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Corn, Colanders, and Cooking: Early Maize Processing in the Maya Lowlands and Its Implications

  • David Cheetham
Chapter

Abstract

One of the least-explored areas in the analysis of prehistoric ceramics is how pottery vessels were actually used; that is, the particular purpose they served (Rice 1996:139). Such insights are often thwarted or ignored in classification schemes tailored primarily to deduce temporal frameworks and patterns of ceramic interaction, and most type-variety studies of prehistoric Maya pottery are no exception. Treating pots as tools designed to meet a specific need (Braun 1983) provides valuable insight into prehistoric behavior well beyond what is achievable through typological analysis alone.

My intent in this study is to demonstrate the value of the “pots as tools” perspective by examining the utilitarian vessels used by the earliest fully sedentary Maya villagers (ca. 1000–800 bc) to prepare lime-pretreated maize, or nixtamal, most likely for tamales or other gruel-based foods.1 I begin by outlining the technology and implements required to make nixtamal, the nutritional advantages of preparing maize in this manner, and ethnographic examples of its application. I then summarize available data concerning the productivity of early maize in the Maya Lowlands in order to generate probable crop sizes and corresponding caloric values for the period in question. The volume of ceramic vessels used to process maize in two separate areas of the lowlands, the Belize Valley and central Petén, are presented and linked with estimated household supplies of maize. I conclude that the amount of maize required to make nixtamal at this early date necessitated a multi-household effort in both areas, and that consumer groups in the central Petén were probably larger than in the Belize Valley. The cooperative nature of maize processing indicates extended household social organization from the outset of village life in the Maya Lowlands and hints that during the preceding Late Preceramic period consumer groups were organized in a similar manner.

Keywords

Consumer Group Early Maize Ceramic Vessel Village Life Slake Lime 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Notes

Acknowledgments

I thank Martin Biskowski, Oralia Cabrera, John Clark, George Cowgill, John Hodgson, Terry Powis, Ian Robertson, Arleyn Simon, John Staller, Barbara Stark, and James Stuart for their constructive comments. Travel funds to examine ceramic collections were provided by the New World Archaeological Foundation (John Clark, Director). Other people who made this work possible include Jaime Awe, Pat Culbert, Vilma Fialko, Paul Healy, John Hodgson, Juan Pedro Laporte, Lisa LeCount, Richard Leventhal, and the late Gordon Willey. Nora López Olivares, former Director of Prehispanic and Colonial Monuments of the Institute of Sports, Anthropology, and History (IDAEH) in Guatemala City, allowed me to study pottery from Uaxactun and Altar de Sacrificios; Gloria Polizzotti Greis and the directors of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University granted access to pottery from Seibal, Uaxactun, Altar de Sacrificios, and Barton Ramie; and Norman Hammond and Laura Kosakowsky provided access to Cuello pottery at Boston University. Special thanks are due to Arleyn Simon, who provided sound advice and support during our many discussions about pots and corn.

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Authors and Affiliations

  • David Cheetham
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Human Evolution & Social ChangeArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.New World Archaeological FoundationBrigham Young UniversityProvoUSA

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