Skip to main content

Tulane Maya Symposium Abstracts


And a Good Time Was Had by All: Alcohol and Feasting in Mesoamerica
Dorie Reents-Budet, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The role of chocolate-based beverages during ancient Mesoamerican feasts, especially among the Maya, has been well-explored by myriad scholars and culinary experts. Alcohol, on the other hand, has not received equal scrutiny as a vital libation for politically-charged dining and ritual events during the Classic Period (250-850 CE). An overview of Classic Maya feasting imagery begins an exploration of the history of alcohol throughout Mesoamerica–from modern to Formative times. The spiritous beverage repertoire and patterns of use elsewhere in Mesoamerica are then compared with Classic Maya pictorial and hieroglyphic references to fermented drinks, examining the similarities and idiosyncrasies of Maya brews.


Ceren’s Subsistence Surprises
Payson Sheets, University of Colorado, Boulder

Unusually good preservation of the small Maya village of commoners has educated us to their surprising sophistication in food production and consumption. Beyond the expected seed crops of maize, beans, and squash, they relied heavily on root crops. Manioc, drought-adapted, grew in kitchen gardens and in massive plots south of town. Malanga, favoring waterlogged soils, was the second most productive root crop. Trees provided fruits, in an agro-forestry adaptation. Flavorings were abundant, including chiles, achiote, and spilanthes. The most common seed in milpas is spilanthes, which is also an analgesic and aphrodisiac (which is twice stronger than Viagra in many indices).

Spicy, Sweet, Weedy and Wild: Ancient Maya Cuisine as Told by the Archaeobotanical Record
Clarissa Cagnato, Université Paris 1—Panthéon-Sorbonne

Although iconography, epigraphy, and ethnohistorical records have greatly enriched our knowledge regarding ancient Maya diets, the focus on maize and cacao have often overshadowed the role of other plants. In this talk, we will focus on the wide spectrum of plant remains revealed by archaeobotany, or the study of plant remains in archaeological contexts, to try and decipher meals in both the daily and ritual spheres. We will deconstruct the ancient Maya diet, from the Preclassic to the Classic period, but also discuss some of the aspects of ancient cuisine that we still do not have clear answers to. It is nevertheless clear that the Maya relied not only on domesticated plants, but also incorporated weedy and wild resources while preparing their meals, indicating that they made full use of their rich natural environment.

Maya Culinary Realms and Mesoamerican Use and Exchange of Cacao
Kathryn Sampeck, Illinois State University/Harvard University

A systematic look at well-documented pre-Columbian Maya taste descriptions of cacao indicate interrelationships of geographic place, political space, economic value, and taste, distinctions that changed in new ways with the spread of cacao consumption during the early modern period on both sides of the Atlantic. Evidence from pre-Columbian Maya inscriptions, early colonial medical treatises, official reports, and other accounts provide examples of flavor profiles in different regions and over time. This culinary evidence will be presented in two ways, through flavor wheels which give a sense of the predominant tastes, and through systematic comparisons that assess which ingredients occur together and identify some that do not. This gastronomic and medical view will be placed within broader developments in cacao production and consumption across Mesoamerica from the Classic through the early colonial period. This presentation will thus examine cacao’s role over time in Maya fare as well as beyond its gastronomic role, and some ways these different capacities of cacao intertwined.

Tobacco Before the Dark Age of the Marlboro Man
Jennifer Loughmiller-Cardinal, Lednev Raman Forensic Laboratory at the University of Albany

Today, tobacco is mainly known as a commodity of social vice – cigarettes and cigars, vaping, and “big tobacco” commerce – and mainly used as a recreational drug. Prior these modern perceptions, though, the uses and purposes of tobacco were far more diverse. For the ancient Maya, tobacco held cultural and ritual significance as well as its uses for daily consumption. So much so that it is one of relatively few foodstuffs named in the Mayan texts. It was considered as both an intoxicant as well as a pharmacological necessity. While the ancient art and the text provide insight into particularly significant ritual and elite uses, tobacco also had a wide array of common uses and was consumed daily. This means that we have substantially underestimated where we might find tobacco residues archaeologically. To better understand this once diversely used plant I will discuss the context, the chemistry, and the consumption from the perspective communicated by the Maya themselves. The ancient art, hieroglyphics, and the archaeology of the Maya provide the clues.

Where the Wild Things Were: Animals in Ancient Maya Diet, Economy and Exchange
Erin Thornton, Washington State University

The cultures of ancient Mesoamerica are unique in their lack of large-bodied domesticated animals. The majority of their meat was therefore derived from wild hunted species, which presented unique challenges in terms of feeding large human populations. This talk will therefore review what is currently known, and not known, about ancient Maya diet and animal use. Specific focus will be placed on inter-regional variation in diet, the relative role of aquatic resources, potential exchange of dietary and utilitarian faunal resources, and the blurred line between ritual and dietary animal use. Recent inter-disciplinary research regarding ancient Mesoamerican turkey domestication will also be highlighted. The turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is the only North American vertebrate animal that was fully domesticated. Despite this, we know relatively little about the process of turkey domestication and diffusion in comparison to other domesticated animals. Emerging evidence regarding the adoption and use of domesticated turkeys by the ancient Maya will therefore be presented within the broader context of this species pathway to domestication.

Maya Food Justice and the Memory of Meals
Chelsea Fisher, Washington and Lee University

Three years ago, the celebrity chef René Redzepi opened a six-week “pop-up” of his famed restaurant, Noma, in the Mexican tourist center of Tulum. Redzepi sourced many of his ingredients – and the women who cooked his tortillas – from Yaxunah, a small Yucatec town that’s also home to more than 2500 years of Maya history. I’ve conducted archaeological research in Yaxunah during the town’s rise as an epicenter of Maya culinary tourism. Over three seasons of fieldwork (2015-2017), I directed large-scale excavations and survey of an ancient Maya farming village in Yaxunah’s agricultural landholding. With the help of community members, we fully excavated eight houses and investigated the garden areas around each house. This project is among the most complete archaeological studies of past farming communities and has yielded exciting new insights into agricultural sustainability in the Maya lowlands. With that in mind, in this talk I’ll share some of the tales of the farmers, cooks, chefs, and archaeologists who commingle in modern Yaxunah. I’ll couple those stories with what I learned from excavating the ancient Maya communities who shaped Yaxunah’s landscape. The meals I ate with Yaxunah community members during fieldwork in the weeks of Noma Tulum – sharing foods from wasp larvae to venison tacos, pozoleto Coca Cola – changed the way I understand Yaxunah’s 2500 year-old agricultural history. I’ll discuss how archaeology forces a reckoning of so-called “authentic” and “sustainable” cuisine in a globalizing world, and show how in Yaxunah, this reckoning is inseparably tied to food justice.

God Food: Ritual Alimentation of Ch’orti’ Deities
Kerry Hull, Brigham Young University

The concept of reciprocal alimentation underlies most ceremonial offerings among the Ch’orti’ Maya. In this presentation, I outline the system of food and drink “pagos” (payments) given to numerous Ch’orti’ deities in acts of petition. The notion of “food” and “drink” in these contexts, exactly what a Ch’orti’ god prefers to consume, is idiosyncratic in the Maya area. Among the Ch’orti’, divine consumables are most commonly turkey and chicken meat and blood, chilate, atole, blood, tortillas, copal, and candles. Specifically, I will show how the blood of Christ (said to have been spilled at the beginning of Creation) has been woven into Ch’orti’ mythology, blood that is seen as the substance that first “fed” the earth and caused the first corn to grow. Christ’s blood is also viewed as seeds of corn and beans, which is reflected in one type of corn known by the Ch’orti’ today as “la sangre de Cristo.” I also explain the intimate relationship among blood, chilate, and semen, all of which “feed” the Earth Goddess, an act synonymous with “fertilizing” and impregnating her. Copal, being expressly the “blood” of the tree, is also closely linked to blood and corn as food for the gods. I suggest certain Classic period scattering scenes may be reinterpreted in light of the synonymy between blood and corn seeds. I also look at the offering of “smell,” which is viewed as a type of food for certain gods. I discuss the crucial role of copal (ujz’ub’) in placating and “feeding” various Ch’orti’ deities. Furthermore, rain-making gods (known as ángeles) require diligent, ceremonial food and drink offerings to be enticed to bring the rain. Similarly, the mythological Chijchan snakes, which are responsible for initiating the rain, need to be fed meat, tortillas, and chilate, along with copal to obligate them to bring the rains. Finally, I contextualize the ritual feeding of Ch’orti’ gods through a detailed analysis of several major ceremonies related to rain and crop production.


Lordly Drinks: Regional Variation in Classic Maya Elite Beverages
Alexandre Tokovinine, University of Alabama

This workshop explores variation in food and beverage references in the dedicatory inscriptions on Classic Maya ceramic vessels. Its participants will discover that clear regional preferences existed, much like they do today, especially at smaller and more peripheral royal courts. Nobles in larger cities, on the other hand, had more diverse and cosmopolitan tastes. Food and drink preferences changed over time too. The workshop will discuss the implications of these textual references to our understanding of Classic Maya regional economies and agricultural strategies. Finally, the workshop will highlight some links between textual sources on Maya dining practices and changes in the shape of plates and cups served at courtly banquets.

Beyond How Many? And How Big? Assessing Ceramic Indicators of Feasting
Caroline Parris, Middle American Research Institute/Tulane University

The most commonly cited evidence for feasting in archaeological contexts includes the presence of large quantities of ceramic sherds. While several other avenues exist for assessing communal consumption in the past such as paleobotanical, faunal, spatial, lithic, and other material analyses, ceramic sherds tend to be the best preserved and the most prevalent artifacts in any context. This workshop will highlight several different methods of analysis with which to approach the problem of identifying archaeological feasts through ceramic analysis. Attendees will work with archaeological and non-archaeological materials from the M.A.R.I. collection to gain hands-on experience and move beyond the old questions: “How many?” and “How big?”.

The Sustenance of Life for the Maya (*workshop in Spanish)
Ixnal Ambrocia Cuma, Tulane University

Maize is a vital and essential part of modern Maya diet. The consumption of maize-based foods is socially meaningful in daily life and celebrations. Maize also has deep spiritual meaning and its colors are considered symbolic. This workshop focuses on the symbolic and daily use of tortillas and tamalitos in modern Maya highland communities. The hands-on part of this workshop focuses on the process of converting maize grains to tortillas. Participants will have the opportunity to make their own tortillas and eat them in a social setting, while learning about the history, spiritual, and social significance of tortillas and tamalitos for modern Maya communities.