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Insider: Maya Roots Volume 62 Number 4, July/August 2009
by Roger Atwood

Did an ugly, waxy tuber feed a great civilization?

In the 1960s, archaeologists working at about a dozen different Maya sites in the humid forests of northern Guatemala made a surprising revelation. The population during the Classic period (A.D. 200-900), when the Maya reached the peak of their urban development, was not only much denser than the modern population, but also bigger than what scholars thought the land could have supported.


Native to South America, the manioc root is now the world's third biggest dietary carbohydrate source. Recent research suggests the ancient Maya depended on it. (David Monniaux/Wikimedia Commons)

Around the Maya city of Tikal researchers estimated a density in Classic times of about 300 people per square mile--as much as a crowded American suburb--outside the major urban centers. Outlying areas had as many as 15 structures per acre, most of them houses. Instead of a landscape of scattered villages and farm plots, as was once believed, excavations revealed bustling towns and thickly settled farmland.

As notions of Maya population size and density changed, so did ideas of what they ate. Corn had always been seen as the undisputed staple of the Maya; it was the reliable source of calories and complex carbohydrates that enabled them to build cities, develop complex arts and sciences, and wage war. The Maya worshiped corn deities and depicted their rulers with heads that resembled ears of maize. In the Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh, humans are literally formed from corn. These facts reinforced the view that the Maya drew their basic sustenance from corn, most of it grown on slash-and-burn plots known as swiddens.

But corn does not produce enough calories to support the population densities that archaeologists were finding. And there wasn't enough unoccupied land for swidden farming. The idea that the Maya powered their society on a tasty triad of corn, beans, and squash--with corn at the top--suddenly seemed suspect. They must have had some other staple. But what?

Now archaeologists working in El Salvador may have the answer: manioc, also known as cassava, a hardy plant that produces a waxy, rather insipid-tasting root that can be made into anything from tortillas to moonshine. It can grow almost anywhere and it's a virtual carbohydrate factory, producing roughly six times more calories than corn under the same conditions. Still, many scholars continue to doubt the Maya consumed large amounts of manioc, much less depended on it. To these archaeologists, ancient manioc fields recently discovered about 15 miles northwest of the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador are an anomaly, much like the site where they were uncovered.

Roger Atwood a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY, publishes often on Latin American archaeology.