Power Plants: Paleobotanical Evidence of Rural Feasting in Late Classic Belize Pre-Columbian Foodways
edited by: John Staller, Michael Carrasco
Our recent investigations into food use and preparation at Guijarral, a small-scale Late Classic Maya settlement in Northwestern Belize, confirm Douglas’s observations on the codes embedded in foodways (Keller Brown and Mussell 1997b). Rapid regional population growth after 700 B.C. led to increasing land scarcity, which fostered new forms of social organization, including lineages. Archaeological and paleoenvironmental studies convincingly support that centuries of erosion contributed to Late Classic ecological and social milieus, and forced the pressing of ever more marginal lands into agricultural production. In this instance the marginal lands are hill slopes with thin soil coverage and lowland seasonal swamps, or bajos . Agricultural landscape modifications, including terraces and check dams, were critical to the sustainability of human habitation in these areas. Such features generated agricultural microenvironments near residential groups where people could access a wider range of foodstuffs apart from those like Zea mays (maize), Phaseolus sp. (beans), Cucurbita sp. (squash), grown using more traditional means of shifting agriculture. We recovered archaeobotanical datasets from two distinct contexts at Guijarral, a rural site in northwestern Belize. One is associated with periodic feasting near ancestor shrines, while the other is from daily domestic activities of housemounds unassociated with an ancestor shrine. In both instances the plant remains recovered represent materials grown in successional forest stands associated with the broken terrain where the terraces and check dams occur. We believe that within this archaeobotanical assemblage of plants from successional species, some “coding” for different types of commensal events is evident. When compared with daily meals, feasting provides the kind of contrast in food use that Douglas argues actively entrenches and codifies social hierarchy. Our data include plants generally held to represent comestibles outside the agricultural complex considered “traditional” by Mayanists (maize, beans, squash; Coe 1994; Fedick 1996; Reina 1967; Sharer 2005).