root crops available to them before the colonial age, and arguably in the Classic Period. Marcus (1982) argued instead for a much later, post-Columbian introduction of three of these root crops, while admitting that a Classic Maya knowledge of wild roots and tubers, particularly for use as famine foods, may have been comprehensive. Pachyrrhizus, she suggests, was likely to have been a Postclassic (AD 900-1500) introduction and possibly a famine food.

Pachyrrhizus erosus is a very fleshy leguminous root crop and by virtue of its anatomy -- large thin walled parenchyma cells, sparsely distributed xylem vessels, high water content -- may be eaten without preparation or cooking; modern consumption is raw, as a snack or salad. These characters are not conducive to good preservation by charring: cellular characters will be largely destroyed by the expansion and release under pressure of water contained in the tissues; the resulting carbonized remains will be extremely fragile, almost certainly unable to survive most post-de-positional environments. Ipomoea batatas has been recovered from archaeological contexts (Rosendahl & Yen 1972; Hather & Kirch 1992), though not in the Maya lowlands; although variable in its morphology and anatomy, it is often not difficult to identify even from highly fragmented remains. The whole of the tuber is eaten, however, usually without preparation before cooking by boiling, steaming or roasting: the likelihood of its presence in the archaeological record is low. Different varieties of Manihot esculenta are boiled, or grated and dried into flour. Detecting its prehispanic utilization is inextricably bound up with the preservation of identifiable remains from such culinary practices; we report here the results of recent research at the Preclassic Maya site of Cuello, Belize, which advance our knowledge of ancient Maya root crop utilization.

Cuello is a small site located on the limestone ridge between the Rio Hondo and Rio Nuevo in northern Belize at 18 [degrees] 05' N, 88 [degrees] 35' W. Excavations between 1975 and 1993 have documented occupation from c. 1200 BC onwards, the earliest settlement known in the Maya lowlands, and a cultural development leading to the emergence of a complex Late Preclassic society after 400 BC (Hammond 1991). Floatation of more than 10 tonnes of soil recovered numerous plant macrofossils, which have been used to reconstruct the Preclassic environment and economy (Miksicek 1991). More than 1100 maize cupule and kernel fragments were recovered (Miksicek et al. …