Ecology or society? Paleodiet and the collapse of the Pasin Maya lowlands Chapter uri icon


  • Over the last few decades, archaeologists have taken great strides in investigating the interaction of ancient cultures with their natural environments. This progress is particularly apparent in study of the lowland Maya, whose rainforest habitat has been under intense scrutiny. We now know that large, socially heterogeneous Maya populations were supported by several forms of intensive agriculture (Harrison and Turner 1978; Siemens and Puleston 1972; Turner 1974) and that they exploited a variety of wild and domestic food resources (Lentz 1991; Pohl 1985a; Wiseman 1983). Maya social adaptations have also been greatly clarified by extensive settlement pattern studies (Ashmore 1981; Puleston 1983; Tourtellot 1988; Willey et al. 1965) and by the decipherment of much of the hieroglyphic writing system (Culbert 1991; Houston 1989). Yet, the dominant explanation of the collapse of Maya civilization in the southern lowlands around A.D. 900 remains ecological, and fundamentally Malthusian. It is often argued that ancient populations became too large over the course of the Classic period, growing beyond the carrying capacity of the fragile tropical eco-system (Culbert 1988; Sanders 1962, 1963; Santley et al. 1986; Willey and Shimkin 1973). This model proposes that population increase caused the expansion of agricultural systems to utilize all available lands. Soil erosion, grass invasion, and deforestation severely restricted the productivity of Late Classic agriculture (Abrams and Rue 1988; Morley 1946; Sanders 1973). Facing these difficulties, farmers are argued to have concentrated on the mono-cropping production of highly storable staples, particularly maize (Santley et al. 1986; Wiseman 1985). These agricultural shifts affected the diet consumed by members of the society, and are implicated in the deterioration of nutritional status and health of the population (Havi-land 1967; Hooton 1940; Saul 1972a). Ultimately, diet change is linked to demographic instability which brought about the final depopulation of the area (Santley et al. 1986; Willey and Shimkin 1973). In essence, the model is a biological one, and amenable to testing with biological data from human skeletons. In this paper, I examine three expectations for prehistoric Maya diet that are developed from the ecological model, using bone chemical data from human skeletons from five sites in the Pasin region of the southwestern Petn, Guatemala. The Pasin has seen intensive archaeological work over the last 35 years that has produced sizable skeletal series which span the occupational history of the region. Moreover, epigraphic research in the Pasin provides good historical control of political processes that may also have been involved in the collapse. Copyright 2006 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.

author list (cited authors)

  • Wright, L. E.

Book Title

  • Bones of the Maya: Studies of Ancient Skeletons