Most archaeological field research has been on finding ancient (Classic period) alternatives to the present day milpa agriculture. So scholars seek ridged fields, irrigation, and all the other non-milpa kinds of intensive agriculture. One question is, however, whether ridged fields or irrigated fields are primarily found elsewhere (where water sources are available)? And why are there no ridge fields documented my archaeologists in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala? Or, maybe there are, and maybe aerial scanning will reveal such fields? Only time will tell. But most maize fields in the Mayan areas of Guatemala today are closer to milpa style agriculture than European or Middle East grain fields.
The Q'eqchi', Peten Ytza, Mopan, and most Highland Maya still use slash-and-burn milpa agriculture today. I have spent the last several YEARS driving on every highway and byway, and hundreds of remote dirt roads (to find and photograph roadside flowers) that I have personally witnessed Maya agriculture throughout their core area. I have also been by boat up and down remote rivers with local Q’eqchi’ friends: both sides of the Rio Ixbolay have lots of neatly organized maize plantings (Ixbolai and spelled several other ways).
There are many words and names for milpa agriculture: shifting cultivation, slash-and-burn. Plus the current Maya agriculturists of remote villages have several ways to name what we call a milpa.
Where you find intensive raised fields is in the Kakchiquel Mayan areas, were they are raising commercial crops. I was pleasantly surprised to find raised fields of bledo, which is vegetable amaranth (though what is eaten is just the fresh leaf of the recently sprouted plant). The seeds of this species, in this area, are not harvested for eating. And the fields are not raised out of watery areas; they are raised to leave pathways for walking between the raised areas. I estimate that most of these fields are year after year, with little or no fallow period. Relatives of student interns work these raised fields which is why we went to visit this area (prepare for hiking up and down steep mountains).
History of my work on Mayan food
My first experience with Maya agriculture was at age 16 in the Palenque region, then ages 17 and 18 in Guatemala and Honduras. Then 12 months in Guatemala at age 19 (while on a year-off from Harvard to work as a student intern at the Tikal archaeological project). Dennis Puleston was doing his grand-breaking research on Maya ramon nuts and chultuns while I was at Tikal.
Then five seasons in the Lake Yaxha area, protecting that area by forming a parque nacional on the entire north side. Milperos wanted to chop down everything which destroyed the forests and caused silt to discolor the lake. Cattle ranchers wanted to chop down even more! But the team from FLAAR was able to work together with FYDEP to have the north side declared a national park. A few years later I was awarded a post-graduate research scholarship to Yale as a result of these years of helping protect this substantial area of the Peten.
Also I did sustained research of Mayan farming and Maya food production in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla Spain (with a grant for the American Philosophical Society in 1971). Plus I did months of research in the Archivo General de Central America in Zone 1, Guatemala City. Earlier I did research in the Carnegie archives in the Tozzer Library of the Peabody Museum, while a student at Harvard.
Here is a free download of my 1977 discussion of edible plants of the 17th century Cholti-Lacandon (Chiapas, Mexico) and Peten-Ytza (Peten, Guatemala).
And there are many good books on Mayan food history, especially books by Sophie Coe and Michael Coe (Yale University). A new book on Mayan foods will appear this year (2017) from James “Jim” O’Kon.
But, there is a lot more than the milpa for raising food crops:
there is the home garden or kitchen garden around the Maya house
The food supply for Mayan people does not come entirely from a milpa farm: much of what the Mayan people eat comes from the kitchen garden around their thatch-roofed house. Even in villages, many homes have a traditional Mayan food garden. These are not lawns and decorate plants: these are fruit trees, medicinal plants, herbs and spices.
To what degree "forest gardens" existed during the Classic periods can be debated endlessly. Yes, today people do go out in the forest and harvest what is available. Honey from Melipona bees is one product of the forest that local people really like to find. Meliponines are stingless bees which live in hollow tree trunks or hollow branches
But today most of the forest is private property or cattle ranches or a mine exploitation area. And many forests have been exterminated to create teak plantations, Brazilian rubber plantations, and African palm oil plantations. So I do not yet study forest gardens since I am not fully convinced this is a viable food resource option today. But I am open to doing research on food potential of forest gardens if I can find evidence this concept exists today. But there definitely are gardens of edible plants, bushes, vines, and trees immediately surrounding the thatch-roofed huts of Mayan people of Guatemala.
Medicinal Plants do not always have to be raised
Around many Q'eqchi' Mayan thatch-roofed houses I see medicinal plants which are clearly brought in (by seed or sprig). But 75% of the medicinal plants that I find are simply "roadside weeds." In effect, practically every roadside weed is used either for medicinal purposes or as a source of dye colorant (for cotton clothing). Or both (many plants are both edible, produce a colorant, and have other parts of the plant which are medicinal).
The Maya had sacbes as "highways" but they had endless paths (to get to the milpa, to get to the next village, and for merchants to bring in trade goods from far away). So there were plenty of roadside clearings where diverse shrubs and weeds would grow. Most of these plants are usable (remember, no Dow Chemical company, no Bayer, no Monsanto chemicals two thousands years ago in the Maya area). So people learned to survive by using what grows everywhere naturally.
Food recipes, Maya food restaurants, Maya menu, cuisine, diet
Normally I do not have time to focus on Mayan food recipes. And I rarely socialize so I do not seek Maya food restaurants on the rare moments that I do eat outside my office (or outside a hotel when on a field trip). But I do see items of Mayan cuisine when walking through native markets throughout Mesoamerica.
Junco palm wrapped in leaves in a Q'eqchi' Mayan market (July 2015). Junco palm has edible stems. Plus, its leaves are used to thatch houses (and to wrap the edible stems, though banana leaves (not-native) are also used).
Modern supermarkets and grocery stores in Guatemala City have foods from all around the world, but also have native Guatemalan plant foods as well. But in small villages, even though you also get (non-native) apples and oranges and watermelons, you occasionally are lucky enough to find a local plant, which is fully edible, but which is never ever in any supermarket or grocery store.
Some of the edible foods of local Mayan village markets are missing from many peer-reviewed journals and missing from monographs on Maya foods, Maya agriculture, or Maya arboriculture. Surely junco is hopefully in book on Mayan ethnobotany, but it is so often present in the market of Q’eqchi’ heartland Senahu that this plant should be studied. Junco is Carludovica palmate, K'ala in Q’eqchi’ Mayan language of Guatemala.
Junco palm wrapped in banana leaves (July 2015).
Photography of Junco palm, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala).
Finding seldom cited fruits, nuts, seeds, and grains is one major interest
No matter whether a monograph or article is trying again to downplay "maize, beans and squash;" no matter whether a peer-reviewed journal article is doing its best to introduce root crops or ramon nuts, there are still scores of edible plants not even in Cyrus Lundell's excellent "Plants probably used by the Old Empire Maya of Peten and adjacent Lowlands." So the subject of Mayan agriculture, food supply, diet and options are still open enough to call for substantial further research.
Here is a photograph of Amaranthus species (grain plant) alongside a Q'eqchi' Mayan house in a remote part of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Although this edible plant is (hopefully) in all major lists of edible Maya foods, you rarely see photographs of it.
There are many varieties of Amaranthus cruentus in Highland Guatemala (Bressani and Rodas, www.uvg.edu.gt). Although it is usually called grain amaranth, in fact different parts of the plant are usable (more than just the seed as a grain).
Here is another photograph of Amaranthus species (grain plant)
Photograph of Amaranthus species taken in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.
To fully identify most plant species it is essential to have photographs of the flowers. This is because many different plants have similar leaves and even similar fruits or nuts. But normally the flowers are different.
So for every single solitary plant in our list, we need to learn when this species blooms: challenge, they bloom at different times at different altitudes or different eco-systems. They bloom at different times the next year if rainfall pattern changed a bit.
But first we have to find the plant or tree or shrub. Many plants are everywhere (Ceiba pentandra is taller than a five story apartment building, so they are rather noticeable). But it has taken us five years to find Virola guatemalensis, and we still have not been in front of this tree to photograph either the flowers or fruits (so it takes two visits for plants where the fruit is important; for every plant we have to record the flowers).
After five years we had still not found its'imte' (Clerodendrum ligustrinum). This plant gives its Yucatec Maya name to the ruins near La Libertad, El Peten, but this entire area has been clean cut for cattle pasture: so not one single bush remains (unless a few survived on top of any remaining mounds; we have not been to the site itself since it is on private property far from any highway). We met the owner of the entire property adjacent to the finca of Itsimte’, but did not find the plant on the adjacent area.
But several weeks later (after five years of search), two different plant scouts telephoned us to say they had finally found Itsimte in each of their (separate) areas. So we drove, and then took boats, all the way to two remote riverine areas and found several THOUSAND Itsimte’ bushes.
And when you do finally find an important utilitarian plant it is usually bulldozed or chopped down within one or two years
And many of the rare trees we photographed in 2014 when we returned during subsequent years, they had been exterminated. An entire grove of balsa trees was wiped out near La Tinta (for a milpa). The balsa wood was not even used commercially; it was hacked to pieces and burned on the spot and the rest left to rot.