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original article LSU.edu

The earliest known record of salt being sold in a marketplace in the Maya region depicted in a mural at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Photo Credit: Rogelio Valencia, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul

Researchers at LSU uncover more on the ancient Maya commodity

03/22/2021

BATON ROUGE – The first documented record of salt as an ancient Maya commodity at a marketplace is depicted in a mural painted more than 1,000 years ago at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In the mural that portrays daily life, a salt vendor shows what appears to be a salt cake wrapped in leaves to another person, who holds a large spoon over a basket, presumably of loose, granular salt.

This is the earliest known record of salt being sold at a marketplace in the Maya region. Salt is a basic biological necessity and is also useful for preserving food. Salt also was valued in the Maya area because of its restricted distribution.

Salt cakes could have been easily transported in canoes along the coast and up rivers in southern Belize, writes LSU archaeologist Heather McKillop in a new paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. She discovered in 2004 the first remnants of ancient Maya salt kitchen buildings made of pole and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in a saltwater lagoon in a mangrove forest in Belize. Since then, she and her team of LSU graduate and undergraduate students and colleagues have mapped 70 sites that comprise an extensive network of rooms and buildings of the Paynes Creek Salt Works. 

“It’s like a blueprint for what happened in the past,” McKillop said. “They were boiling brine in pots over fires to make salt.”

Her research team has discovered at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite toolstone tools used to salt fish and meat and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-vendors and they would take the salt by canoe up the river. They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. 

This was their living,” said McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology. 

She investigated hundreds of pieces of pottery including 449 rims of ceramic vessels used to make salt. Two of her graduate students were able to replicate the pottery on a 3D printer in McKillop’s Digital Imaging Visualization in Archaeology lab at LSU based on scans taken in Belize at the study site. She discovered that the ceramic jars used to boil the brine were standardized in volume; thus, the salt producers were making standardized units of salt.

“Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges,” McKillop said.

An ethnographic interview with a modern day salt producer in Sacapulas, Guatemala collected in 1981 supports the idea that the ancient Maya also may have viewed salt as a valuable commodity: 

“The kitchen is a bank with money for us…So when we need money at any time during the year we come to the kitchen and make money, salt.”

Additional Link:

Salt as a commodity or money in the Classic Maya economy, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278416521000106?dgcid=author

Contact Alison Satake
LSU Media Relations
c. 510-816-8161
asatake@lsu.edu

A pot 3D printed in the LSU Digital Imaging & Visualization in Archeology Lab by archeology students based on scans collected at the ancient Maya salt works field site.Photo Credit: LSU

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On this day ten years ago…
via Ancient Farm Discovery Yields Clues to Maya Diet

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Source: Maya Beekeepers

Clay bee hive

Evidence of the handiwork of early Maya beekeepers has been unearthed at the ancient city of Nakum in northeastern Guatemala. Beneath a vast ritual platform dating from around 100 B.C. to A.D. 300, a team led by Jagiellonian University archaeologist Jaroslaw Zralka discovered a foot-long, barrel-shaped ceramic tube with covers at each end. Initially, Zralka and his colleagues thought the artifact might be a drum buried as an offering. But they soon learned that the tube was nearly identical to wooden beehives still made from hollow logs by Maya in the northern Yucatan. Most pre-Columbian beehives were also likely made from wood, but none of these have been discovered. The Nakum tube is the only known surviving example of an ancient Maya beehive.

“Honey was probably among the most popular products exchanged and traded by the pre-Columbian Maya,” says Zralka. “So beekeeping was a very important activity in their daily life, as well as in religious activities.” Near the beehive, Zralka and his team found nine unbaked clay heads arranged in a circle, perhaps depicting gods important to the continued success of Nakum’s beekeepers.

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Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati used the latest technology to find evidence suggesting ancient Maya people grew surplus crops to support an active trade with neighbors up and down the Yucatan Peninsula. They will present their findings at the annual American Association of Geographers conference in Washington, D.C. The extensive croplands suggest the ancient Maya could grow surplus crops, especially the cotton responsible for the renowned textiles that were traded throughout Mesoamerica.

Source: UC researchers find ancient Maya farms in Mexican wetlands

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Part 2

this is quite a long article but interesting.

Hakaimagazine

by Erik Vance

Of course there were pirates,”  Vera Tiesler says.

She’s quick to add that there is no direct evidence of ancient Maya pirates, but given how much valuable cargo was passing through these ports—and the fact that boats were often depicted carrying armed warriors—it’s a pretty good guess. Chances are, piracy started long before Europeans arrived. The presence of pirates of the ancient Caribbean might also explain the tall pyramid that could serve dual functions: for religious ceremonies and as a lookout. Vista Alegre had another quirk. In pre-Columbian times, the settlement was on a peninsula, with three sides facing the water (the bays on either side have since filled in) and an elaborate stone wall, probably topped by a wooden barrier, guarding the south-facing fourth side. But there appears to be no roads or settlements in that direction. Why build a wall if there’s no one on the other side to keep out?

The wall was likely meant to keep out marauders who, worried about being spotted on the water, would land nearby and try to enter the city by land. Many of the sites along the coast have similar walls to Vista Alegre. The ruins of Isla Cerritos, 100 kilometers to the west, had a 305-meter wall that blocked the harbor like a giant arm shielding the city.

Beyond physical defenses, little else is known about coastal battles of the Maya world. Were there trained ocean fighters? Specially designed warships? Naval strategies? In fact, of the thousands of boats that once littered the coasts, all that has survived is a single canoe preserved in peat soil that dissolved almost as soon as it touched the air and a couple of paddles discovered in Belize. Yet, according to the first Spaniards to visit the coast, the Maya used many types of boats with up to 25 paddlers and capable of hauling over three tonnes of material, which is more than some midsize pickups can handle today.

Some canoes may have even had sails. Several Spanish chroniclers describe seeing sails along the coast—there are no images, however, of sails among the codices and murals of the Maya themselves. Many local people still build traditional boats and even host international paddle races, but it’s tough to know what parts of these traditions are old and which are new.

Modern Maya canoe builders have specific rules about construction. “For example, when to cut down the tree, which tree,” says Mariana Favila, an anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who is writing her PhD thesis on the maritime practices of the Maya, partly by spending time with modern indigenous communities.

She points out that there are many traditions around boatbuilding that seem to predate Europeans, such as a ban on women being near a boat while it’s being built. Local tradition holds that women are associated with cold, whereas men are characterized by heat. Thus, for boats—which are also tied to cold—to stay afloat, they must be kept separate from women.

When most people imagine an ancient Maya city, they probably picture Chichén-Itzá with the commanding El Castillo at its center, surrounded by ball courts of varying sizes and wide plazas. But the sites we see today were the ceremonial centers of the cities, not where people lived. Studying a pyramid is like trying to understand the United States by digging up the Lincoln Memorial. It tells you something about values and traditions, but not daily life.

For that, you need to see where the ancient Maya lived and worked. Modern satellite images and laser-guided surveys from planes have revealed that Maya cities were far more sprawling than anyone would have ever guessed. Earlier this year, a large multinational team announced that several cities in northern Guatemala once presumed separate were, in fact, connected by 60,000 previously unseen structures.

Many of these were wooden houses built on low platforms. But, like giant, ravenous beasts, the tropical landscapes of the Yucatan and Petén Basin gobbled up all the wooden structures they touched, along with tools and boats. Except in one place—an ancient lagoon in Payne’s Creek National Park, a nature preserve encompassing savannah, tropical rainforest, and mangroves in southern Belize.

Heather McKillop, an archaeologist at Louisiana State University, first came to Payne’s Creek in 2004 on an odd sort of archaeological scouting expedition. She knew that there had been settlements in the area and that the ocean had risen since then. So rather than shovels and pickaxes, she brought a swimsuit, a couple of buckets for specimens, and a vague notion that the rich lagoon soils were hiding interesting artifacts probably related to salt making. She and a few students waded into the water and quickly found all sorts of ceramic shards from pots used to boil briny seawater to collect salt and the occasional wooden stump—probably either a dead tree or driftwood washed in from storms.

“Wood doesn’t preserve in the rainforest,” McKillop says. “I thought, oh they’re just old tree roots or they’re pieces of wood that have drifted in.” There’s no way they were left over from the Maya, that would be ridiculous. Termites, shipworms, or thousands of other creatures that scour the jungles and shores for detritus quickly devour wood here. But just out of curiosity, she and her students decided to dig up one.

“I said, if it’s a post, it’s going to go straight down and the end is going to be sharpened. If it’s a tree, it’s going to branch out,” she says, assuming at the time they were all dead trees. “I just want to settle this once and for all.”

They took turns holding their breath, ducking a meter underwater, and scraping around the sides of the logs. The soil was a heavy sort of peat, covered in moss that was perfect for clutching while digging with the other hand. Finally, they got to the bottom and freed the wood, pulling it up to the surface.

“The four of us are looking at it, and the end comes out of the water. And it’s sharpened,” she says. It was like reaching into a wastebasket in Rome and pulling out a poem by Julius Caesar. No one had ever found something like this. “Then they all looked at me and say, ‘So what is it?’”

That same trip, they found more than a dozen sites along the creek and the first-ever intact Maya canoe paddle. Since then, McKillop and her team have found more than 4,000 such posts—perfectly preserved in the oxygen-deprived peat—in a five-square-kilometer area, using masks and snorkels while floating facedown on cleverly modified pool loungers.

The sheer number of posts in such a small area suggests that the coastline once bustled with salt works. Salt is crucial to all civilizations, not just as food but also as a preservative. Experts always assumed the Maya collected it along the shoreline and passed it inland, but now they had evidence of whole communities dedicated to producing salt.

“If you sat on the beach, you would watch two boats go by every single day full of salt. It’s not an occasional thing, this would be a very regular transport schedule,” says Thomas Guderjan, an archaeologist at the University of Texas at Tyler who specializes in Maya agriculture and city planning. “You could not service that population just with an occasional guy who takes a paddle up to get salt. This would be a very structured market.”

No one knows for sure how the ancient Maya economy worked, but trade was likely crucial. Quetzal feathers (found in tropical cloud forests) came downhill, jade (found in the south) went north, shells went inland to the mountains of central Mexico, and obsidian (found in the volcanic spine of the continent) went to the flatlands of the Yucatan. There were no pack animals or wheels for carts, and boats packing a few tonnes of material would have been highly efficient.

But not everyone is so convinced by this picture. Rafael Cobos Palma is an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of the Yucatan with perhaps more experience investigating the coastal Maya than anyone else alive. He doesn’t see some kind of market-based trade but something more like a pipeline completely controlled by elites from Chichén-Itzá.

“Trade is not the correct word to use,” Cobos Palma says. “Nobody else participated. It was a closed system.”

He compares the gold and turquoise coming along the coast to Fabergé eggs created for Russian royalty during the turn of the last century. It’s not really trade if the materials go only in one direction. He admits that there might have been other, less-formal trade systems that siphoned goods to a few other cities, but insists this isn’t because of a market, it’s from leaks in the pipeline.

It’s a controversial idea, considering how long the ports operated and the variety of goods the coastal Maya moved and how different their culture seems from their inland neighbors. But it gets at a fundamental question about the ancient Maya. Did they have an economy the way we think of it—with currency, merchants, and markets? Or was it controlled by the iron fist of the state? Perhaps the answer lies in one of the many unexcavated sites along the coast, like Xel-Ha or Xcalak.

There’s just one problem: many of these sites are underneath multimillion-dollar resorts.

Ironically, the global fascination with the ancient Maya that puts pyramids on magazine covers and in Indiana Jones movies has helped fuel a tourism industry gobbling up wide swaths of the coastline, including many Maya sites. Xel-Ha, an ancient city north of Tulum, is now an amusement park, with playgrounds, rides, and concession stands. Others are in the middle of golf courses, and one, a rare cave shrine, is poking up through a Home Depot parking lot. When Rissolo wanted to see an important shrine at Xcaret, near Playa del Carmen, he had to buy tickets and walk past the souvenir shops and a dolphin tank to get there.

Thankfully, many sites were visited and cataloged by archeologists before the all-inclusive resorts moved in, though most of these studies were just cursory. Still, someday archaeologists may be able to finish what they started.

“The bulldozer might have destroyed one or two platforms here or there but there’s certainly more information. And fortunately, all that information is underneath,” Cobos Palma says.

More destructive might be time itself. Cobos Palma points out that the coast of Tabasco, just west of Vista Alegre, is suspiciously short on ancient sites. The best explanation is that they have been buried under soil or rising seas. One of his research sites, Uaymil, was once on the coast but is now more than a kilometer inland. McKillop’s research area was originally on solid ground until the oceans rose up around it. Others could have been wiped out by a single well-placed hurricane.

But there’s still too much to find to despair about what’s been lost. Some of the most important coastal ports may remain undiscovered.


Back at Vista Alegre, far from the lively coastline of Cancún, Rissolo and Glover finish their survey, and we pile back into our skiff. Unlike the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the northern end is nearly deserted. It’s a beautiful day, with enough wind to kick up some sea spray but it’s still pleasant. The previous week, the area had been buffeted by powerful winds as Subtropical Storm Alberto formed offshore and charged toward Florida. Roads in the area have been flooded for days and Cancún ground to a standstill. And that was just a small storm. Imagine a powerful monster like Hurricane Wilma—which devastated the region in 2005—and it’s easy to see why not everyone has embraced the coast.

“This entire coastline is unpopulated,” says Rissolo, looking west toward the Gulf of Mexico. “From an archaeologist’s perspective, there’s really a great opportunity to study how the ancient Maya organized themselves on the landscape. Imagine trying to do what we’re doing when you’ve got golf courses, all-inclusive resorts, and shopping malls that run all the way from Cancún to Tulum.”

On the way back to the harbor, they decide to take a little detour. Locals say there is perhaps evidence of a settlement on the nearby island of Holbox, an emerging vacation spot for off-the-beaten-path tourists. One archaeologist documented the site in the 1950s, but no other scientist has visited the place. Rumor has it there are a few stone structures and maybe a shrine. Somewhere. Glover pulls out a drone and attempts to launch it.

“That’s a stiff wind, dude,” he says to no one in particular, testing the drone’s rotors. “Not ideal.”

“We don’t even know if it’s in the interior. Is it at the edge of the mangroves? The coastline is just so complex,” Rissolo mutters.

Glover eventually gets the drone airborne and battles the wind for a while, taking video he hopes will later reveal the site. It’s bizarre that there could be an undocumented ancient settlement 100 meters from our boat and we can’t see it. But then again, that’s the story of modern Maya archaeology. In recent years, the biggest discoveries haven’t been pyramids or kings but pedestrian things: ancient farm fields, roads, and salt factories. Seeing how the Maya constructed their civilization, in addition to their sacred buildings, has broadened our view of how their world looked. It was a world of mysterious ceremonies and unusual head shapes, but also one of people who were adept at getting what they wanted quickly and efficiently.

Eventually the researchers give up—Glover is wary of running out of battery power and crashing the drone into the water. They agree to come back, perhaps with kayaks, and inspect the mangroves more carefully.

They fire up the engine and motor toward the mainland. The clouds are almost gone, and tomorrow promises to be another perfect day in paradise. Boatmen will cart tourists to the island, just as they have for decades, while the fishermen load up their nets to leave at first light—just as they have for thousands of years.

 

 

 

 

 

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Part 1

For thousands of years, ancient Maya kings ruled a vast inland empire in Mexico and Belize. But just how inland was it, really?

Vista Alegre, a ruin of a town near the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, was once a bustling outpost. Dozens of canoes crowded the harbor, loaded down with dyes from the west, jade from the south, and obsidian from mountains hundreds of kilometers away. The sound of trumpeting conch shells periodically sliced the air—an alert from sentries scanning the horizon from platforms attached to stone structures. The call signaled an incoming boat—to trade or, perhaps, to plunder.

Within the town, the smell of fish hung heavy in the air as fishermen hurried about with their catches slung across their backs. They passed a man outside his hut hacking a pile of decorative shells into portable sizes for the next outgoing canoe. In another hut, a woman was using salt from a town to the south to dry freshly caught fish that would then be shipped to cities far away. And all the while, smoke from a signal fire atop a pyramid guided exhausted ocean travelers to safe harbor.

Today, a thousand years later, the town isn’t much to look at. Centuries of accumulated dirt and vegetation cover the pyramids. Trees growing on various structures have succumbed to gravity, tumbling and taking with them massive stone blocks once perfectly fitted together.

Today, the ruins of Vista Alegre, on the northern Yucatan coast, are barely visible but still reveal much about the ancient maritime Maya. Video courtesy of Jeffrey Glover and Dominique Rissolo

Though part of the ancient Maya world, which stretched from here all the way into modern-day El Salvador, Vista Alegre lacks the grandeur of many sites. It doesn’t have the dozens of glistening pyramids that lure millions of tourists to Chichén-Itzá, the enticing carvings of Palenque, or the vibrant murals of Bonampak. In fact, were it not for a single pyramid in the middle of a handful of crumbling structures, you might miss its human past altogether. But this small port town at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was once part of a complex network of coastal commerce that dominated the ancient world but has been understudied by academics and ignored by the public. Because, unlike Chichén-Itzá or Palenque or Bonampak in the interior of the country, time has nearly erased coastal ports like Vista Alegre from history.

It’s part of a growing collection of archaeological sites revealing a complex and cosmopolitan network of sea traders with their own culture and traditions, who are at once separated from and deeply tied to their more famous compatriots deep in the Yucatan jungles.

“Our knowledge of markets and the role of markets is changing in the Maya area,” says Jeffrey Glover, an archaeologist at Georgia State University. Glover stands on a cluster of exposed blocks at the top of Vista Alegre’s steep central pyramid with its commanding view of the coastline. Looking out, he seems to see the town as it once was, even describing it in the present tense. “There are a lot of people there that need stuff and that want stuff. And they’re probably getting gold from as far south as Panama and Costa Rica, with turquoise that’s coming from the American Southwest.”

Glover and his colleague Dominique Rissolo have been exploring this small site for more than a decade. When they first came to this undeveloped coastline over two hours northwest from Cancún by car and then boat, they expected a small town dependent on the fortunes of the much larger Chichén-Itzá—a nameless cog in the machinery of a great city only 125 kilometers away. But that’s not what they found. Vista Alegre predates the larger city by hundreds of years. The people here ate differently, had different fashions, and traded an astounding diversity of precious things from around Meso-America.

And there was something else here that the archeologists did not expect. The town’s central 10.6-meter-high pyramid is oddly steeper than others in the region—made possible by an unusual concrete recipe that connects its stones and is usually found hundreds of kilometers to the west. This innovation, presumably gleaned from passing travelers, allowed them to build a pyramid tall enough to let them see for a great distance in all directions but with fewer blocks than typical pyramids.

“It blew me away when I saw it. I hadn’t seen anything like that anywhere in this region,” says Rissolo, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “There’s a certain kind of cosmopolitan nature to the site, where people are exposed to different styles and different traditions.”

As we walk the grounds, Rissolo regularly leans down to pick up bits of pottery, some 1,500 years old. It turns out that Vista Alegre was just one of dozens of small settlements that rim the Yucatan Peninsula at about 40-kilometer intervals, the distance a team of paddlers can move a goods-laden boat in a day. None of the coastal communities had the grandeur of the bigger Maya cities, but when put together, they paint a vivid picture of commerce in the region. And, in another surprise, of combat.


The Maya are often called “people of corn” because their identity is forever tied to that crop. Academic and popular stories paint pre-Colombian Maya as a peaceful, inland people who tended crops, feared the sea, and looked to the stars. As with all historical generalizations, however, this picture has faded with new discoveries. Modern scientists have found that the real ancient Maya were just as war-prone as Aztecs or Europeans and perfectly comfortable on the sea.

Looking at the bones from sites like Vista Alegre, scientists now know the ancient coastal Maya ate healthier than their inland compatriots, getting more protein from sea life. Evidence suggests they were more egalitarian too, though less sophisticated in their cultural traditions. Take the common ancient practice of head shaping (whereby boards are tied to an infant’s head to cause it to grow a certain way). Whereas people in Calakmul, near the border of modern-day Guatemala, had a myriad of head shapes fashioned from birth, those on the coast kept it simple—just a slightly elongated head. And rather than elaborate jade- or obsidian-inlaid teeth, coastal people tended to simply sharpen them down a little. But that’s not to say they were boring.

The people came from all over, says Vera Tiesler at the Autonomous University of Yucatan. “There was a big melting pot of people there, traveling down the coast.”

Tiesler is a bioarchaeologist. Rather than digging up pyramids or looking for jade jewelry, she studies human remains. From diseases to wounds to DNA, a set of bones can tell you more about people than a stone structure. And while the Maya coastline may not have a lot of fancy pyramids or ornate paintings, it has a lot of bones littered around—the soil composition and high salt levels lead to wonderful bone preservation.

When a Mayanist finds a set of bones, it often finds its way to Tiesler. And after looking at hundreds of ancient skeletons, she’s come to see the coastal Maya as a sort of subculture. Their seafood diet—revealed through bone analysis—suggests that over generations, families spread long distances along the coast but rarely went inland. It was as if once they found the coast, they didn’t want to leave it.

Coastal Maya also fought differently than their inland compatriots. Contrary to their reputation, the ancient Maya engaged in plenty of warfare. Armies would face off with clubs, hatchet-like weapons, and throwing spears called atlatls. In hand-to-hand combat, injuries were mostly sustained on warriors’ left sides from right-handed assailants. But Tiesler says battle scars of the ancient coastal Maya favor no side. Also, ancient armies were usually all male, but a higher-than-expected number of the violent casualties Tiesler sees were women. Plus, many combatants survived, which would be odd on a battlefield. The likely reason for these discrepancies between Maya armed conflict wounds and these coastal casualties? Piracy.

 

 

 

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Salt is essential for life. As ancient civilizations evolved from hunters and gatherers to agrarian societies, it has not been clear how people acquired this mineral that is a biological necessity. However, an anthropologist at LSU discovered remnants of an ancient salt works in Belize that provide clues on how the ancient Maya at the peak of their civilization more than 1,000 years ago produced, stored and traded this valuable mineral.

Source: Salt: Mover and shaker in ancient Maya society

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Modern chocolate shaped like Maya glyphs, the written language they used to communicate. ARINA HABICH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Original Article:

sciencemag.org

By Joshua Rapp

 

Your Hershey bar may have been worth its weight in gold in Mayan times. A new study reveals that chocolate became its own form of money at the height of Mayan opulence—and that the loss of this delicacy may have played a role in the downfall of the famed civilization.

The study is on the right track, says David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved with the work. Chocolate “is a very prestigious food,” he says, “and it [was] almost certainly a currency.”

The ancient Maya never used coins as money. Instead, like many early civilizations, they were thought to mostly barter, trading items such as tobacco, maize, and clothing. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16th century indicate that the Europeans even used cacao beans—the basis for chocolate—to pay workers, but it was unclear whether the substance was a prominent currency before their arrival.

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network—a network of schools that focus on college-level teaching for high school–aged students—in Newark, New Jersey, analyzed Mayan artwork. She focused on published research and other available Maya images during the Classic Maya period from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. in the southern Maya lowlands in modern-day Mexico and Central America. The objects—including murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings—depict typical market exchanges and tribute payments to Maya kings.

Chocolate didn’t pop up much in the earliest art, Baron found, but it became more prevalent by the 8th century C.E. That’s also around the time people seem to be using it as money—that is, an item widely accepted as payment for goods or services rather than a one-off barter. The Maya usually consumed their cacao as a hot drink, a steamy broth served in a clay cup. One of the earliest depictions of it used in exchange dates to the mid-7th century. In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid that may have been a central marketplace near the Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of what looks like frothing hot chocolate to a man in return for dough used for making tamales. This early depiction suggests that although chocolate was being bartered at this point, it may not have been traded as a form of currency, Baron says.

But later evidence shows that chocolate became a little more like coins—in the form of fermented and dried cacao beans. Baron documented about 180 different scenes on ceramics and murals from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. which show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute, or a kind of tax. Goods like tobacco and maize grain are sometimes given as tribute, but the items that pop up most in these scenes are pieces of woven cloth and bags labeled with the quantity of dried cacao beans they contain, she reports in Economic Anthropology.

Baron believes the fact that Maya kings collected cacao and woven cloth as tax shows that both had become a currency at this point. “They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Freidel says cacao was almost universally loved by the Maya. But it would have been far more prized than crops like maize because cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some scholars believe drought led to the downfall of the Classic Maya civilization. Baron speculates that the disruption of the cacao supply which fueled political power may have led to an economic breakdown in some cases.

Freidel says the rise in artistic depictions of cacao may not necessarily indicate increased importance as a currency. As the Classic Maya period unfolded, he says, more and more people wrote things down and painted murals or pottery scenes. “Is it actually getting more important or are we just learning more about it?”

He is also skeptical that the loss of cacao contributed to the Maya’s downfall. Cacao beans were not the only type of currency, Freidel notes—woven cloth and other goods like maize grain or certain types of green stone were also possibly used as money. “My guess is that one commodity crashing would not cause the system to crash.”

 

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Original Article:

heritagedaily.com

Written by Julie St Jean

 

Chocolate finds its way onto even the most simplistic dessert menus today to satisfy the sweetest sweet-tooth. In ancient Mesoamerica, chocolate was deemed a speciality food, achieving a sacred status.

The Maya and the Aztecs believed that cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation. The Maya held a yearly festival to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah, which included several offerings and rituals to him. Although sustaining the high possibility that is was not a native Mesoamerican crop, the cacao tree was one of the ancient Maya and Aztec’s most prized.

The warm, liquid form of the chocolate consumed was very different from today’s hot cocoa, being laden with chili powder and other spices making it a hot and sultry treat popular with royalty while lay people occasionally enjoyed its healing qualities. The Spanish who moved into Mesoamerica were unfamiliar with the ‘savage’ flavors of the spicy chocolate and determined that it would not be popular as it stood and was not to sent back home without proper adjustments like the elimination of many spices and the addition of sweetening ingredients.

While archaeological evidence for cacao use by the Aztecs and Maya is rather limited, pictorial and iconographic evidence is quite substantial. The goal of this poster is to demonstrate the many ways in which the cacao tree was especially important ritually, medically and spiritually to the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica..

For nearly 3500 years the world has indulged in chocolate; chocolate bars, candy kisses, hot cocoa, chocolate ice-cream and numerous other forms. The idea of a chocolate treat is far from a modern one. The use of chocolate began in the New World with the ancient Olmec civilization (1500 BC-500 BC) in Mesoamerican and continued on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs before making its trek across to the Old World in the 16th century.

The formulation and serving techniques of the chocolate were somewhat different than today. Mainly consumed as an unheated liquid by the Aztecs and generally heated by the Maya, chocolate was the drink of choice for the elites and with the addition of hot chilies, maize, spices, peanut butter, vanilla and other flavor and texture enhancers, made the chocolate beverage a spicy and sultry drink enjoyed only by those who are able to afford it or by those who are specifically chosen to enjoy its benefits. Over the years, cacao, its components and chocolate in one form or another, have been used in more ways that just for a pleasure drink. It is known to have healing and preventative properties and has been documented in both ancient and modern medical journals.

Aztec. Man Carrying a Cacao Pod, 1440–1521

 

History of the Cacao Tree and its Cultivation:

The cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree is a member of Sterculiaceae family of evergreens. Today, we find the wild trees at various elevations (200-400m) in the Amazon Rainforest as well as the Orinco River basins. The tree produces fruits approximately the size and shape of an American football. Each pod contains an average of 40 seeds (commonly referred to as ‘beans’), which are what is used to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter and chocolate (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The cultivation of a cacao tree and its seeds is a rather involved and time-consuming process. In the wild, the trees can grow to a height of over 60 feet; however in a plantation setting it is typical to see them only at a maximum of 20 feet to ease the harvesting labour. The planted trees take four or five years to flower. Once pollinated, each flower begins to produce a pod with will grow to be about one pound in weight and contain about 40 seeds surrounded by a naturally sweet white pulp. The pods are unable to open on their own accord and must so be done with human (or animal) intervention.

The pods will ripen throughout the year and there are normally two main harvests. The pods are opened by hand and the pulp and are seeds extracted According to Coe and Coe (1996) the four steps needed to produce the cacao ‘nibs’ (shelled and de-germed beans) are: fermentation, drying, roasting and winnowing. These steps are still followed in today’s modern chocolate making cultures, regardless of the technologies available to them. The four stages are summarized below.

Fermentation is a confusing word choice as the cacao is not fermented into an alcohol, although it could be. As performed by the ancient people of Mesoamerica, the beans (seeds) are fermented for anywhere from three to six days, depending on the type of bean. During this time, chemical processes are occurring; the pulp liquefies, and drains away as the temperature increases and the seeds begin to germinate but are soon killed by the high temperature and acidity which is the desired effect as the chocolate will fail to taste like chocolate if this does not occur (Coe and Coe 1996, 24). Once fermentation is complete, the beans are dried on flat mats left out in the sun for one to two weeks. Roasting the beans for approximately 70-115 minutes at temperatures of around 215 degrees F is vital for the drawing out of the chocolate flavour.

The beans are roasted at a slightly higher temperature in order to produce cocoa powder. The final step is the removal of the outer shell of the bean (winnowing). Once winnowing has occurred, the beans can be ground into a paste, commonly known as ‘cacao liquor’, which is non-alcoholic (Coe and Coe 1996, 25). The process is time consuming and minimal chocolate is retrieved from each pod, but the value is so great and the time used in order to prepare the chocolate adds to the sacredness of the end product.

Cocoa Tree

Cacao butter is made up of the fat inside the nib. It is extracted during the drying process and the fat was and still is used not only as an addition to quality chocolate, but as an ingredient in many cosmetics and skin-care products. The word cacao most likely originated with the Olmecs who resided in the lowland region of Mexico on the eastern gulf coast (Dillinger et al. 2000 and Coe & Coe 1996). The tree obtained its modern name from the eighteenth century Swedish biologist, Carolus Linnaeus. While developing a system for classifying living organisms, he assigned the botanical name Theobroma cacao to the chocolate tree. Theobroma, in Latin, means “food of the gods,” while cacao refers to the native word for the plant (Coe and Coe 1996, 17).

In the most basic of terms, cacao is a culturally edible material which grows on trees in Central and South America. To the ancient lay people of Mesoamerica, it was so much more than a food item. Cacao seeds were actually so valued as to be used for currency, while the subsequent beverages were used as offerings to the gods and as the champagne-of-the-time. A 1545 Nahuatl (Mayan language) document provides a list of the prices of food items; a turkey hen is worth 100 cacao beans, a hare or forest rabbit or is worth 100 cacao beans, a large tomato is one bean and one turkey egg is worth three beans, among other food items (Coe and Coe 1996, 98-99).

There is doubt as to whether or not the cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica. Specific climatic conditions are required for the needy cacao tree to grow. Surprisingly, the trees have been reported to have grown and thrived in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula where the climate would normally be far too harsh. The area has a long, hot and dry season yielding a mere 50mm of rainfall a year. Cacao trees require year round humidity and plenty of rainfall (2000mm) into well-drained soil in order to grow and propagate (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990, 247-249). Being a shade-loving species, the cacao is usually found growing under the canopy of taller, tropical trees and basking in the nutrient-rich soil made up of the abundant organic materials falling from the protective canopy-trees.

It is exceedingly difficult to recognize what the original properties of the wild populations of cacao trees prior to the Spanish contact were. South America has been considered to be the center of origin for cacao, but the question of when the transfer of the tree to Mesoamerica occurred still sparks controversy upon Mayanists as well as other archaeologists and historians (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990, 249). However, there is absolutely no proof of South American usage of cacao prior to modern times and, according to Gomez-Pompa et al. (1990), it is unrealistic to assume that someone traveling from South America to Mexico could have (or would have) successfully brought the cacao seeds, while keeping them viable for the two-week trek, to be planted and cultivated in Mexico.

The seeds germinate quickly and will surely die if not kept moist and cool in the hot air that blankets the South American and Mesoamerican areas. It is therefore somewhat safe to assume that the trees do, in fact, grow naturally in the Mesoamerican area, but how? Unfortunately, at present, it unknown for certain whether or not these cacao groves occurred naturally or with human assistance. The answer may well lie in cenotes, (underground caves), or collapsed above-ground caves. These types of environments are similar to sinkholes and house a damp microenvironment virtually perfect for cacao growth. Groundwater in the cenotes is generally the food for the trees, which are by and large untouched by rainwater for half the year. Unfortunately, whether cacao trees naturally form and prosper or were originally brought into the area and planted in these sinkholes and cenotes, is still under investigation.

Iconographic and Archaeological Evidence:

Chocolate became popular as a drink among the Aztec upper classes, who could afford it. The custom was to serve chocolate after a feast, in a special cup (xicalli) made out of a calabash gourd. Royalty and upper elites ritualistically used elaborately painted pottery from which to drink the frothy concoction (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

An impressive Mayan example of this is from a royal tomb in north-eastern Guatemala. It contained seven cylindrical containers, including a pot with a stirrup handle and screw-on lid. The notable piece was painted with hieroglyphs reading, “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox cacao,” the still un-deciphered Mayan words which likely denote chocolate flavours (Coe and Coe 1996, 49 and Hall 1990). Laboratory analysis of its inner surface by came back positive for chocolate. All seven containers likely held varieties of the cacao beverage. There are thousands of these cylindrical vessels in collections, and the vast majority say right on them, ‘This is a vessel for chocolate,’ (Coe and Coe 1996).

Spouted vessels are a rare elite drinking vessel of the Preclassic Maya. Colha, in northern Belize, has yielded several of these types of drinking vessels. Dry-residue analysis using liquid-chromatography show chocolate use as early as 600BC. These vessels were only manufactured in the Preclassic period (900BC-AD250) (Hurst et al. 2002, 289).

Residue analyses on several vessels from ancient Maya burial sites indicate offerings of chocolate to the deceased (Dillinger 2000, Hurst et al. 1989 and Hall et al. 1990). In fact, a majority of the pottery assemblages from Maya sites of the Postclassic (prior to the Spanish conquest) era contained vessels used to hold chocolate for the dead to utilize during his/her afterlife. Analysis if the residues of four Maya tomb vessels at the site of Rio Azul in Guatemala have shown that the vessel once contained theobrommine and/or caffeine which are both contents of cacao (Hall et al. 1990, 139).

Hall and his researchers surveyed the literature provided by the laboratories of the Hershey Foods Corporation Technical Center and determined that cacao is the only Mesoamerican food source which contained both theobrommine and caffeine. Therefore it has been deemed safe to conclude that any vessel which tests positive for these ingredients likely contained cacao in one form or another. Another 15 vessels which had a sort of locking mechanism, deemed by Hall (1990) to be a ‘child-proofing’ system, seemed to have once contained foods and liquids on which the deceased would subsist in the afterworld. As Hall (1990) states, many of the vessels had obvious inner rings of residue, some of which were slightly slanted, as if the pot was not entirely flat on the bottom.

This indicates the presence of a liquid having been stored. The glyphic writing on the outside of the vessels clearly display the Maya word for cacao along with additional un-deciphered glyphs, possibly eluding to the recipe of the contents, the maker of, or other general information about the contents which were once housed in the vessel (Hall, 1990, 139).

As suggested by the residue analysis, as well as iconographic evidence, the elites began frothing the chocolate to create a thick, foamy head using a Spanish invention called a molinillo. Prior to Spanish contact, the method mostly used to froth the liquid was pouring from extended heights into another vessel on the floor (Coe and Coe 1996).

Archaeological evidence from Mesoamerica, points to chocolate use beginning with the ancient Olmecs and carrying on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs. Evidence is sparse but comes from various parts of Mesoamerica. Whole cacao beans were recovered from Uaxactun, Guatemala, while in Belize, wood from ancient cacao trees has been uncovered along with ceramic vessels which tested positive for chocolate residues (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

An example of a piece of iconographic evidence of the importance of cacao is a jadeite plaque uncovered inside a cenote in the town of Chichen Itza. The carved jade shows a man holding onto the trunk of a cacao tree covered with protruding cacao pods. The carving also contains the phonetic glyph for the word cacao pronounced ka-ka-w(a), or kakaw (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990). An incense burner from the Late Classic period (AD 600-900) depicting a god surrounded by many cacao pods was uncovered in the Rio Bec region of Campeche (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990 and Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The only surviving written evidence from the Classic era Maya, are the extravagantly decorated vessels which joined the elite in their tombs. There is little else known about the peasants who actually grew and cultivated the trees, or how the May ate or drank their chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996, 45-46).

Ritual Use:

The use of chocolate had many ritualistic, spiritual and political meanings for the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica. According to similar creation stories of both the Aztec and the Maya, the gods discovered the cacao in a mountain named the Mountain of Sustenance (named by the Maya), along with other delectable foods. The Maya version tells the story of the Plumed Serpent (a god), who gave the people, recently made from maize by the divine grandmother goddess, Xmucane, the cacao on which to feast (Dillinger et al. 2000). The gods also provided maize, fruits and other desired foods.

When it comes to ritual use of chocolate, usually, only the male, elite and royals consumed cacao in a liquid form (Rissolo per. comm 2005), making the sweet treat one of high status individuals. Perceived as being an intoxicating food, the chocolate drink was a forbidden food for both women and children in a ritual setting (Dillinger et al. 2000, 2057s).

Priests would often prepare chocolate as a drink for religious ceremonies or offer cacao seeds to the gods. The Maya held a yearly festival to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah, which included several offerings and rituals to him; chocolate beverages, blood, dancing and other gifts such as the sacrifice of cacao-colored dogs and feathers, incense and cacao seeds (Rissolo per. comm.. 2005). According to Aztec history, a similar yearly festival in the capital city of Tenochtitlan took place with the sacrifice of a warrior captured from an enemy group during battle.

For forty days he was dressed up in the colorful feathers and jewels of the god Quetzalcoatl and ordered to dance for the appeasement of the god of war and the sun; Huitzilopochtli, all the while being treated like a god, but being caged at night. If he appeared agitated or nervous due to his impending doom, the captive would be fed a relaxing drink. He consumed a thick reddish liquid which would enable him to put his fears of eminent death aside and continue to entertain the god. The drink was an intoxicating chocolate blend with the color of blood. His dancing and movements seemed to welcome the death to come, as if he was offering himself willingly. Soon after which, his heart was carved out of his body to be offered to the god that would ensure the rising of the morrows sun (Coe and Coe 1996, 102 and Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The offering of blood also occasionally consisted of priests lancing their own earlobes or kings lancing their penises with obsidian blades drizzling their own blood to cover cacao and offering it to the gods whom they were honoring (Rissolo per. comm. 2005). There are many, strong ethnographic sources (Thompson 1956) which demonstrate the importance of these two liquids; blood and chocolate among the Aztecs and the late Post-Classic Maya. They were both considered sacred and were thus regularly offered during ritual practices.

Baptisms of newborn babies and marriages required the ritual use of chocolate as well. The pre-Spanish Maya baptismal ritual consisted of cacao seeds ground up with flowers and pure water was used to anoint the heads, feet, hands and faces of the children, whole chocolate mixed with corn gruel was offered in special clay pottery to be used during wedding ceremonies (Rissolo per comm. 2005).

There were several types of drinks prepared for different occasions as well. Depending on the person for whom the drink was prepared, different ingredients were added or not added. Given the abundance of different types of chilies in the region, the drink could have been anywhere from mild to scalding and given the grinding techniques of various other additives, the drink may be thick, lumpy, or watery. Many recipes for chocolate drinks have made their way around the world. For example, Sahagun’s (who will be discussed in the next section) native informants give him a ‘menu’ of chocolate drinks which are suitable to be served to the ruler (Coe and Coe 1996, 89). Also, medicinally, drinks were prepared to have desired effects on the human body, which leads us into the medicinal use of the cacao and chocolate.

Medicinal Use:

Not only was chocolate used for ritual purposes but it was avidly used for medicinal reasons as well. Healing and preventative medicines as well as a tool for administering foul-tasting medicines were the two primary medicinal uses for the chocolate. Ancient Aztec sources can trace the use of the chocolate as a medical tool. Sources include the Badianus Manuscript, the Princton Codex and the Florentine Codex.

The Florentine Codex (1590 AD) contained an enormous list of medical uses for chocolate. It was prepared by priest Bernardino de Sahagun from Spain who lived and worked in the ‘New Spain’ for 60 years, collecting vital medicinal information regarding the use of chocolate for the body both internally and externally (Dillinger et al. 2000). Chocolate lessens agitation (Quelus 1730, 51), reduces angina and asthma (Villanueva y Francesconi, 1890, 231 and Hughes 1672, 153-154), reduces cancer (Villanueva y Francesconi, 1890, 239) and has a calming affect (Brillat-Savarin 1825, 100). It reduces emaciation (Hernandez 1577, 305), improves energy (Stubbe 1662, 3), relieves hoarseness (Quelus 1730, 76), reduces fever (Hernandez 1577, 305) and quenches thirst (Quelus 1730, 46).

It is also known to clean the teeth (Dillinger et al 2000, 2061s); of course modern-day dentists may disagree. The increase in sexual appetite, fertility and abetted longevity were other benefits of the chocolate. It is stated that Montezuma, prior to visiting his grand harem, would consume up to 50 goblets of a hot chocolate drink to ensure a suitable visit to each member in the group (Aguilera 1985, 119 and Dillinger et al. 2000, 2062s). Another benefit is that of consuming cacao-tree bark. It assists in reducing abdominal pain (Morton, 1981, 556-557). Externally, cacao was helpful in soothing burns, bronchitis and in disinfecting cuts. One can facilitate childbirth by eating the fruit pulp of the cacao pod. Even the leaves of the cacao tree act as antiseptics for external wounds (Morton, 1981, 556-557). Aztec soldiers marching off to battle were often given chocolate beverages to fortify and sustain them during battle (chocolate.org, Rissolo per comm. 2008). There are nearly 300 medicinal uses on de Sahagun’s list for the versatile cacao tree; however, he also added a warning label of sorts;

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’ (Sahagun 1590, 119-120)”.

The Spanish Influence:

The arrival of Christopher Columbus and his officers brought an ignorance of the importance of cacao to the new world. Upon his return to Spain, Columbus toted a mere handful of cacao seeds. Only after Hernan Cortes came upon the chocolate, did its popularity in the Old World increase (Coe and Coe 1996). The bitter, spicy taste of the drink did little to satisfy Columbus and his men. They were unaware of the importance of the drink and could not bear to even choke it down. Upon its arrival in Spain, it was re- flavored with cane sugar (previously unavailable in Mesoamerica), allspice and honey to a sweet, smooth beverage. Whilst in Spain, it too, was an elite-only drink but eventually ‘chocolate saloons’ began to open, making it available to all people (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The Spanish, who prepared the chocolate drink for their own pleasure, did so quite differently from the ancient Mesoamericans and without the knowledge of the rest of Europe. The addition of hot and spicy additives was not palatable to the Spanish consumer and therefore substituted them with sweet additions such as cane sugar, cinnamon, honey and other flavor enhancers. In his History of the New World (1575), Girolamo Benzoni negatively states: “It seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity………But then, as there was a shortage of wine, so as not to be always drinking water, I did like the others. The taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate, and it is the best and most expensive merchandise, according to the Indians of that country (Benzoni 1575)”

The chocolate was reserved for the higher classes as well and the Spanish government went to great lengths to ensure only the wealthy could indulge. They increased taxes on cacao product greatly to ensure only the elite could afford its benefits. Spain and Portugal kept it hidden from the rest of the world and at first only used it for medicinal purposes but the allure soon caught on. The allure was in fact so high that arguments as to whether or not chocolate could be considered a food or a beverage arose. To some, it satisfied and nourished the body like a solid food and therefore it must not be consumed during times of fasting. Eventually, much of the population, including the popes, agreed that it was not a solid food and therefore did not break the fast. By the late 17th century, chocolate became available to most of Europe and accessible to the general populations. Its popularity only increased and chocolate manufacturing companies like Hershey’s, Fry’s and Cadbury’s began opening around the globe to satisfy the people’s need for chocolate.

Conclusion:

The love for chocolate has not dwindled since its discovery. It is still a favorite among many cultures, societies, elites, royals and everyday people. The technologies, flavors, additives and reasons for consuming it have changed to allow for an increase and ease in production. Once a sacred liquid from ancient Mesoamerica; chocolate has found its way onto the dinner tables of the entire world. One need only look at the heart-shaped box of chocolates received on Valentine’s Day or the chocolate Easter egg found during a yearly egg-hunt to understand its importance in society today.

Written by Julie St Jean

 

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Original Article:

heritagedaily.com

An international team of researchers from the University of York, the Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, Washington State University and Simon Fraser University have been studying the earliest indication of domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico.
The team studied the spatial remains of 55 turkeys, dating from between 300BCE-1500CE in various parts of pre-Columbian Meso-America.
They discovered that Turkeys weren’t just a prized food source, but was also culturally significant for sacrifices and ritual practices.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, Dr Aurélie Manin, said:  “Turkey bones are rarely found in domestic refuse in Mesoamerica and most of the turkeys we studied had not been eaten – some were found buried in temples and human graves, perhaps as companions for the afterlife. This fits with what we know about the iconography of the period, where we see turkeys depicted as gods and appearing as symbols in the calendar.
“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies; turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role”.
Dr Camilla Speller of the University of York said: “Even though humans in this part of the word had been practicing agriculture for around 10,000 years, the turkey was the first animal, other than the dog, people in Mesoamerica started to take under their control.
“Turkeys would have made a good choice for domestication as there were not many other animals of suitable temperament available and turkeys would have been drawn to human settlements searching for scraps”
Some of the remains the researchers analysed were from a cousin of the common turkey – the brightly plumed Ocellated turkey.  In a strange twist the researchers found that the diets of these more ornate birds remained largely composed of wild plants and insects, suggesting that they were left to roam free and never domesticated.
The team also measured the carbon isotope ratios in the turkey bones to reconstruct their diets. They found that the turkeys were gobbling crops cultivated by humans such as corn in increasing amounts, particularly in the centuries leading up to Spanish exploration, implying more intensive farming of the birds.
Interestingly, the gradual intensification of turkey farming does not directly correlate to an increase in human population size, a link you would expect to see if turkeys were reared simply as a source of nutrition.
By analysing the DNA of the birds, the researches were also able to confirm that modern European turkeys descend from Mexican ancestors.
York University

 

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