Monday, January 30, 2012

Ancient Mayan Farming

The ancient Mayans possessed several farming techniques they used to grow their crops, including the slash and burn method, terracing and a technique using raised fields. The method used by the farmers depended on the land.

Slash and Burn Farming
Slash and burn farming -- a technique also known as “milpa” -- is a technique that Mayans in forested areas would use. The process involves cutting down the growth in an area, burning it and using the resulting field to plant in, using the ashes as added soil nutrition. After several years, the nutrition in the soil would be used up. The Maya would burn down and plant in another area, leaving the first area to grow back.

Terrace Farming
This method was used in more mountainous areas, such as the highlands. Like the Inca, the ancient Mayans who used this method cut terraces into the hillsides to make usable plots.

Raised Field Farming
In the lowlands of the Mayan world, it can by swampy so the farming style had to be different. Farmers in swamps dug up the mud and shaped it into raised fields that rose 2 to 4 feet above the water canals that surrounded them. Fish swam in these canals and provided fertilizer via their droppings. Plants grew on the canals like the water lily, helping to keep the canals from drying up, and farmers would use the plants as fertilizer.

The lowland, swamp system of farming could be very productive, though it was hard work. The raised fields produced two or three harvests every year.


"A Forest of Kings"; Linda Schele, David Friedel; 1990

National Geographic: Maya Rise and Fall – Did You Know?

"The Maya" 5th Ed.; Michael D. Coe; 1993

California State University Northridge: Mayan Agriculture Techniques

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

What does the name Tatiana suggest to you? A third century saint, or one of the last Grand Duchesses of Russia perhaps? How about Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a Russian-American Mayanist who made a breakthrough concerning Mayan writing and history.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born on January 23, 1909 in the river city of Tomsk, located along the Tom River in west central Siberian Russia. Her parents were Alla (nee Nekrassova) and Avenir Proskouriakoff.

Tatiana and her family moved to Philadelphia in 1915, and became permanent residents of the United States two years later, when the Russian Revolution began. In 1930, Tatiana graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor's in architecture. However, she graduated during the Great Depression, and architects were not in great demand.

She then became an anthropology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, she worked as a volunteer at the University Museum. In 1936, Tatiana was invited to go on an expedition to the Pedras Negras conducted by the museum. While there, her job included taking sketches reconstructing various ruins at such places as Tikal, Chiche'n-Itza and Yaxchilan. As she was making these sketches, she saw patterns in the Mayan glyphs.

After working in the field, Tatiana went to work at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. A very methodical person, through carefully taken steps Tatiana figured out that the gylphs on stelae -- tall carved stone monuments -- were writing historical records. These records included things like war victories and coronations. One of her most important tools was an inventory she made of the different kinds of glyphs she saw on the stelae.

A leading Mayanist at the time, J. Eric Thompson, said that he didn't think Tatiana was right. In his eyes, stelae were dedicated to commemorating the passing of time. In fact, he felt it was a horrible idea to think that stelae could talk about things like kingship dates. He went so far as to say it was the same as if a tourist carved graffiti on the famous statue of David. He later changed his opinion however.

In 1971, Tatiana met with David Friedel, now another well-known Mayanist, when he was a first year graduate student. The next year, in the spring of 1972, David took a course from Tatiana -- a course described in the book "A Forest of Kings" as a "looking course". Tatiana taught David about Mayan gylphs in her basement office of the Peabody museum.

At the age of 76, Tatiana died August 30, 1985 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During her life she wrote several books including:

Jade from the Cenote of Sacrifice
An Album of Maya Architecture (1946)
An Inscription on a Jade Probably Carved at Piedras Negras (1944)

Tatiana had also started on a book on Classic Maya history, but died before she could finish it. The work done on the book was edited by Rosemary Joyce, and published as "Maya History".

The New York Times: Tatiana Proskouriakoff Dies; Key Figure in Mayan Studies

Tatiana Proskouriakoff; Char Solomon; 2002

Harvard University Library OASIS: Proskouriakoff, Tatiana, 1909 - 1985.

"A Forest of Kings"; Linda Schele, David Friedel; 1990

University of Texas Press: Maya History

Penn Museum: The Hand of Fate in Tatiana Proskouriakoff's Career

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Sapodilla Tree

The sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) is one of a variety of trees the ancient Mayans viewed as useful. People know it by many names, including sapote, chicozapote, zapote and chico sapote. Native to South America and Central America, it grows the best in north Guatemala, north Belize and in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Sapodilla is a very drought resistant, long-living tree that grows to be 40 to 60 feet tall and has reddish, strong and long-wearing wood so dense it sinks in water. An evergreen, the sapodilla possesses leathery, dark green leaves that, unlike maples and oaks, it never looses.

The tree produces edible, egg-shaped fruit that has brown skin similar to a kiwi’s and grows to be 2 to 3.5 inches across. The fruit’s grainy-textured flesh -- not unlike a pear’s texture -- ranges from orange to brownish in color. The fruit also contains seeds that are black, smooth and shiny.

Ancient Mayan Uses
The ancient Mayans made good use of the sapodilla tree. They used the tree for its wood, its latex (known to us as chicle) and its fruit.

Sapodilla fruit was a food source for the ancient Mayans (as well as the Aztecs and Nicarao). In order to have a source of fruit all year round, the ancient Mayans would dry sapodilla fruits.

Ancient Mayans shaped the wood of the sapodilla tree into carved lintels and into roof beams for temples. Some of these ancient wooden artifacts are still with us, showing how long lasting the wood can be.

Also, archaeologists have discovered that -- at least in the Preclassic and Classic periods -- the sapodilla’s wood would sometimes be burned. Charcoal found at sites such as Albion Island, Pulltrouser Swamp and Cuello are thought to come from sapodilla wood. Therefore it is possible that the Maya peoples used sapodilla for firewood.

The ancient Maya used chicle for both their religion and their everyday lives. Chicle was their gum, and was used as an ingredient in incense. Here’s a more detailed post on chicle and how the ancient Mayans used it: link.

In Art
The sapodilla has also been used in an artistic representation. At the site of Palenque, excavation uncovered the sarcophagus of the king Hanab-Pacal. Depicted on the sarcophagus are various members of Palenque’s royal family, each with a certain kind of tree. Hanab-Pacal is depicted with a sapodilla tree.

Modern Uses
People still use the sapodilla for some of the same purposes that the ancient Mayans used it for. One purpose -- though not as common as it once was -- is for chicle, which is used for gum.

The second purpose that people still cultivate sapodilla trees for is the fruit, which was exported back across the Atlantic by the Spanish Conquistadors. Sapodilla cultivars are found in tropical regions around the world, from Mesoamerican countries to countries such as India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Locally grown and marketed sapodilla fruit can even be found in southern Florida.

A third way people still use the sapodilla tree like the ancient Mayans did is for its timber. People turn sapodilla wood into floors, handles for tools and into furniture.


"Chicle The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya
to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

Purdue University: Sapodilla: A Potential Crop For Subtropical Climates

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Sapodilla

Rainforest Alliance: Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chicle: Chewing Gum of the Maya

Chicle is the often white-colored resin of the sapodilla, a species of tree native to the Caribbean and to Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamericans such as the Mayans (as well as the Cocle and the Aztecs) made use of this resin in various ways.

The ancient Mayans -- who also made use of the sapodilla's wood and fruit -- chewed chicle as a gum. They believed that chewing chicle kept your breath fresh and also helped to keep you from feeling hungry or thirsty.

Archaeologists have also found pieces of copal -- a resin used for incense -- that are wrapped in chicle (samples from the Cenote of Sacrifice also had a layer of rubber). Why the copal was wrapped in chicle isn’t known for sure. Some think it is possible the ancient Mayans did this to make the copal catch on fire faster.

It is also possible that ancient Mayans burned chicle as incense in its own right. This possibility exists because the infamous bishop Diego de Landa said it is so.

In terms of the deeper meaning of chicle to the ancient Mayans, an idea exists that they thought it was sacred, though they would also use it in a non-sacred way. They may have also thought the same way about rubber and copal.

Beginning of an Industry
Chicle later became part of a major chewing gum industry. It started when a man named Thomas Adams Sr. received some chicle from General Santa Anna (yes, the Santa Anna). Santa Anna wanted Adams to find a way to make rubber with the chicle, but it didn't work. Instead, Adams marketed chicle as candy, the first modern chewing gum. Eventually chicle based gum became very popular and other companies got in on making it, including Wrigley Jr.

Chicle in Modern Times
Chicle-based chewing gum reached its height in the 1940s. However, over-production of chicle was destroying the sapodilla trees, which need 3 to 8 years of rest after being harvested. In response to this, a petroleum product "gum base" was created -- and it is this kind of gum that people are mostly chewing today. Due to the creation of the gum base, around the time of the 1950s, the chicle enterprise began to die.

Today, chicle is still a commodity in Mesoamerica. It is extracted via groups of "chicleros". In order to harvest chicle, they must camp out –during the rainy season -- in search of wild sapodilla trees, as there are no plantations of sapodilla today. When a chiclero finds a tree, he climbs it using rope and metal spurs, cuts slashes into it and uses bags lined with rubber to collect the resin that runs out of the cuts. Once the chicleros collect the resin, they take their filled bags back to their current campsite, and boil it down. After this, they then cut it into pieces.

Chicle gum can still be found today outside of Mesoamerica, though like tofu it has obtained "upscale" associations. One example is Chicza, which is made with sustainably produced chicle, and is sold as a fair trade item.


University of Arizona: Chicle; The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley; Jennifer P. Mathews; 2009

McMaster School for Advancing Humanity: Chicle, Chicleros and Community

Chicza: Deep Roots, How Chicza is Made

University of California at Santa Barbara: Mesoamerican Research Center: Chicle

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Under the Ashes -- Cerén

Cerén (or Joya de Cerén) is an amazing archaeological find located in El Salvador, 15 miles west of San Salvador. It is the site of an ancient Maya village or town that the nearby Loma Caldera buried under approximately 16 to 23 feet of ash and hit with lava bombs around 590 to 630 AD. This catastrophe (except for the lava bombs) preserved Cerén just as it was over a thousand years ago.

Buried as it was, how were the remains of this community ever found again? As one might expect, it started with a government construction project and bulldozer. In 1976, the government of El Salvador was having grain silos built, and during the construction a bulldozer uncovered part of a clay building. Villagers contacted an archaeologist -- Colorado University’s Dr. Paysan D. Sheets -- about the find.

Dr. Sheets headed digs in 1978 and 1980, but war broke out in El Salvador, so they had to stop. About 8 years later, digging resumed and hasn’t stopped since then, providing
more and more information on what life was like for the farming Maya.

Town Layout
So far, 12 buildings have been excavated, and there are many more that haven’t been yet. The excavated buildings include workshops for making items, sleeping rooms, kitchens and storage rooms. Among these buildings are a community building, a sauna (sweat house) and a religious building as well as two other buildings with unknown purposes.

The Road Through Town
Until Cerén, something that archeologists have never found before in an ancient Maya site, outside of the Yucatan area, is a sacbe -- a raised road. Normally the ancient Maya lined the sides of their roads with stones, but the one at Cerén doesn’t have this. Instead it has a water canal on each side. The Cerén sacbe is at least 148 feet long, and appears to lead to two religious buildings.

Cerén Agriculture
Other than buildings, archaeologists have excavated cornfields, an agave garden, cacao trees and guayaba trees as well as cassava fields (discovered in 2009). Cerén is the first site ever to give evidence that the ancient Maya grew cassava, which provides a lot of calories and would have helped maintain a large population of people. Also discovered was a kitchen garden that possessed a selection of herbs.

The preserved agriculture tells people more than just what and how the Mayas grew things. Due to the height of the corn at the time of the eruption, archaeologists think it’s possible that the eruption happened in August.

A lot of Cerén is as it was ages ago. Archaeologists have uncovered a host of day-to-day items, including serving bowls, gourds, metates (for grinding corn), hearths, storage pots for wood ashes, farming equipment, woven baskets, fences bound with agave string, sleeping mats, paints, spindle whorls and hammer stones as well as items with religious importance. In the community building, a pot shaped like an alligator, a red and blue painted deer headdress and deer bones were discovered. And in one house, a piece of codex was found.

Manmade items weren’t the only thing uncovered in the buildings. Storage pots for containing food still had food in them. Archaeologists uncovered pots that contain several kinds of beans, squash seeds, and corn treated with wood ash (instead of lime as in other areas).

Like Pompeii, imprints in the ash have been discovered: archaeologists have found cavities where plants -- such as the cassava in the cassava field -- used to be. Strings of chilies left their imprints as well.

The People of Cerén
Right before the eruption occurred, it seems that the people of Cerén were finishing a meal, due to the dirty dishes found. However, everyone seems to have gotten away safely from Cerén before the ash and lava bombs hit -- no bodies or body-shaped cavities have been unearthed so far. Still, a theory exists that the people of Cerén used the sacbe to escape, and evidence of bodies might be found as they continue to excavate the ancient road.

And how many people lived in Cerén? It is possible that around 200 people called Cerén home -- though this number could change as the excavation continues. Because of the items they found, archaeologists think that Cerén’s inhabitants made their way by farming and possibly selling equipment they made such as spindle whorls.

As for who controlled Cerén, it seems possible that the site of San Andres is the answer because it is only around 3 miles away.

University of Colorado at Boulder News Center CU-Boulder team discovers ancient road at Maya village buried by volcanic ash 1,400 years ago October 15, 2011

University of Colorado at Boulder News Center: CU-Boulder Archaeology Team Discovers First Ancient Manioc Fields In Americas

UNESCO: Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site

Illinois State University: Archaeology, Political Economy, and the Ancient Maya Commoner

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jade -- A Precious Stone of the Maya

Author’s Note: Two kinds of jade exist, nephrite and jadeite. It is the second kind of jade, jadeite that the ancient Mesoamericans, including the Maya, had access to. Jadeite is more rare than nephrite and is harder.

What They Made
Ancient Mesoamericans everywhere -- from the Olmecs to the Aztecs -- valued jade, and the Mayans especially enjoyed the bright green variety. To the ancient Maya, jade represented things like maize (corn), the wind, breath and the soul. They made jade into belts, nose decorations, mosaic masks, tooth inserts, beads and ear spools (a kind of earring that looks like a spool). They also worked jade into celts -- a kind of axe-head. As for decoration, designs representing flowers were popular for jade jewelry.

How They Worked It
But, until 800 AD -- near the end of the Classic Period -- metalworking was not a part of Mesoamerican life, so what did the Maya do to make their jade ornaments? The answer: To change a piece of jade’s size, they cut it with a “saw” made from plant fiber cord, using stone grit and water for the saw's "teeth". When jade craftsman wanted to cut details into a piece of jade, he used a piece of bone or wood, using grit and water again. For a hole, he used the same detail-cutting tool as a drill, twisting the tip in the desired spot on both sides of the piece, also using grit and water. Once done carving, the craftsman polished the piece with something such as another stone, beeswax or with more plant fiber. All in all this was a time consuming process.

Where It Came From
And where did the ancient Maya get their jade? This was a question no one officially had the answer to until the 1954. Now people know that the ancient Mayans got jade from at least one source in what is now Guatemala: the Motagua Valley. Having rediscovered this source, a tourist trade based on jade has popped up, though it is centered around two areas, Teculután and Estancia de La Virgen.

The American Museum of Natural History: ‘Olmec Blue’ and Formative jade sources: new discoveries in Guatemala

Princeton University Art Museum: Jade of the Americas

"The Ancient Maya"; Robert. J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mayan Ideas of Personal Beauty

From what archaeologists have put together so far, some Mayan ideas of beauty were similar to ours. However, they have also found that other Mayan ideas of beauty were far removed from what we think of as attractive. (Keep in mind though that a lot of what archaeologists look at comes from a certain part of the ancient Mayan world, and what they think they know might change.)

Let's start with the shape of the head. Mayans thought a long head was beautiful. Parents would strap a pair of boards to the front and back of their babies' heads -- while they were still soft and therefore could be shaped. The babies' heads would be re-shaped to have long, sloping foreheads.

As for the hair: long hair was common for both men and women. Women wore their hair one way when they were unmarried and wore it another way when they became married.

The Maya sense of beauty also included crossed eyes. Crossed eyes were thought to be beautiful for women.

Noses were also an important feature when it came to Mayan ideas of good looks. A pronounced (big) nose was considered to be a beautiful nose. A practice existed in which a clay extension would be attached to the nose in order to make it appear larger.

Moving on to the teeth -- Mayans thought teeth were pretty when sharpened to points, which they did by filing them. Another tooth enhancement involved drilling a hole in the center of the front of various teeth, where a piece of jade would be inserted.

Another common practice for both men and women was the act of getting tattooed -- after becoming married.

As for piercings, in one way the Maya had one idea that is the same as what we see as pretty today: ear piercings. However, the ancient Maya seem to have thought that lip piercings and septum (the part of the nose that divides the nostrils) piercings were also pretty -- instead of seeing it as more unusual as we might.


The Ancient Maya; Jackie Maloy; 2010

The Archeology Course Book; Jim Grant, Sam Gorin, Neil Fleming; 2008

Clark College: Women in Ancient Mesoamerica