Ancient Maya subsistence... or How they got their groceries
Part two: Animals

The Ancient Maya, like all of the pre-Columbian people of the New World, relied on wild animals as a source of protein since domesticated animals were more the exception than the rule. When the first inhabitants came to the Western Hemisphere from Asia across the Bering Straits Land Bridge they brought only one domesticated animal; the dog. The dogs of the Maya were all descendants of this single strain and served as hunting companions and household early warning systems. It is probable that certain varieties of dogs were fattened and eaten as were dogs in ancient Central Mexico. In addition to the dog, the Maya evidently raised doves, turkeys and the Muscovy duck. They may have also managed or tended other animals as food such as the coatimundi and deer. Bishop Diego de Landa in the sixteenth century reported that the Maya women in the Yucatan would: "raise other animals and let the deer suck their breasts, by which means they raise them and make them so tame so they will never go into the woods."

The archeological evidence suggests the deer population actually grew larger through time along with the human population probably because land clearing for agriculture opened up space for browsers and restricted the growth of predators. The archeological and paleontological evidence likewise makes it clear that there were no large wild animals such as pigs, cattle and horses available for domestication as they had, for reasons not clearly understood, all died out before the advent of man in the hemisphere some twelve to twenty thousand years ago. There were plenty of peccaries around (there still are) and although they are known locally as wild pigs, they are not pigs at all, but more closely related to the rhinoceros. Other choices included most of the animals common to the land of the Maya today, with emphasis on deer (both white-tail and brocket), tapir, peccary, agouti, paca (fit for a queen, I'm told), squirrels, rabbits and manatee. A variety of birds were taken, including chachalaca, crested guan, turkey and curassow. Some were probably killed for their plumage rather than a source of meat: the Scarlet Macaw, quetzal and numerous parrots come to mind. The degree to which the Maya exploited aquatic resources is not easy to get at as fish remains do not preserve well in the acidic soils of the region. It is certain the Maya made nets of cotton twine and net weights carved from pieces of broken pottery are very common in sites along the coastal zone. Birds and mammals were taken with nets, blowguns, snares and spears. The bow and arrow were a very late introduction into the Maya area from Central Mexico, arriving sometime around 1200 A.D. The spears of which I speak looked like large arrows, complete with feathers. They were propelled with the aid of a long hooked stick which added great velocity to the weapon. I do not know the Maya term for this spear thrower, but in archeological literature this device is called an atlatl, an Aztec term in Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs. Of course when the atlatl was used in combat it was a battle atlatl. For ceremonial purposes a gourd rattle was attached, making it a rattle, battle atlatl. After the Maya acquired horses and livestock, the herds were guarded with a saddle, cattle, rattle, battle atlatl. Slaves, on the other hand were guarded with a chattel, saddle, cattle, rattle, battle atlatl.

It doesn't take much to amuse me these days.

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