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Belize skeletons establish earlier use of maize as a staple for Maya

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Posted: Sunday, June 7, 2020. 10:23 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: Douglas J. Kennett, a University of California, Santa Barbara anthropology professor, says he has established that maize, or corn, was a staple of food in the Americas as much as 4,700 years ago – at least three millennia before the rise of Maya civilization.

In the journal Science Advances, Kennett, whose team tested the skeletons of an “unparalleled” collection of human skeletal remains in Belize, writes: “there is a significant shift towards maize cultivation and consumption, exceeding what we would consider a staple grain. And by 4,000 years ago maize was a persistently used staple and its importance continues through the Classic Maya period and until today.”

The remarkably well-preserved skeletal remains tested were found in two rock-shelters within the Maya Mountains of Belize.

Bones in the Neotropics typically degrade because of heat and humidity, but these rock shelters preserved the skeletal material well enough to measure stable isotopes revealing the diets of these people prior to death.

“The lowland Neotropics is not kind to organic material,” Kennett said. “Bones degrade quickly if left out in the open. But these are special sites because they provide dry shelter from the elements that help preserve bones that we were able to extract collagen from for nitrogen and carbon isotope analysis.”

Maize was first domesticated some 9 thousand years ago in the Balsas River Valley of southwestern Mexico, by hunter-gatherers when it was known as teosinte, a wild grass.

Maize synthesizes carbon using a distinctive photosynthetic pathway, which is evident isotopically in people that consume this important cultigen. There are very few plants in the lowland Neotropics that synthesize carbon in this way, so it’s clear isotopically when people start eating substantial amounts of maize.

Kennett details a “transition period” of between 4,700 to 4,000 B.C.E. when tested individuals showed 30 percent of maize consumption, followed by a rise to more than 70 percent consumption in the Maya lowlands. He suggests that the isotopic composition of Maya people today would look similar as they continue to consume a great deal of maize.

With the question open as to where the Maya came from and when they moved into the area, Kennett believes his findings as to the establishment of agriculture in the area have “tantalizing implications for the rise of Maya civilization.” Classic Period Maya society didn’t start to develop until about 2,000 years ago so it is possible that they are, or are related to, the earliest agriculturalists discussed here.

In addition to UC Santa Barbara, the study was conducted by researchers from the University of New Mexico, Penn State University, University of Exeter, Central Identification Laboratory, University of Mississippi, Northern Arizona University, and the Ya’axche Conservation Trust in Belize.

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