Abstract: How did the Maya feed the Multitudes?


Beginning in the 1840s, and extending for over a century, scholars believed that the ancient Maya lived in dispersed households, with low regional population densities.  Thus they could easily have fed themselves with shifting (swidden) agriculture focusing on maize, beans, and squash.  The prominence of maize in art and in creation beliefs (e.g. Popol Vuh) reinforced this view.  However, settlement surveys during the past six decades have found exceptionally dense housemounds, interpreted as very dense populations, in the hundreds of people per square kilometer.  Archaeologists have discovered some large-scale agricultural features that must have increased productivity, such as terraces and wetland reclamation raised fields.  Microscopic remains of cultigens have been found, but what has eluded scholars are the details of cultivation.  We wish to know what was cultivated, where, how, and with what productivity per unit area.

The exceptional preservation of the ancient Ceren village and its environs provides us an unusually clear window into past agriculture.  That is because the eruption of Loma Caldera volcano, at about AD 600, buried the landscape under many meters of volcanic ash.  We recently discovered intensive agricultural fields some 150 meters south of the village where manioc, a root crop, was grown.  Land use lines radiated from the village that divided individual farmer’s plots.  Manioc was not just an occasional kitchen garden plant, but it was a staple at Ceren, and perhaps at other Maya settlements.  The tubers are high in carbohydrates, and the leaves are high in protein.  Manioc may have helped feed the Maya multitudes. 

2002   Payson Sheets, ed. Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Ceren Village in Central America.  Austin: University of Texas Press. Twenty two chapters.  226 pp.

2006  Payson Sheets. The Ceren Site: An Ancient Village in Central America

Buried by Volcanic Ash.  Revised and expanded edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing. 168 pp.

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