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Maya Foodways: Plant and Food Roles in Ancient Maya Society

This guest post was written by Brian Jimenez, a 2022 intern with the Library of Congress  Science, Business, and Technology Division. He is passionate about environmental and indigenous issues.

Working with Science Research Specialist Michelle Cadoree Bradley and the rest of the staff has been a fantastic time where I got to learn about the Library of Congress and its inner workings, and explore my interest in indigenous foodways. While examining bibliographies of indigenous cookbooks, I learned about the importance of studying and protecting them. Furthermore, this project aligned with my other passions, such as environmentalism, social issues among indigenous and Latine communities, and reconnecting with my indigenous heritage. When searching the Library of Congress online catalog, I came across a book called Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society.

Cover image from Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society

Cover image from “Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society” edited by Traci Ardren (2020) //lccn.loc.gov/2020005347

The chapter Plant Foodstuffs of the Ancient Maya: Agents and Matter, Medium and Message by Shanti Morell-Hart (p. 124-160) sparked my interest the most. I found it fascinating how the Ancient Maya heavily incorporated plants into their society and assigned them different roles. Food plants were used not only for nutrition in everyday life, but also for rituals, funerals, trade, and elite use.

In addition, different plants had different roles in ancient Maya society. For example, Ramón, a nutritious fruit, was reserved as a famine food. Other plants like cacao were used in various aspects of society, from cultural to religious to caste uses. But, how can contemporary researchers determine if a certain plant was highly prized? There are various factors to observe, including its price of acquisition, processing regimes, and necessity in ritual practices to name a few. To fulfill these roles, plants had to attain “active roles” in their society both being changed, and changing the society around them. Plants would have to evolve and adapt to attract pollination from animals and cultivation by people. By using such a perspective, researchers can critically evaluate sustainable plant food practices in both ancient and contemporary Maya communities and understand resilience and sustainability in ancient Maya society.

Maya communities accommodated their preferred plant foods, giving the plants roles in both spiritual and material culture, sometimes actively changing their environment to accommodate them in their food culture. They resorted to terraforming, such as building terraces, canals, and fields, transportation, construction of special facilities, and specialization of tools to maintain their food culture. In addition to environmental manipulation, food plants were given social roles to either divide or unite communities and serve religious purposes. Some examples include specialized drinks for healing and rituals, such as balche’ (a mildly intoxicating drink, produced from Lonchocarpus bark); sakha’/saka’, produced from maize and used in ceremonies for food cultivation and dedications; and of course, cacao (produced from Theobroma cacao), used in various ritualized processes such as marriages, baptisms, and sacrifices.

illustration of castle at Tuloom from Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America

Castle at Tuloom illustration from “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” by Frederick Catherwoord, 1844: Plate XXII . //lccn.loc.gov/02023145.

Large-scale and intense landscape modification and management for plant production and the diverse societal roles plants had in all niches of Maya communities reflect the active roles food plants possessed.  Their importance can be seen in the botanical elements such as flowers and maize in the adornments of Tulum. This new perspective put forward in Plant Foodstuffs of the Ancient Maya was very interesting to read and showed a different way to look at food systems. Morell-Hart puts it best:

Food plants served as basic matters of subsistence, rival actors, petitioners to the gods, players in royal performance. (Morell-Hart, 148)

detail from illustration of maize, prickly pear, and other plants from Creation by Diego River

Detail of maize, prickly pear, and other plates (image inverted) from [Creation] by Diego Rivera, 1931. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress
//www.loc.gov/item/2008700230/

Exlore more of the Library of Congress collections and diverse voices:

  • Hidden Voices Of Yucatán: Stories Of Land, War, And Resilience, by the Hispanic Reading Room and the Mexican Cultural Institute.  Edited by María Daniela Thurber, Reference Librarian, Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division.
  • Exploring the Early Americas.  Online Exhibition.  December 12, 2007–July 2, 2022. “Exploring the Early Americas features selections from the more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, prints, and artifacts that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. It provides insight into indigenous cultures, the drama of the encounters between Native Americans and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds.”
  • Is Chocolate More American Than Apple Pie?  4 Corners of the World. International Collections Blog, Suzanne Schadl, Chief, Hispanic Division, Library of Congress.  December 21, 2020.

For further reflection:

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One Comment

  1. Manuel Castrillo Durán
    November 13, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Together with the Mayans, the majority of ancient civilizations and their descendants still have in their pharmacopoeia and their gastronomic arts, a large number of plants for various uses. What happens is that industrialization and the market have relegated their use and modern westernized customs have lost the link with nature.

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