Friday, December 21, 2012

Food of the Ancient Maya

Figuring out what the ancient Maya ate is till an ongoing process. Currently, it is understood that the Maya obtained food from both animal sources as well as plant sources (some of which it is thought were developed during the Archaic period). Also understood is that different regions had different resources generally available, which affected the everyday diet of the local communities.


Produce
Produce the ancient Maya ate includes manioc, sapodilla fruit, jicama, sweet potatoes, cacao tree fruit, tomatoes, avocados, macal (for its leaves, tubers and shoots) and chili peppers as well as corn, beans  -- particularly black beans -- and squash. The Maya also ate green vegetables like chaya (Jatropha aconitifolia.)

Processing Produce
The ancient Maya processed their corn by boiling it with snail shells or with white lime. The process, known today as nixtamalization, made the corn's niacin available. Kinds of foods made with corn include tamales, corn beer, gruel (atole -- a breakfast drink, according to bishop Landa) and the ancient Maya style of tortillas (thicker than the Aztec version) -- to which chili peppers, honey, achiote or squash seeds that had been toasted and ground were added.

Tamales were a often eaten lunch item. They could be filled with meat fillings, iguana eggs, flowers (for example, squash flowers), green vegetables and toasted squash seeds. Wrapped in leaves, they were cooked various ways such as under coals, steamed inside a certain kind of jar. Where it was used,  the Maya would use a comal to cook tamales.

And how did people drink their atole? Those who are understood to have been commoners put honey, chili peppers, squash seed powder or herbs in their atole. On the other end of the spectrum, people understood to have been elites would mix the fermented, roasted and ground up seeds of the cacao tree into their atole.

Meat
Meat -- in the lowlands, at least -- included the ocellated turkey (also called the wild turkey), the domestic turkey, peccary, armadillo, crocodile, spider monkey, turtles, deer, manatee, tapir and howler monkey as well as various species of saltwater fish, iguana and freshwater fish. A certain kind of domesticated dog was also eaten.

Processing Meat
Grilling -- via skewering the meat and put on a wood frame on a fire -- was common for dog meat, deer meat, bird meat and peccary meat, and may have been common for iguana and turtle meat. Roasting food in a pit like the Hawaiians was also common: the meat was placed in a fire pit in the ground on top of hot stones, and the pit was covered. This process was common for festivals.

Though grilling was common, the most often used method to cook both fish and bird meat was to boil it. It is possible that boiled fish and poultry were used in stews - like tamales, a common lunch food.

Consideration: Dietary Theories
In terms of reconstructing which foods were most important, one interpretation was that corn was the most important to the ancient Maya. According to The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives corn may not have been as important as has been thought.

There is also the theory that corn, squash, and beans (the "three sisters" in certain North American cultures) as well as chili peppers were commonly eaten in both the highlands and lowlands of the ancient Maya world, with tropical fruit like the cacao tree's fruit were more common in the Yucatán Peninsula and in the Petén region.

As to how common meat was, that depended on the person's rank in society. Meat was not as common for people understood to be commoners to eat. Festivals were the time during which they would be more likely to eat it.


References:
"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia"; Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster; 2001

"The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives"; Heather Irene McKillop; 2004

 "Handbook To Life In The Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

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