Prehispanic Maya foodways: archaeological and microbotanical evidence from Escalera al Cielo, Yucatan, Mexico
Simms, Stephanie Renee
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Maize is universally considered to be the basis of prehispanic Maya foodways and maize-beans-squash agriculture the primary means of food acquisition. This narrow view is attributable to a lack of direct evidence and an oversimplification of the ethnographic data. In this dissertation I employ new methods to recover evidence of ancient plant foods at Escalera al Cielo (EAC)—a Terminal Classic (A.D. 800-950) Puuc Maya settlement located in Yucatán, Mexico—and challenge the notion that all Maya everywhere ate an unvarying diet of agricultural staples. By highlighting the tremendous variety of environments, foods, and food practices as well as the potential biases contained within the ethnohistorical and ethnographic literature, I use the archaeological evidence to reevaluate established models and explore daily food practices at EAC. The research focuses on domestic spaces from three excavated households, the artifacts that formed part of the culinary toolkit (e.g., ceramic vessels, grinding stones, chipped stone tools, and fired clay balls), and microbotanical residues (phytoliths and starch) associated with these spaces and artifacts. Modal analyses of artifacts and identifications of their residues permit testing of functional assumptions about culinary implements (e.g., "maize grinding stones"). The results reveal that most implements were multifunctional and that the food prepared and consumed at EAC included a range of cultivated and wild resources in addition to the expected staple ingredients of maize, beans, and multiple varieties of squash. There are also abundant starch residues from chile peppers (ground for seasonings and salsas), palm phytoliths that may represent foodstuffs, and at least three root crops—arrowroot, manioc, and Zamia sp.—the first of which may have been an additional staple ingredient. These new data illuminate regional food preferences, techniques of preparation, the diversity of food production and procurement strategies, symbolic associations of certain foods (identified in ritual contexts), and the skill and labor required of women who are widely considered to have been responsible for most food practices.