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West Acropolis of Yaxchilan

Animal bones shed light on the lifestyle of citizens in ancient Maya cities

While archaeologists and historians know much about the lives of Maya royalty and rulers, the lifestyles of the poor and middle class are wrapped in mystery. A new study that is examining hordes of animals bones is seeking to unravel some of the enigma.

A doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Ashley Sharpe, and a colleague are trying to add to what scholars know about the regular Maya people by studying their diet and use of animals. Sharpe and Kitty Emery, the Florida Museum of Natural History associate curator of environmental archaeology, are studying 22,000 animal remains held at the museum from three Maya city-states.

Sharpe and Emery are analyzing animal bones and other animal remains to shed light on the politics and economies of Late Classic Maya civilization of 500 to 900 AD.

We looked at how the Maya acquired and distributed animal resources in order to learn more about the economy and how the royal, elite and lower classes interacted ,” Sharpe told PastHorizons . “ It turns out, the Maya states and classes were not all homogenous. They had complicated systems in place for trade relations, distribution of food and access to species, which varied among the cities and social classes much like they do today.

The two are studying the city of Aguateca and the capitals of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. Aguateca is preserved similarly to Roman Pompeii because it was burned in a surprise enemy attack. Sharpe traced movement of animals and animal artifacts from outlying trade partners into the three cities and the movement of resources between the poor, the rich and royalty in the capital cities and the poorer surrounding villages.

The Aguateca plaza with a stele and relief and a step pyramid

The Aguateca plaza with a stele and relief and a step pyramid (Photo by Sébastian Homberger/ Wikimedia Commons )

Poor people ate a lot of fish and shellfish from rivers near their villages. In the capitals, the lower and middle class kept a wider variety of animals but did not share them with the villages. City dwellers especially kept animals from the ocean or deep in the jungle, which was 50 to 100 miles away (110 to 220 kilometers).

The elites, middle and lower classes at the three cities consumed and used different types of animals from the sea, rivers and forests, says the abstract of the study at Science Direct. The differences in the most common species in each city, deer in one, seafood in another, reveal that the city-states’ trade partners differed. That makes sense, Past Horizons says, because there was aggression between the cities. Also, differences reveal cultural trademarks, such as the jewelry made from seashells in Aguateca.

Ancient Maya royalty and other rich people didn’t just depict jaguars in art, such as this incense burner of a jaguar-man, but they apparently ate them, says a new study. The poor ate other, less exotic foods.

Ancient Maya royalty and other rich people didn’t just depict jaguars in art, such as this incense burner of a jaguar-man, but they apparently ate them, says a new study. The poor ate other, less exotic foods. (Photo by Chatsam/ Wikimedia Commons )

“Results indicate that capital residents made use of a wider variety of species than those at subordinate centers, particularly more species from mature forests and exotic (marine) environments,” says the abstract. “Animal species also varied between households of different social tiers, with middle-ranking elites having the greatest diversity of taxa while high-ranking elites focused on a select group of potentially prestigious species. Non-elites mainly acquired river resources. These results suggest a complex system of animal resource acquisition and distribution played an important role in maintaining the Maya political state.”

Aguateca is more than 100 miles from the nearest coast and researchers have found thousands of marine shells on the floors of ancient craft workshops and households, Past Horizons said.

In Yaxchilan, the researchers determined, more than half of the animal skeletons were of deer. This leads them to conclude the people relied on forests or on the deer that fed on the corn from their cornfields. But, Sharpe told Past Horizons, it seems the Maya regulated fishing and hunting, which created a further divide between the classes in relation to access to animal resources. Apparently, as in medieval Britain, some Maya people couldn’t just go out and shoot a deer any time they wanted, take it home and eat the meat, cure the hide and make flutes from the bones.

A Maya ruler at right takes obeisance from some supplicants.

A Maya ruler at right takes obeisance from some supplicants. (Image by Teobert Maler/ Wikimedia Commons )

The Maya didn’t just use animal resources for food but also for musical instruments, hides, tools and jewelry. 

“But they were also vitally important as emblems of status, royalty and the symbolic world of the gods, and thus often were prime resources jealously guarded by the rich and powerful, Emery told Past Horizons.

Royalty and high-ranking elites used prestigious and symbolic animals such as crocodiles and jaguars, Sharpe said, while middle-ranking elites used the biggest variety of fauna. Emery compared the use of exotic animals by the rich to modern rich people’s eating of caviar, the idea of which many people find unsavory.

Featured image: West Acropolis of Yaxchilan ( public domain )

By: Mark Miller

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