Bones hint at lives of Maya middle class

Ashley Sharpe holds a shell that was cut into an ornament and found near the ruins of working-class houses at the ancient Maya site of El Kinel. (Credit: Jeff Gage)

The picture most people have of ancient Maya civilizations—royalty and elaborate temples—isn’t broad enough, researchers say. But now, ancient bones are hinting at the lives of the other 99 percent—the Maya middle class.

“When you think about the Romans and the Greeks, we know a lot about all of the different social classes—from the Caesars down to the commoners—but although there were tens of thousands of middle-class and lower-income Maya in big cities, we still don’t know much about the everyday lives of most people,” says Ashley Sharpe, a doctoral student at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.

carved jawbone and teeth of a tapir
The jawbone and teeth of a tapir, a pig-like mammal that inhabits the Maya region, show carvings called “rasps” made by an ancient Maya. Researchers think these bones were used as musical instruments by rubbing a stick over the surface. (Credit: Jeff Gage)

For the first time in Maya archaeology research, 22,000 animal remains at the museum, one of the largest collections of its kind outside of Central America, were used as clues about life in the Maya lower classes. The bones revealed that the civilization known for its art and astronomy also had political and economic systems that were more complex than previously thought and quite similar to those of modern societies.

“We looked at how the Maya acquired and distributed animal resources in order to learn more about the economy and how the royal, elite, and lower classes interacted,” Sharpe says. “It turns out, the Maya states and classes were not all homogenous. They had complicated systems in place for trade relations, distribution of food, and access to species, which varied among the cities and social classes much like they do today.”

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For a new study, published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, researchers examined the animal remains recovered from the ruins of three Maya city-states in Guatemala, including the famous site of Aguateca that was burned after a surprise enemy attack resulting in a level of preservation similar to the Roman ruins of Pompeii.

Scientists traced the movement of animals and their resources from trade partners to Aguateca and the capitals of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. They also followed the flow of resources between royalty, the rich and the poor at the capital cities, and to the less powerful surrounding villages.

“The Maya used animals for things like hides, tools, jewelry, and musical instruments, but they were also vitally important as emblems of status, royalty, and the symbolic world of the gods, and thus often were prime resources jealously guarded by the rich and powerful,” says coauthor Kitty Emery, associate curator of environmental archaeology at the Florida Museum.‌

Surprisingly, however, study researchers found that middle-ranking elites used the widest variety of animals. Royalty and other high-ranking elites focused on a select group of symbolic and prestigious animals like jaguars and crocodiles, Sharpe says.

“We had expected that the elites would have the highest diversity but that was not the case. The elites ate animals that were considered delicacies, sort of the way people in our own upper class eat things like caviar, but the rest of us think it’s kind of gross.”

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Poor villagers mostly ate fish and shellfish from rivers near their homes. However, both the poor and middle-elite classes living at the capitals kept a wider variety of animals for themselves than they shared with the surrounding villages, particularly more species from deep inside forests and from the ocean, which was 50 to 100 miles away. At Aguateca, more than 100 miles from the nearest coast, thousands of marine shells were found covering the floors of ancient households and craft workshops.

“These people didn’t have pack animals like in the Old World where they had horses and donkeys to carry goods,” Sharpe says “They were literally carrying things on their backs from the sea. They did have rivers to help with transportation, but not a lot of rivers, and on land they also had the jungle to contend with.”

At Yaxchilan, more than half of the skeletons found were deer, suggesting residents primarily relied on nearby forests, including the deer that fed on their corn fields. However, much like in medieval Britain, there is evidence the Maya may have regulated hunting and fishing, creating more of a divide in access to animal resources among the classes, Sharpe says. At each of the three cities, elites, middle and lower classes all had access to different types of species, both imported marine resources and animals that could be obtained from nearby forests and rivers.

The differences in predominate species, such as marine animals and deer, show the city-states likely had different trade partners, which makes sense, Sharpe says, because we know there were occasional hostilities between the cities. The differences could also point to unique cultural identities. For example, the residents of Aguateca were known for their jewelry made from shells.

“This is the first time we’re seeing this sort of evidence for what the middle and lower classes were doing,” she says.

Source: University of Florida