In what might be considered a Mayan equivalent of Pompeii, a farm dating to around A.D. 600, which was preserved by ash when a volcano near Ceren erupted, has been being studied by archaeologists funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. What it is revealing may change the way we think about Mayan diet.
“You are what you eat”
This statement is used a lot these days to encourage folks to ditch the burgers and fries in favour of healthier meals, but it has relevance outside the world of ‘five fruit and veg a day’ and ‘drink more water’. Food has a cultural and social aspect. Not only are particular types of cuisine associated with particular countries and cultures, but there are often rituals associated with eating (think of the Tea Ceremony or even a visit to a posh restaurant) and taboos will restrict individuals from eating substances that are perfectly edible.
To study the diet of a past society is, therefore, to look not only at biological and environmental factors like what is available in that terrain and what are they able to digest, but also to shine a spotlight onto social, economic and cultural aspects of those people.
How the Maya managed to sustain large cities such as Tikal in Guatemala and Copán in Honduras has long been a puzzle. It was accepted that maize, or corn, was a staple of their diet, but it seemed unlikely that corn could have provided enough sustenance on its own. It had, therefore, been theorised that they had also cultivated manioc. However, until the lucky find of manoic cultivation at the Mayan farm, that had been impossible to prove.
Source: Drye, W. 2007. Ancient Farm Discovery Yields Clues to Maya Diet. National Geographic.