Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Agricultural consumption patterns and formative period sociopolitical developments at the Maya site of San Estevan, Belize
by Seinfeld, Daniel M., Ph.D., The Florida State University, 2011, 299; 3477202
Abstract (Summary)

The development of agriculture and complex sociopolitical systems are two of the most significant changes in human history. Longstanding theories suggest that emergent elites gained power through managing agricultural resources. This dissertation explores the relationship between agricultural consumption and the development of sociopolitical complexity among the ancient Maya. I applied an innovative combination of paleobotanical and isotopic analyses to materials from San Estevan, northern Belize. My study focused on artifacts dating to the early Middle (900–600 B.C.), late Middle (600–300 B.C.), and Late Formative (300 B.C.–A.D. 300) periods. During this time, San Estevan developed from a largely egalitarian village in the Middle Formative period into a sociopolitically complex center during the Late Formative period. My work demonstrated consistency in agricultural consumption throughout this key time. I argue that San Estevan's natural environment facilitated a decentralized agricultural system that was largely unchanged by sociopolitical developments.

Earlier archaeological studies on subsistence and iconographic evidence suggest that maize has been a vital part of Mesoamerican diet and ideology at least since the Formative period. Nevertheless, the precise role of maize in prehistory remains unclear. Changes in maize-use patterns concurrent with the development of sociopolitical complexity during the Late Formative period might suggest that emergent elites were involved in agricultural management. Maize could have been used to feed growing populations because of its nutritional potential. Interpretations of iconography indicate that emergent elites used maize imagery to promote associations with a maize deity.

I tracked maize (Zea mays) consumption in paleobotanical macroremains, two forms of analyses of absorbed residues in ceramics, and carbon isotopes in fauna. I also examined iconography related to maize. Results from paleobotanical and isotopic analyses demonstrated consistent maize use throughout the Formative period.

Carbon isotope analysis of dog (Canis familiaris) and deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provided supplemental information on maize-use practices and animal husbandry. Analysis showed that dogs were eating substantial quantities of maize as far back as the early Middle Formative period. One dog was fed a high proportion of maize, providing information on animal husbandry practices. On the other hand, deer ate little maize and were likely wild at these times. These results were consistent with similar analyses from nearby sites.

Paleobotanical analysis also uncovered evidence for land clearance within the site and possible forestry management. The construction of monumental architecture and paved surfaces with the beginnings of sociopolitical complexity during the Late Formative period was reflected in a decline in weedy plants. The prevalence of charred Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea) demonstrates that it was the preferred wood for domestic purposes such as firewood.

The consistency in maize use found at San Estevan matches results from isotopic studies of human remains from nearby sites. Work on agricultural production in the San Estevan area also found a lack of radical changes during the Late Formative period. This consistency in agricultural consumption and production suggests that the emergence of sociopolitical complexity during the Late Formative had little effect on longstanding agricultural practices. These data provide evidence for a decentralized, heterarchical model of ancient Maya agricultural management. Architectural, ritual, and mortuary evidence suggests that emergent Late Formative period rulers gained power through means such as public ceremony rather than through controlling agricultural resources.

There may have been substantial variability in the relationship between agriculture and sociopolitical developments because of geographic and hydrological diversity in the Maya region. The San Estevan area's stable, spring-fed rivers and wetlands afforded it excellent agricultural land that needed little maintenance. Other areas, such as the Peten, Guatemala, might have required a higher degree of centralized, intensive agriculture. These differences might have affected the trajectory of sociopolitical developments in these different regions.

My findings at San Estevan contradict models for the centrality of elite-sponsored maize agriculture in the development of sociopolitical complexity in Mesoamerica based on iconography. I argue that these models may have overstated the ubiquity of maize iconography in the Formative period. I argue that maize was likely most significant to early elites as a feasting food, based on earlier work at the Olmec site of San Andrés.

On a broader, theoretical scale, this dissertation contributes to a growing body of research demonstrating how sociopolitical complexity can emerge independent from agricultural management by an elite. It shows how a decentralized agricultural base can support emergent sociopolitical complexity. My work also demonstrates how the local environment and existing cultural systems influence the form of the political economy of early sociopolitically complex groups.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Pohl, Mary D.
School: The Florida State University
School Location: United States -- Florida
Source: DAI-A 72/12, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Archaeology, Latin American history
Keywords: Belize, Maize consumption, Maya, Mesoamerica
Publication Number: 3477202
ISBN: 9781124918761