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A preference for corn contributed to the collapse of ancient Mayan society

A new study has analyzed the influence that diet may have had on the ability of ancient Mayans to withstand periods of severe climatic stress. The results suggest that a higher demand for maize among elite Mayans may have made the population more vulnerable to drought, and contributed to the collapse of the society. 

“Population expansion and anthropogenic environment degradation from agricultural intensification, coupled with socially conditioned food preferences, resulted in a less flexible and less resilient system,” said study co-author Claire Ebert. “Understanding the factors promoting resilience in the past can help mitigate the potential for similar sudden and dramatic shifts in our increasingly interconnected modern world.”

The study was focused on the remains of 50 human burials from the ancient Maya community of Cahal Pech, Belize. At the Human Paleoecology and Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory at Penn State University, Ebert measured stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values of the bone collagen to examine the characteristics of individual diets.

Among the burials dating to the Preclassic and Early Classic periods, both elites and commoners had a diverse diet including maize, plants, and animals. The diversity of this diet likely protected the Mayans from the harsh impacts of a multi-century drought between 300-100 B.C.

“The resilience of complex social systems at Cahal Pech from the Preclassic through Early Classic was dependent in part upon a broad subsistence strategy that helped to absorb shocks to maize-based food production in the context of drought,” said Ebert.

Among the remains of the elites from the Terminal Classic period, however, the team identified a pattern of highly restricted stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes that corresponded to a “hyper-specialized maize-based diet.” The researchers concluded that demands on the local population for increased maize production, and a preference for this drought-intolerant crop, likely played a big role in the collapse of the Cahal Pech society when another drought struck at the end of the Terminal Classic Period.

“The study speaks to the importance of diet in the resilience and decline of ancient societies and contributes to our understanding of vulnerability to climate change among modern traditional farming communities as well as industrialized nations,” said Ebert.

The study is published in the journal Current Anthropology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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