I checked previous posts and I have a post from September on the same subject but this article has more detail so I went ahead and added it.
The ancient Maya cultivated crops of manioc—also known as cassava—some 1,400 years ago, according to archaeologists studying a Maya farm preserved in volcanic ash.
The discovery may help solve the long-standing mystery of how the ancient culture produced enough energy-rich, starchy food to support its large city-centered populations.
“There’s a good chance that this will change the way we look at how the Mayans fed themselves,” said study leader Payson Sheets, an anthropologist at University of Colorado at Boulder.
“It’s a very important clue to resolving this,” Sheets said. “We’re extremely happy to have found this.”
(The research was funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)
Sheets’s team found the ancient manioc field near Ceren, a Maya village in El Salvador about 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of modern-day San Salvador (see El Salvador map).
The team was excavating what it thought was an ancient cornfield when it discovered traces of cultivated manioc roots perfectly preserved by a volcanic eruption.
The discovery provides a glimpse into the Maya farm as it may have appeared around A.D. 600, when a volcano near Ceren erupted.
The nearby village was covered with as much as 17 feet (5 meters) of ash, preserving it in remarkable detail, the archaeologists said.
“When we excavate [at Ceren], we’re looking at that moment from all that time ago,” said Christine Dixon, a doctoral candidate from Lafayette, California, who was on the team.
“It’s as close as the present can get to the past, which, for archaeologists, is a very exciting endeavor.”
What the Maya Ate:
How the Maya produced enough carbohydrate-rich foods to sustain large cities such as Tikal in Guatemala and Copán in Honduras has long puzzled scientists
Researchers knew that maize, or corn, was a staple of their diet, but corn alone could not have provided enough sustenance.
Experts had theorized that the ancient Maya may have cultivated manioc, which produces large roots, or tubers, that are rich in carbohydrates. But no evidence of manioc crops was known until the recent find.
Sheets and his crew unearthed the new evidence in June while examining an ancient field near Ceren.
The team found that the ancient crop had decomposed but holes in the planting beds had been sealed by ash.
Sheets poured dental plaster into the holes to make molds of what had grown inside. The plaster casts revealed tubers of manioc.
Sheets said the find was “incontrovertible, gorgeous evidence of manioc cultivation.”
“I’d like to say that [the discovery] was due to a logical process with geophysical instruments, that it was due to exceptional insight and wisdom on our part,” he said.
“But no, it was serendipitous. It was luck.”
Where Are the Volcano’s Victims?
Despite the lucky find, there are many more questions to be answered, including why no victims of the volcanic explosion have ever been found at Ceren, despite some 30 years of excavations there.
Sheets said the villagers may have been warned that the volcano was about to blow when rising lava turned underground water to steam. When the steam was forced out of cracks in the surface, it could have created a horrifying shriek that sent the Mayans fleeing, he explained.
Perhaps the villagers escaped unharmed, he added, or perhaps they were overtaken by the volcano’s fast-moving cloud of ash and gases and their bodies haven’t been discovered yet.
Sheets said he hopes these questions will be answered eventually, as continued digs at Ceren work to uncover the site’s secrets.
“There’s much more than I’ll ever do in my lifetime,” he said. “There’s well over a century of research to be done there.”
for National Geographic News