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HomeSpecial EventsSecond Shanghai Archaeology Forum 2015
Cuello: the Economic and Social Origins of Maya Civilisation
From:Chinese Archaeology  Writer:Norman Hammond  Date:2015-12-25
Maya civilisation is best known from the great Classic period (AD 250-900) cities such as Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, and Copan. The preceding Preclassic was little known and poorly understood as recently as 1975: at that date there were only six radiocarbon dates for the entire Maya lowland zone, and no evidence of human settlement prior to 800 BC was known. As a result, many scholars argued, or assumed, that Maya culture was a secondary development deriving from either the highlands of Guatemala and Mexico, or from the Olmec culture to the west in the Gulf Coast lowlands of Mexico. The discovery of the early village site of Cuello has shown that culturally-Maya village communities existed from the later second millennium BC or earlier, with clear evidence of human impact on the tropical forest landscape at least a millennium earlier. The Cuello research, conducted in the field from 1975-2002 and still ongoing in the laboratory in 2015, has demonstrated that Maya society developed autochthonously in the humid lowlands of Belize and adjacent regions of Guatemala and Mexico, and that the Maya were the authors of their own cultural destiny: contacts with the Olmec and with the Highlands were between established farming and trading societies.

Because archaeological investigations from the 18th century onwards have focused on the major cities with their temples, palaces, and ball-courts, emerging from the fourth century BC and attaining their apogee in the Classic Period after AD 250, research on the economic and social foundations of that civilisation has been neglected. In the cities, early evidence lay buried beneath centuries of later construction. Because the site of Cuello never grew to more than a large village, with Preclassic deposits only a short distance below the modern ground level over much of the site, it was possible to expose relatively large areas of early buildings with their associated burials and middens.

The site was discovered from aerial photographs in 1974: some of the scattered mounds were in cleared land, others remained under tropical forest (this area is being excavated in 2016-2017 by a collaborative project under Professor James Fitzsimmons, utilising the maps, excavation protocols and excavation results from the earlier work). Surface pottery indicated occupation as early as any yet known in the Maya Lowlands, with characteristic vessels of the Mamom (600-400 BC) and Xe (900-600BC) ceramic spheres; however, other ceramics present suggested a still older and previously undocumented period of village settlement. Mapping showed that the community covered about 1 km2, with a small Classic Period ceremonial precinct to the northeast: test excavations indicated that the original core had been in a group of Preclassic residential and ceremonial platforms 0.5 km southwest, and it is there, and notably in Platform 34, that detailed excavations were concentrated between 1975 and 2002, with some excavations in and around the Classic centre documenting its Preclassic origins beneath the later public buildings.

Platform 34, situated on a low elevation some 20 metres abovesea level and about 5 metres above the surrounding terrain, had been the locus of ephemeral occupation in the centuries around 2000 BC, but this had left only small amounts of debris from fires. Stratigraphic deposits up to 4 metres deep were discovered, including fragile plaster floors from timber-framed and palmthatched houses, numerous human burials (the total reaching 199, 166 of them Preclassic, by the final excavation season), and trash deposits including ceramics, stone tools, and subsistence materials. An initial radiocarbon chronology, based on charcoal and with dates from two laboratories (UCLA and Cambridge) agreeing, suggested settlement beginning around 2000 BC, surprisingly early; subsequent dated samples from adjacent parts of the site, from the Cambridge, La Jolla, and Arizona AMS laboratories, have shed doubt on this early chronology. Targeted research at the Oxford University AMS using human bone collagen – dating the people themselves instead of their discarded trash – yielded a chronology in which sedentary settlement began around 1200 BC. While the initial early dates remain unexplained, the small-scale pre-village occupation noted above, fortuitously sampled by the first excavations but extending over only a limited area, is the most likely explanation.

A total of 199 human burials were excavated, 166 from the Preclassic period: most were single inhumations, but some were secondary interments of excarnate bones. Two mass burials included both complete fresh corpses and bundles of bones. Several skulls, especially of children, were deposited inside pairs of pottery bowls as offerings. The higher proportion of male skeletons suggests that burial in the buildings surrounding the courtyard on Platform 34 was socially selective for adult men, with women and children under-represented in the sample. Overall public health was quite good, although there were dental problems including decay (possibly due to consuming sticky maize-based foods); treponemal disease (syphilis or yaws, confirmed by X-rays) was also common, together with some evidence of dietary insufficiency. The Cuello skeletal cohort continues to be sampled for projects studying Preclassic Maya diet, social and geographical mobility, with new work beginning in 2016 using stable isotopes of oxygen and strontium.

The trash deposits included good preservation of animal bones and carbonised plant remains, which were recovered by the first use of flotation techniques and phytolith analysis in the Maya Area, and allowed the Preclassic subsistence economy to be analysed and reconstructed in considerable detail. The remains of maize (Zea mays) were present (as carbonised kernels and cob fragments) from the earliest layers, and the manipulation of maize over a period of more than 1500 years to produce higher-yielding plants that could support larger populations was documented. The maize was probably grown in annual milpa cornfields cut from the forest: there is no evidence at Cuello of the drained-field or terrace artificial econiches that made an important contribution to Maya agriculture in larger communities and later centuries.

Specialised recovery techniques (by Dr. Jon Hather) yielded the first macroscopic remains of manioc (Manihot esculenta), an important root crop, also present from 1200 BC onwards. Malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolium) was also grown, and probably sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), although remains have not yet been identified in the Cuello collections. Roots played a significant part in the Preclassic Maya diet: difficulty in recovering diagnostic remains has led to their importance being underestimated (although recent research at the Classic village site of Ceren in El Salvador has now produced substantial evidence of manioc use around AD 600). Other plants including cotton (Gossypium sp, used for its fibres and for cottonseed oil) and cacao (Theobroma, a ritually-important beverage throughout Mesoamerica, and documented as such for the sixteenth-century Maya and Aztec) were utilised later in the Preclassic. Tree crops were harvested from the forest and from orchards created by selective preservation during milpa clearance, among them various fruits and avocado (Persea americana ).

Animal protein was obtained from systematic exploitationof white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus ), broad spectrumhunting in the forest of collared peccary (Pecari tajacu ), armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus ), gibnut (Cuniculus paca ) and other smaller mammals, and the collection of freshwater cichlid fish and molluscs including Pomacea flagellata snails from the nearby rivers and lagoons. Identification of particular species – for deer, Odocoileus rather than the shy brocket (Mazama temama ), and for peccary the Collared rather than the White-lipped (Tayassu pecari ) type which avoids human settlements, allowed the ambient environment of Cuello to be defined as an already-open, partlycleared landscape. This accords with the botanical evidence, showing that forest trees formed only half of the plant cover, with shrubs and weeds of cultivation present. The importance of this is the proof that Cuello at 1200 BC was not the first settlement in the area: earlier Maya villages lie nearby, perhaps to be discovered by future archaeologists.

Cuello Str. 326 in trench - house of 800 BC - temple pyramid of AD 250.
Although most (50%<) of the meat supply came from one deer species, Odocoileus – which raided milpas (cornfields) and could readily be encountered by Maya hunters close to home, dogs (Canis familiaris) were a domesticated source of meat, animals being fed on a largely maize-based diet and killed at the end of the first year’s growth. Their teeth were not worn by normal canid chewing of bones and sticks, and stable-isotope analyses (Carbon-13 and Nitrogen-15) confirmed a high consumption of C4 plants.

Stable-isotope analyses of both human bones and those of animals (carried out by N. Van Der Merwe, R.Tykot and N.Hammond) indicated that the Preclassic people of Cuello had about 35% of maize in their diet, while some of the dogs had consumed an even higher proportion. As expected, the deer and peccary consumed some maize, probably from milpa edges where they met the forest margins. A programme of Sr-87/Sr-86 strontium-isotope analysis of teeth from the Cuello burials begins in 2016: the purpose of this is to study ancient population mobility, by ascertaining which of the people were local and which may have entered the community, voluntarily or otherwise, during their lifetimes. Especially interesting here will be the skeletons from Mass Burial 1 (400 BC) and Mass Burial 2 (100 BC), both comprised of adult males. Some exhibit marks of butchery, and of death at or close to the time of the interments, which took place as important ritual events connected with the construction and subsequent enlargement of Platform 34 as it moved from being an enclosed courtyard to becoming a broad open public area dominated by a small temple-pyramid. It is hoped that the Sr87/86 research will determine whether these individuals were recent arrivals at Cuello – for example as battle-captives. The C13/N15 studies already carried out on a few of the Mass Burial 1 males show a much higher maize and protein intake than the average community member at this date.

There was certainly interaction with other Maya settlements and other regions: although always small and never important in the Maya world of its time, the Cuello community was part of inter-regional exchange systems from the beginning. Some maize-processing manos and metates were of sandstone from 150 kilometres (km) to the south, and fine-quality flint/chert was obtained from the Colha source 30 km southeast, both before 800 BC. Marine shells for making ornaments came from the Caribbean coast 50 km to the northeast, and workshop debris shows that the shell jewellery found with burials was locally-made. By 650 BC, obsidian from highland Guatemala (500 km south) and jade from Motagua Valley (250 km south) was being imported: the jadeincluded the blue variety favoured by the Olmec culture as well as the bright green type familiar from Classic period Maya burials. The presence of such exotic precious materials even in child burials (including a mirror-skeumorph concave-ground pendant with a juvenile of ~8 years, dating to ~660 BC) suggests ascribed status and thus the emergence of a ranked society by 700 BC. (Recent work at other sites, such as Ceibal, Guatemala, confirms this emergent complexity and hints at an even earlier date).

Art was not a major part of Preclassic Maya culture at the Cuello village, although human skulls were used to make both pendants and masks: whether the bones came from revered ancestors or from captured enemies is unknown. Pottery figurines of humans hint at social layering: some male figures wear large ear-spools and other possible marks of status. Musical instruments in the forms of animal figurines (including armadillo and birds) show observation of the natural world, and the tones obtainable from them indicate use of the tonic (do-re-mi) scale independently in the New World. Ceramic roller stamps were used to transfer pigment to surfaces such as skin, cotton textile, or bark paper/cloth. Abstract designs from the 8th century BC onwards show the emergence of a Maya art style: by the 5th century BC this includes the use of the pop motif, a symbol of rulership in Classic times. (Evidence from other sites such as San Bartolo [70 km southwest of Cuello, in Guatemala] indicates that early hieroglyphs include the designation ahaw (lord, master, king) by the 4th century BC). Maya kingship evolved by the end of the late Middle Preclassic (600-400 BC). The evidence from Cuello, with a human presence from ca. 2000 BC and a village community from 1200 BC, shows how the economic and social foundations of this emergent civilisation were laid. While Cuello was never important in its own world, the evidence it has yielded and continues to yield about the nature of early Maya settlement, subsistence, and society allows us to better understand the development of a complex society in the tropical forest of Central America.

Norman Hammond

Norman Hammond is a Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, Professor Emeritus of Archaeology at Boston University, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He earned his Ph.D. and Sc.D. in Archaeology at Cambridge University, and has worked on aspects of Maya civilisation in Central America since 1968. He directed excavations at Lubaantun (1970), the Northern Belize Survey (1973-78) and excavations at Nohmul (1973-74, 1978, 1982-1986), Cuello (1975-1980, 1987-1993, 2000-2002), La Milpa (1992-2002) and other Maya sites in Belize; he has also excavated at early village sites in Ecuador (1972, 1980, 1984) and carried out fieldwork in Afghanistan and North Africa. His publications include Lubaantun, a Classic Maya realm (1975), Ancient Maya Civilization (1982 and many subsequent English and foreignlanguage editions), Nohmul: a prehistoric Maya community in Belize (1985), and Cuello: an early Maya community in Belize (1991)

(Norman Hammond     University of Cambridge)

(Source: Research Center for World Archaeology, Shanghai Academy)

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