Anthropologist uncovers new insights into the ancient Maya

For the past six decades, archaeologists have documented dense populations of ancient Maya in Mexico and Central America—hundreds of people per square kilometer. Corn, beans and squash are well-known Mayan food staples, but they are sensitive to drought and require fertile soils, and thus would be insufficient to feed a large population. So what did the Maya eat?

For many years, CU-Boulder anthropology professor Payson Sheets has worked on excavation of the Mayan farming village of Ceren in what is now El Salvador. Discovered by Sheets in 1978, Ceren was buried by the Loma Caldera volcano that erupted in AD 600.

When isolated portions of an ancient manioc field were revealed just south of Ceren in the summer of 2007, Sheets knew he might be on to something: “Never before, in any archaeological site, had manioc been found growing and planted this well preserved.”

Manioc tubers can grow to three feet long and as thick as a man's arm. They produce about eight to 10 times as much food energy as corn, can be grown in infertile soils and require little or no irrigation.

Naturally, Sheets wanted to further explore the Ceren manioc fields, and thanks to an award from the Innovative Seed Grant Program (IGP) at CU-Boulder, he could. Sponsored by the offices of the provost and vice chancellor for research, these awards provide up to $50,000 for research, scholarship and creative works to CU-Boulder faculty that specifically take investigators in creative, and sometimes high-risk, high-reward directions.

With financial assistance from IGP, Sheets went back in spring 2009 to dig 18 large test pits that allowed the archaeologists to estimate the size of the field and assess the related agricultural activity that went on there. The team used radar, drills and test pits to uncover row upon row of manioc plantings.

They found that the planting field was huge—one third the size of a football field. “The ancient planting beds of the carbohydrate-rich tuber are the first and only evidence of an intensive manioc cultivation system at any New World archaeology site,” said Sheets. “Future research promises to provide the clearest window on ancient Maya agriculture ever achieved.”