A Reconstruction of Middle Preclassic Maya Subsistence Economy at Cahal Pech, Belize

Article excerpt


Recent research has revealed that many of the traditional cultural hallmarks of Classic Maya civilization (AD 250-900) seem to have had their origins in the preceding Preclassic or Formative period (2000 BC-AD 250). In particular, there are strong indications that the Maya made the transition from a relatively egalitarian to ranked and stratified society during this early period of cultural development (Adams & Culbert 1977; Awe 1992; Hammond 1992; Healy & Awe 1995b). It is now generally accepted that it was during the latter half of the Middle Preclassic (Mamom phase 650-300 BC) that several of the diagnostic traits of complex culture were established (Hammond 1986: 403; Sharer 1992: 131).

An integral component in studies of increasing cultural complexity is the subsistence economy which supported that development. At present, knowledge of late Middle Formative resource utilization and the extent of organized subsistence economies across the Maya lowlands remains limited. With the notable exceptions of Cuello (Miksicek 1991; Wing & Scudder 1991), Cerros (Carr 1986; Cliff & Crane 1989) and Colha (Carr 1985; Shaw 1991), few sites have yielded substantial subsistence data dating to this period.

In the upper Belize River Valley region, located in west-central Belize [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], investigations into Preclassic subsistence economies have only recently begun. Settlement and midden densities collected from the region suggest that an extensive swidden agricultural system (slash-and-burn) was being practiced in restricted areas during the Middle Formative period (Fedick 1989: 240). Relatively little research has focused on the actual cultigens exploited by the Formative inhabitants of the Belize Valley, and there remain significant questions about the degree of importance of maize (versus other plant and animal foodstuffs) in the diet at this early date (Healy & Awe 1995b: 7). The non-plant component of the Preclassic diet also needs to be more completely researched.

This study represents an attempt to provide more substantive data regarding animals and plants used by the Middle Formative Maya of the Belize Valley. Combining the animal and plant remains with analysed isotopic data from Middle Preclassic contexts at Cahal Pech provides an invaluable opportunity to reconstruct and illuminate patterns of procurement, consumption, trade and social and ritual use of specific types of foods. The recovery of these remains helps to address not only questions about intra- and inter-site resource utilization within the valley itself, but also adds to the understanding of subsistence strategies throughout the Maya lowlands for this early time period.

Archaeological investigations at the site of Cahal Pech have focused considerable attention on Formative period occupation levels (Awe 1992; Healy & Awe 1995b; 1996; see also Ball & Taschek 1991). One of the long-term objectives of this research was reconstructing subsistence practices throughout the Formative period. The exploitation of animal and plant resources by the Preclassic Maya was of specific concern to the present study. Excavations in the Cahal Pech site core and its peripheral settlement clusters (Cas Pek, Tolok and Zotz groups) have yielded over 20,000 faunal remains, constituting one of the largest assemblages yet recovered from a lowland Maya site (Stanchly 1995: 125). Several recognized Mesoamerican cultigens and economically valuable tree species have been identified in the Cahal Pech archaeobotanical collection (Wiesen & Lentz 1997). Carbonized remains from the site core have also yielded some of the earliest securely dated maize cupules and textile-impressed plaster fragments, probably produced from cotton, in the Maya lowlands (Lawlor et al. 1995: 157-62).


The medium-sized Maya site of Cahal Pech is situated on an imposing acropolis which overlooks the Belize River [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. …