Maya cuisine

Ancient Maya cuisine was varied and extensive. Many different types of resources were consumed, including maritime, flora, and faunal material, and food was obtained or produced through strategies such as hunting, foraging, and large-scale agricultural production. Plant domestication concentrated upon several core foods, the most important of which was maize.[1]

Much of the Maya food supply was grown in agricultural fields and forest gardens, known as pet kot.[2] The system takes its name from the low wall of stones (pet meaning "circular" and kot "wall of loose stones") that characteristically surrounded the gardens.

The Maya adopted a number of adaptive techniques that, if necessary, allowed for the clear-cutting of land and re-infused the soil with nutrients. Among these was slash-and-burn, or swidden, agriculture, a technique that cleared and temporarily fertilized the area. For example, the introduction of ash into the soil raises the soil's pH. This in turn temporarily raises the content of a variety of nutrients, especially phosphorus.The effect lasts about two years. However, the soil will not remain suitable for planting for as many as ten years. This technique, common throughout the Maya area, is still practiced in the region today. Complementing swidden techniques were crop rotation and farming, employed to maintain soil viability and increase the variety of crops.

To understand how and in what quantities food resources were relied upon by the Ancient Maya, stable isotopic analysis has been utilized.[3] This method allows for the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes to be chemically extracted from animal and human skeletal remains. These elements are then run through a mass spectrometer and the values display the enrichment of maize and the extent of aquatic resources in an individual's diet.[4]

Ethnohistoric and paleoethnobotanical evidence for plant staples

Paleoethnobotanical studies consist of the examination of micro and macro plant remains found within measured units of soil taken from an archaeological context.[5] Macro-remains are separated from the soil through a flotation process while microremains are chemically extracted from the flotation samples.[6] The earliest archaeological plant remains within the Maya region are from Cuello, Belize, and predate Preclassic sites. The majority of plant remains fall within the Preclassic-Postclassic and allow for researchers to discuss subsistence patterns that revolve around domesticated and wild/partially cultivated plants. Information for the Classic period, the most widely studied period for the Maya, come from the sites of Cobá, Cerén, Dos Pilas, Wild Cane Cay, Copán, Tikal, and Río Azul.[5] This range of sites also allows for insight into regional differences based on the environment and access to local resources, such as aquatic and marine life.[7]

Maya diet focused on four domesticated crops (staple crops): maize, squash, beans (typically Phaseolus vulgaris) and chili peppers. The first three cultivars are commonly referred to in North America as the "Three Sisters" and, when incorporated in a diet, complement one another in providing necessary nutrients.[8] Among the three, maize was the central component of the diet of the ancient Maya, and figured prominently in Maya mythology and ideology. Archaeological evidence suggest that Chapalote-Nal-Tel was the dominant species, however it is likely others were being exploited also.[9] Maize was used and eaten in a variety of ways, but was always nixtamalized. Nixtamalization (a term that derives from the Nahuatl word for the process) is a procedure in which maize is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. This releases niacin, a necessary B vitamin (vitamin B3) that prevents pellagra and reduces incidents of protein deficiency.

Once nixtamalized, maize was typically ground up on a metate and prepared in a number of ways. Tortillas, cooked on a comal and used to wrap other foods (meat, beans, etc.), were common and are perhaps the best-known pre-Columbian Mesoamerican food. Tamales consist of corn dough, often containing a filling, that are wrapped in a corn husk and steam-cooked. Both atole and pozole were liquid-based gruel-like dishes that were made by mixing ground maize (hominy) with water, with atole being denser and used as a drinking source and pozole having complete big grains of maize incorporated into a turkey broth. Though these dishes could be consumed plain, other ingredients were added to diversify flavor, including chili peppers, cacao, wild onions and salt.

Along with maize, beans—both domestic and wild—and squash were relied on as evident from the remains at Joya de Cerén, El Salvador,.[10]

An alternative view is that manioc cassava was the easily grown staple crop of the Maya and that maize was revered because it was prestigious and harder to grow.[11] This proposal was based on the inability of maize to meet the nutritional needs of densely populated Maya areas. Manioc can meet those needs. Because tuberous manioc rarely survives in the archaeological record, evidence for this view has been lacking, although recent finds in volcanic ash at the southern Maya site of Joya de Cerén in El Salvador may be such evidence.[12]

Several different varieties of beans were grown, including pinto, red and black beans. The ancient Maya also relied on tree cropping for access to foods such as tomato, chili peppers, avocado, breadnut, guava, soursop, mammee apple, papaya, pineapple, pumpkin, sweet potato, and Xanthosoma.[5] Chaya was cultivated for its green leaves. Chayote was cultivated for its fruit, and its tender green shoots were used as a vegetable. Various herbs were grown and used, including vanilla, epazote, achiote (and the annatto seed), Canella, Hoja santa (Piper auritum), avocado leaves, garlic vine, Mexican oregano, and allspice.

While paleoethnobotanical remains demonstrate these crops were relied on in some form by all Maya groups, it is clear that different subsistence strategies were relied on. For instance some fields were planted away from the household groups while some fields are adjacent to households. Farming techniques includes terracing, raised fields, check dams, drained fields, kitchen gardens, forest gardens, and other forms of irrigation.[13][14][15] Other crops have also been investigated as part of the diet of Ancient Maya; chili peppers, manioc, cotton, and agave are thought to have been cultivated in gardens tended near the home.[5]

Ethnohistorical and zooarchaeological evidence of meat usage

Hunting is believed to have supplied the Maya with their main source of meat, though several animals, such as dog pek[16] [pek] and turkey ulum[16] [ulum], may have been domesticated. Animals hunted for meat, as well as for other purposes, include deer, manatee, armadillo, tapir, peccary, monkey, guinea pig and other types of fowl, turtle and iguana, with the majority of meat coming from white tailed deer as evident from animal remains found in middens.[5] The Maya diet was also supplemented by the exploitation, at least in coastal areas, of maritime resources, including fish, lobster, shrimp, conch, and other shellfish.

The zooarchaeological evidence from the sites of Lamanai and Tipu have provided considerable information about the types of animals being exploited. The zooarchaeological evidence (5,737 remains from Lamanai and 24,590 remains from Tipu) were collected from midden deposits and structures near and in the ceremonial center of the site.[17] While white tailed deer remain the most exploited animal at the sites throughout time, there are shifts over time from larger mammals to small mammals, aviary species such as turkey, and aquatic resources such as fish, turtles, and molluscs.[18]

While it may seem improbable that aquatic resources were being exploited by inland sites, the site of Caracol, located in the Maya Mountains of Belize, displays evidence of marine resources being brought to the site and transported while still alive.[19] Archaeological evidence supported this as a diverse set of marine resources were found from subsistence and ceremonial contexts at Caracol.[20] The most likely candidates for this type of live transport from the ocean up to the mountains by river would be stingrays, grunts, sea catfish, and parrotfish.

Stable isotopic evidence of Maya diet

Stable isotopic analysis of carbon and nitrogen from human skeletal remains has been conducted at multiple Maya sites from the lowlands of Belize, the Peten, the Yucatán peninsula, and the highlands of Guatemala.[21] The first applications of this practice were conducted on the remains found in the Tehuacan Valley and suggest that maize was a dietary staple as early at 4500 BP.[22] However the bulk of information is represented by over 600 individuals dating from the Preclassic to the Postclassic period and substantiates that subsistence adaptations were present and caused by chronology, geographic and environmental factors, and cultural pressures.[21] In the Maya lowlands of Belize, carbon and nitrogen data from collagen have been analyzed from ten sites. The average C13 collagen values are -12.6 ± 1.2 per mil, indicating that C4 sources made up 50% of ancient Maya diet. These average values change very slightly in the Early, Late, and Terminal Classic periods, with averages of -11.3 ± -2.3 per mil. In the Peten region, Preclassic values for collagen C13 average -10.2 ± -1.2 per mil, indicating that C4 sources made up 70% of ancient Maya diet in this region. These differences in region may be attributed to the greater access to marine and aquatic resources in Belize. As discussed earlier, there is evidence that marine animals were being brought alive to inland sites by means of river waterways.[19] Areas of the Peten and the Yucatán may have been too far away from coastal regions for this concept to be utilized.

Of course diet varied greatly by site and region. For example, at Pacbitun maize was found to be heavily relied upon by the elite males found in the ceremonial center. This goes against ideas about maize as a commoner food and the idea that elites had greater access to a wide variety of resources. Furthermore, this data contradicts what is found about elite diets at other sites like Copan and Lamania. Overall maize played a large role in diet at the site but access to maize varied by age, sex, and social status. Males and adults consumed more than females and children and this difference is most likely caused by social status.[23] Furthermore, maize consumption varied through time. During the flourishing periods of the Early and Late Classic, maize constituted about 72-77% of the diet of individuals living at Pacbitun.[23] This drops 10% in the Terminal Classic as the population became less reliant on maize.[23] This could be caused by a more diverse diet due to trade or an increased reliance on other local foods. Another possibility is that attempts at producing enough maize to support the growing population failed.

Mayan cuisine present in modern cuisine

The origins of Mayan cuisine can be established by archaeological evidence, dating as early as 1500 B.C. and extending through the 16th century A.D.[24] With maize as a significant and sustainable food source, the Maya expanded their palate and began to cultivate and incorporate many other foods into their diet. The evolution of Maya food culture allowed for experimentation with new staples and development of new Maya cuisine.These in turn became established in modern food practices. Today, as another corn driven society, we indulge in the luxury of a great diversity of foods and many that come from Maya techniques such as chocolate, avocado/guacamole, tortillas, and tamales.

Chocolate: The cocoa tree is native to Maya territory, and they are believed to be the first people to have cultivated the cacao plant for food.[25] For the Maya, cocoa was a sacred gift from the gods.[26] The cocoa plant, theobroma, literally translates to "food of the gods". Cacao beans were used as ceremonial sacrifices to the Mayan gods. Cocoa was enjoyed by all social classes of Maya people Because of its stimulative aphrodisiac powers, Maya couples drank chocolate during ceremonies of marriage and engagement.[27] The cocoa beans were also ground and mixed with chili peppers, cornmeal and honey to create a drink called xocolatl (a Nahuatl word), which only the rich and noble could drink. Maya chocolate was much different than today's hot chocolate. It may have been served unsweetened and with a frothy texture [28], but this drink established the roots for one of today's most beloved treats.

Avocado/Guacamole: Originating from southern Mexico and Guatemala, avocados became a staple of Mayan cuisine. The Avocado tree thrives in subtropical climates which existed during the Maya civilization. Avocados are a versatile product that is incorporated in modern cuisine. It has a smooth texture, and rich and buttery taste, which has made it a popular appetizer.[29]

Corn Tortillas: Maize can be used to interweave almost every aspect of Maya life right down to the creation of man. It is said in the Popul Vuh that the first humans were crafted from an ear of corn.[30] The Maya creation story contends that people were fundamentally made of masa, or corn dough. Tortillas, imbued by the divine quality of maize, offered countless opportunities for food creation and allowed people of all economic standings to eat freely. Maya tortillas differ from its modern counterparts.The Mayans produced a small three to four inch masa patty that was thicker than today's version to provide a sturdy base for the dish they would be serving. These dishes often included meat and avocado or could be a side for a stew at a ritualistic meeting. Today's tortillas are thinner and often larger in diameter than Maya tortillas. The presence of tortillas serves as base formany different food dishes including tacos, burritos, quesadillas, chips, soups, and even crepes.

Tamales: Crafted from masa, or corn dough, and a mix of meat and vegetables, tamales have historically been one of the world's most convenient foods[31] because of their ease of transport.[32] Like many popular dishes in Maya culture, the tamal included the use of the corn husks or banana leaves to ferment and enhance the cooking process of the meal. After the cooking process, the tamal would be unwrapped and topped with salsa which could be eaten on the go. Often, tamales would be served at Maya holiday celebrations. Maya women would also sell freshly made tamales, often in exchange for cocoa seeds. Ancient evidence of tamales are prominent on many Maya artifacts and paintings.[33] The modern tamal is enjoyed in much the same way as in ancient Maya cuisine.


Soy has become part of the Maya diet.[34][35][36][37][38][39][40]

See also


  1. "Maya Food & Agriculture". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-12-13.
  2. Michael Ernest Smith and Marilyn A. Masson (2000). The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica. p. 127.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. Rand, A. J.; Healy, P. F.; Awe, J. J. (2013-02-25). "Stable Isotopic Evidence of Ancient Maya Diet at Caledonia, Cayo District, Belize". International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 25 (4): 401–413. doi:10.1002/oa.2308. ISSN 1047-482X.
  4. White, Christine (1999). Reconstructing Ancient Maya Diet. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.
  5. Lentz, David (1999). White, Christine (ed.). "Plant Resources of the Ancient Maya: The Paleoethnobotanical Evidence". Reconstructing Ancient Maya Diet. The University of Utah Press.
  6. Pearsall, D.M. (1989). Paleoethnobotany: A Handbook of Procedures. San Diego: Academic Press.
  7. McKillop, Heather (1994). "Ancient Maya tree cropping, a viable subsistence adaptation for the island Maya". Ancient Mesoamerica. doi:10.1017/s0956536100001085.
  8. Mt. Pleasant, Jane (2006). "The science behind the Three Sisters mound system: An agronomic assessment of an indigenous agricultural system in the northeast". In John E. Staller, Robert H. Tykot, and Bruce F. Benz. Histories of maize: Multidisciplinary approaches to the prehistory, linguistics, biogeography, domestication, and evolution of maize. Amsterdam. pp. 529–537.
  9. Benz, B.F. (1986). Taxonomy and Evolution of Mexican Maize (doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  10. Sheets, Pason (1994). "Tropical Time Capsule". Archaeology.
  11. Bronson, Bennet (1966). "Roots and the Subsistence of the Ancient Maya". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 22: 251–279.
  12. Atwood, Roger (2009). "Maya Roots". Archaeology. 62 (4): 18.
  13. Beach, T.; Dunning, N.P. (1995). "Ancient Maya terracing and modern conservation in the Peten rainforest in Guatemala". Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.
  14. Turner, B.L.II; Harrison, P.D. (1983). Pulltrouser Swamp: Ancient maya Habitat, Agriculture, and Settlement in Northern Belize. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  15. Turner, B.L.II; Johnson, W.C. (1979). "A Maya dam in the Copan Valley, Honduras". American Antiquity.
  16. Mayan dictionary (1997). Wired Humanities Project. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from link
  17. Emery, Kitty (1999). "Continuity and Variability in Postclassic and Colonial Animal Use at Lamanai and Tipu, Belize". In White, Christine (ed.). Reconstructing Ancient Maya Diet. University of Utah Press. pp. Salt Lake City.
  18. Pendergast, D.M. (1986). "Stability through change: Lamanai, Belize from the ninth to seventeenth century". In Sabloff, J.A.; Andrews, E.W. (eds.). Late Lowland Maya Civilization: Classic to Postclassic. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  19. Cunningham-Smith, Petra; Chase, Arlen; Chase, Diane (2014). "Fish from afar: marine resource at Caracol, Belize". Research Reports in Belize Archaeology.
  20. Teeter, W.G. (2001). Maya animal utilization in a growing city: vertebrate exploitation at Caracol, Belize. Los Angeles: University of California.
  21. Tykot, Robert (2002). "Contributions of Stable Isotope Analysis to Understanding Dietary Variation among the Maya". ACS Symposium Series.
  22. Norr, L. (1995). Archaeology in the Lowland American Tropics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 198–223.
  23. White, Christine; Healy, Paul; Schwarcz, Henry (1993). "Intensive Agriculture, Social Status, and Maya Diet at Pacbitun, Belize". Journal of Anthropological Research.
  24. Olver, Lynne. "The Food Timeline--Aztec, Maya & Inca foods". Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  25. Bogin 1997, Coe 1996, Montejo 1999, Tedlock 1985
  26. "Top 10 Foods of the Maya World -- National Geographic". 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  27. "An Ancient Maya Chocolate Recipe For Romance... - The Sacred Science". The Sacred Science. 2015-02-12. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  28. "Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya "Teapot" -- National Geographic". 2002-07-17. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
  29. "Top 10 Foods of the Maya World -- National Geographic". Travel. 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2019-12-13.
  30. "Penn Museum Blog | Maya Fun Fact: The Importance of Corn - Penn Museum". Retrieved 2016-11-19.
  31. Olver, Lynne. "The Food Timeline--Aztec, Maya & Inca foods". Retrieved 2016-11-19.
  32. "Top 10 Foods of the Maya World -- National Geographic". 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2016-11-19.
  33. "Top 10 Foods of the Maya World -- National Geographic". Travel. 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2019-12-13.
  34. William Shurtleff; H.T. Huang; Akiko Aoyagi (2014). History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in China and Taiwan, and in Chinese Cookbooks, Restaurants, and Chinese Work with Soyfoods Outside China (1024 BCE to 2014): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook, Including Manchuria, Hong Kong and Tibet (illustrated ed.). Soyinfo Center. p. 2805. ISBN 1928914683. Archived from the original on 2014. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  35. William Shurtleff; Akiko Aoyagi (2013). History of Soy Ice Cream and Other Non-Dairy Frozen Desserts (1899-2013): Extensively annotated bibliography and sourcebook (illustrated ed.). Soyinfo Center. p. 212. ISBN 1928914594. Archived from the original on 2013. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  36. William Shurtleff; Akiko Aoyagi (2009). History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in Mexico and Central America (1877-2009): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook (illustrated ed.). Soyinfo Center. p. 176. ISBN 1928914217. Archived from the original on 2009. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  37. William Shurtleff; Akiko Aoyagi (2013). History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226-2013): Including Infant Formulas, Calf Milk Replacers, Soy Creamers, Soy Shakes, Soy Smoothies, Almond Milk, Coconut Milk, Peanut Milk, Rice Milk, Sesame Milk, etc (illustrated ed.). Soyinfo Center. p. 1249. ISBN 1928914586. Archived from the original on 2013. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  38. History of Soymilk
  39. William Shurtleff; Akiko Aoyagi (2010). History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in Canada (1831-2010): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook (illustrated ed.). Soyinfo Center. p. 454. ISBN 1928914284. Archived from the original on 2010. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  40. William Shurtleff; Akiko Aoyagi (2013). History of Tofu and Tofu Products (965 CE to 2013) (illustrated ed.). Soyinfo Center. p. 1809. ISBN 1928914551. Archived from the original on 2013. Retrieved May 17, 2014.


  • Benz, B.F. (1986). Taxonomy and Evolution of Mexican Maize (doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin, Madison.
  • Coe, Sophie D. (1994) America's first cuisines ISBN 0-292-71159-X
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