There was no Wal-Mart with food; no other super-market chain. No highways (at least not in most areas). And definitely no trucks, or horses, or camels or llamas to carry food from one area to another. So a family of Mayan speaking people had to use initiative to survive.
There was no Red Cross or USAID or United Nations to help a starving area
Again, initiative by the Maya was crucial. We are studying how maize and beans are harvested and stored so we can better understand what happened if there were several years of drought (or several years of too much rain). Or years of warfare to the point that agricultural fields were destroyed by the enemy. Remember, the Spaniards cut down every Maya agricultural field that they could find.
Maya archaeology is achieving progress in understanding Maya diet, food products, and the agricultural techniques used to produce the food.
Capable scholars in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere are helping learn about Maya agricultural practices. We at FLAAR have spent many years preparing an exhaustive list of edible plants. I am sure that (I hope that) agronomists, agricultural engineers, and archaeologists who study plant remains in archaeological sites have found edible foods that I myself have not yet listed, but the list we have worked on is more comprehensive than all of Cyrus Lundell’s helpful contributions of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
But the challenge today is to face the reality that a theory based on excavations or pollen analysis of one location is only applicable in that and related eco-systems. What happened at and around Tikal is not what happened in the mountains of El Quiche or even the mountains of Alta Verapaz. Not to mention the desert-like eco-system along the Motagua River drainage.
Unprecedented diversity of eco-systems for Maya agriculture suggests that no one theory of Maya farming technology will cover all areas
Research on ancient Maya agriculture techniques and practices has been popular for decades. The snag is that the diversity of eco-systems within the greater area of Mayan languages is a challenge to be known personally to each agronomist or professor of agriculture (or ethnographer). The El Peten topography varies from swamps to drier areas across the north to Karst areas to savannas around Poptun and La Libertad and en route from the Santa Elena airport through the military base (en route to Belize or the turnoff to Tikal). Soil and geology specialists could list even more totally distinctive eco-systems.
Alta Verapaz has even more diversity: all the water areas, many more caves, more rivers than I can count, and mountains of impressive size and shapes. I have hiked through areas that were spectacular. In a 4WD vehicle you can drive through more eco-systems in a single day (while still in Alta Verapaz) than are listed in most peer-reviewed botanical or agricultural journals. If you add Belize, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador, the range of eco-systems is remarkable.
I have been in the Maya area since 1962, at age 16. I have led tour groups for over 30 years to remote ruins by dugout canoe, white-water rafting, hiking, helicopter, 4WD, in every single Mexican state plus most areas of Belize and adjacent countries. But there are still areas of Guatemala I look forward to experiencing, though in the 50+ years I have been to quite a lot. My goal is to put this life’s experience into print (at least into PDFs, unless funding comes from a Mayan angel to allow us to produce coffee-table style books with the high-resolution photos we now have).
The Maya food supply comes from these diverse eco-systems. The ancient Maya cuisine would have been different depending on altitude, rainfall, temperature, etc. The Maya diet would have also depended on whether the family had their own agricultural fields, or were workers or traders and had no fields of their own. The Maya recipes would have varied by season and by wealth or lack of wealth of the family.
Farming would have depended on how deep the soil was, on the steepness of the hills or mountains (yet some areas were flat river basis, though no area as flat as Illinois except the Costa Sur which was outside the Mayan speaking area for many centuries (the Olmecs, Teotihuacanos, Bilbao civilizations occupied much of this area). Plus there are the Xinca (a non-Mayan language area elsewhere in Guatemala).
Although you do not eat your clothing, we also study cotton (and bark paper for cloth-like materials). We study (and raise) tobacco (and cotton, have lots of fresh open pods during this Christmas week).
For 2015 we will continue to study flavorings, condiments, and seasonings for cacao. The same plant products also flavor tobacco and incense. Smoking a cigar is in some ways another way of offering incense to the deities: we experienced the ceremony of a shaman just a few weeks ago, at the base of a Ceiba tree. Cigars were his primary offering: both smoked, and then burnt as if incense.
Milpa (swidden) agriculture is practiced today
Many scholars suggest that agriculture was more intensive, more systematic, more productive 2000 years ago, since there were more people to feed. But since almost all Maya groups today practice slash-and-burn milpa agriculture, this was probably a typical practice since the first Maya arrived in the Neotropical seasonal rain forests of Guatemala.
Aboriculture, especially for fruits and nuts, is a crucial aspect of “agriculture”
Trees were essential for survival for thousands of years in the Maya areas.
- ● Palm thatch
- ● House construction
- ● Lintels and vault beams
- ● Source of colorants
- ● Fruits
- ● Nuts
- ● Medicinal plants
- ● Source of material for cordage
- ● Shade trees (both for people, and shade for cacao species which need shade)
- ● Sacred trees (Ceiba and others).
Thus we study trees of all sizes, shapes and uses. So for 2015 we will be posting more high-resolution photographs related to Maya agricultural practices, food resources, and diet. We hope these photos will be helpful to both students and professors.