Up Ceren!

21 Aug 2007

A University of Colorado at Boulder team excavating an ancient Maya village in El Salvador buried by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years ago has discovered an ancient field of manioc. This is the first evidence for cultivation of the nutritious tuber in the New World. 

The field was unearthed under roughly 10 feet of ash, said CU-Boulder anthropology professor Payson Sheets, who has been leading excavation work on the ancient village of Ceren, 24 km west of San Salvador, since it was discovered in 1978.

‘We have long wondered what else the prehistoric Mayan people were growing and eating besides corn and beans, so finding this field was a jackpot of sorts for us,’ says Sheets.

‘Manioc’s extraordinary productivity may help explain how the Classic Maya at huge sites like Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras supported such dense populations. What we essentially found was a freshly planted manioc field that was 1,400 years old.’

As in Pompeii in Italy, the buildings, artifacts and landscape in Ceren were frozen in time by the sudden eruption of a volcano by the nearby Loma Caldera volcano in about 600 A.D.

In June, Sheets and his researchers used ground-penetrating radar, drill cores and test pits to identify and excavate a series of planting beds separated by walkways. Ash hollows in the beds left by decomposed plant material were cast with dental plaster to preserve their forms and were subsequently identified as manioc tubers.

Archaeologists have long suspected that ancient Mayans cultivated and consumed manioc for its high-energy value. Also known as cassava, manioc provides one of the highest yields of food energy per acre per day of any cultivated crop in the world and is an important, high-carbohydrate food source for Latin Americans today

‘We hope archaeologists eventually find evidence for this kind of activity at sites throughout the region. From an archaeological standpoint, there are few things as important as discovering the sources of day-to-day subsistence for ancient cultures.’ The Mayan civilization flourished n present-day Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, southern Mexico and Belize until it mysteriously vanished in around 1000 AD.

University of Colorado at Boulder

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