The Social Uses of Food in Ancient Maya Culture

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

From feasting as a mechanism for the evolution of complexity to the competitive trade in cacao beans among elites, food and cuisine were deployed in a myriad of ways to cement social relations and reinforce specific identities in the ancient Maya world. The study of foodways encompasses not only diet but all the cultural behaviors and beliefs surrounding consumption—ritual offerings and restrictions, medicinal preparations, competitive consumption, and the role of nostalgia or memory around food. This session presents a series of case studies of Classic Maya foodways from Preclassic to Postclassic contexts. From this rich foundation we will move beyond specific examples to a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms by which food was instrumental to the development of ancient Maya culture. How was diet codified as a marker of Maya identity? Which foods emerged as key components of state ritual and how was their production manipulated? In what ways did cuisine became a specialized knowledge base that reinforced hierarchy? Papers will address the ideological as well as nutritional aspects of Maya cuisine, the economic or political significance of shared foodways, and the role of foodstuffs in the dynamic processes of identity formation.

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  • Documents (9)

  • 2000 Years of Eating: Continuity and change in food practices among the Puuc Maya (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only George Bey. Stephanie Simms. Betsy Kohut.

    This paper examines the evidence for what and how the Maya of the Puuc region ate during the long history of occupation of this region. Data collected from almost two decades of research by the Bolonchen Regional Archaeological Project and covering close to two millennium of occupation are used in this exploration of eating. Household archaeology primarily from the site of Kiuic and the suburban site of Stairway to Heaven, and ceramic data from throughout the BRAP study area provide insights...

  • A Diachronic Interdisciplinary View of Maya Foodways (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Marc Zender.

    This paper reviews archaeological, iconographic, epigraphic, and linguistic evidence for Maya foodways, documenting both the remarkable stability of some traditions and the equally significant changes in others, mostly due to cultural contact, civilizational rupture, and generational shift during some two millennia of Maya history. Although hardly a frequent topic of Maya monumentality, with a few notable exceptions, numerous ceramic vessels, murals, and graffiti depict and/or hieroglyphically...

  • Exchanging and Sharing Food In the Classic Maya polity of Motul de San José (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Kitty Emery. Antonia Foias. Erin Thornton.

    Anthropologists often describe food as the cement that holds people together both by symbolizing shared values and by the practice of sharing food. But in Maya archaeology, "food" is also often assumed to have been acquired locally and consumed primarily at the family level, therefore having a limited role in creating and maintaining alliances except in special circumstances. In contrast, our recent interdisciplinary research at the Classic period Motul de San José polity, Guatemala, argues...

  • Fine Dining and Social Position among the Classic period Maya and their Neighbors in Honduras (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Julia Hendon.

    Drawing on the substantial body of information that has accumulated over decades of research on the kingdom of Copan and its southern and eastern neighbors, I address the question, What were the key components of Maya meals that turned dining into an important, flexible, and subtle way to embody status? This paper draws together information from a range of methods and bodies of data including ethnobotanical and archaeozoological studies, chemical analyses, research on human skeletal remains,...

  • Food and Foodways at Sihó, Yucatán: Understanding Socioeconomic Diversity (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Lilia Fernandez Souza. Mario Zimmermann. Socorro Jiménez Álvarez.

    In the past as in the present, foodways and cuisine have been expressions of identity and status. Different social strata had different access to natural resources and offer a variety of material expressions related to food, preparation and service, from grinding stones to exquisite art works. In Classic Maya society, some foodstuffs such as cacao, were mentioned and painted in beautiful elite wares, as well as in murals and carvings. At Sihó, Yucatán, archaeological projects developed by the...

  • Old Dogs, New Tricks: Tracking Dog Management in the Ancient Maya World (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Petra Cunningham-Smith. Ashley Sharpe. Elizabeth Olson. Erin Thornton. Kitty Emery.

    This study examines the management of dogs as a resource and status symbol in ancient Mesoamerican society. One of the few New World domesticated animals, dogs provided communities with a steady source of meat. Artistic and ethnohistorical accounts suggest that dogs may also have been selectively bred to emphasize particular body shapes and hair types, including even absence of hair. These different breeds are described as playing different roles, as participants in specific ceremonies, as...

  • Pot Luck: Building Community and Feasting amongst the Middle Preclassic Maya (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only M. Kathryn Brown. Carolyn Freiwald.

    Ritual feasting as a practice by which sponsors create uneven social relations with other participants has been suggested to play an important role in establishing social hierarchies in many ancient societies including the ancient Maya. Feasting activities may have also been an important part of Preclassic communal building projects in the Maya lowlands. In this paper, we present data from Middle Preclassic special deposits associated with a series of early public platforms at the site of...

  • A Toast to the Gods and Ancestors: The Role of Beverages in Classic Maya Elite Cave Ritual in West Central Belize (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Terry Powis. Jon Spenard. Adam King. Nilesh Gaikwad.

    For the past two decades, considerable archaeological attention in the Maya area has been paid to ritual cave practices and absorbed residue analysis of pottery, yet these two areas of research have not intersected. In this paper, we discuss the results of the kinds of liquid residues identified in monochrome and unslipped pottery vessels from caves around the site of Pacbitun in west central Belize, where extensive research in Classic Maya elite behavior has taken place. While we know the elite...

  • Urban Carnivores, Rural Vegetarians? Faunal discrepancies over time and space at Mayapan (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Marilyn Masson.

    A usually predictable attribute of Postclassic Maya settlements (in Belize and Yucatan) is the abundance of faunal remains relative to preceding Classic Period contexts. This discrepancy is not attributable to taphonomy or bone age, given the recovery of human bone from both periods and the abundance of fauna in even earlier Preclassic deposits. Robust forest environments, balanced human predation levels, and variable animal husbandry practices represent the best explanations for the wealth of...