Reconstructing Ancient Maya Diet

The collapse of classic Maya civilization at the end of the eighth century A.D. is still an enigma, but the story behind it is likely more than a clash of warring city-states. New research indicates that ecological degradation and nutritional deficiency may be as important to our understanding of Maya cultural processes as deciphering the rise and fall of kings.

Reconstructing Ancient Maya Diet integrates recent data from bone-chemistry research, paleopathology, paleobotany, zooarchaeology, and ethnobotany to show what the ancient Maya actually ate at various periods (as opposed to archaeological suppositions) and how it affected the quality of their lives. It is now evident that to feed a burgeoning population the Maya relied on increasingly intensive forms of agriculture.

Exploring the relationship between these practices, ecological degradation, and social collapse, this book uses dietary data to investigate the rise of agricultural systems and class structure; the characterization of social relationships along lines of gender and age (i.e., who ate what); and the later effects of the Spanish conquest on diet and extant modes of agriculture.

Maya subsistence has been investigated intensively for the past two decades, but this is the first volume that unites work across the spectrum of Maya bioarchaeology.

Christine White is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Western Ontario.

Table of Contents:
Table of Contents:

Introduction: Ancient Maya Diet ~ Christine D. White

PART I: Botanical and Faunal Analyses
1. Plant Resources of the Ancient Maya: The Paleoethnobotanical Evidence ~ David L. Lentz
2. Classification of Useful Plants by the Northern Petén Maya (Itzaj) ~ Scott Atran
3. Continuity and Variability in Postclassic and Colonial Animal Use at Lamanai and Tipu, Belize ~ Kitty F. Embry
4. Social and Ecological Aspects of Preclassic Maya Meat Consumption at Colha, Belize ~ Leslie C. Shaw

PART II: Paleopathology
5. Coming Up Short: Stature and Nutrition among the Ancient Maya of the Southern Lowlands ~ Marie Elaine Danforth
6. Land Use, Diet,and Their Effects on the Biology of the Prehistoric Maya of Northern Ambergris Cay, Belize ~ David M. Glassman and James F. Garber
7. Dietary Change of the Lowland Maya Site of Kichpanha, Belize ~ Ann L. Magennis
8. Caries and Antemortem Tooth Loss at Copán: Implications for Commoner Diet ~ Stephen L. Whittington
9. Late Classic Nutrition and Skeletal Indicators at Copán, Hondoras ~ Rebecca Storey

PART III: Bone Chemistry
10. Cuisine from Hun-Nal-Ye ~ David Millard Reed
11. The Elements of Maya Diets: Alkaline Earth Baselines and Paleodietary Reconstruction in the Pasión Region ~ Lori E. Wright
12. Dietary Carbonate Analysis of Bone and Enamel for Two Sites in Belize ~ Shannon Coyston, Christine D. White, and Henry P. Schwarcz


Praise and Reviews:

“An exemplar of multidisciplinary research.... This volume shows how much can be gleaned through a holistic approach to dietary reconstruction.”—International Journal of Osteoarchaeology


“White argues that this volume is a starting point for additional investigations on food behavior and food as a metaphor for culture. It is, indeed, an impressive beginning.”—Journal of Anthropological Research


“The chapters in this edited volume are very valuable contributions to studies of ancient Maya nutrition.”—Latin American Antiquity


“White has the strong editorial vision it takes to make a volume like this cohere and sum to a whole greater than its parts.... This is a fine example of the value of exploring multiple lines of evidence that should be of interest to anyone who appreciates a multidimensional approach to archaeological problem solving.”—American Journal of Human Biology