The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Were calories really a problem for the Classic Maya of Copan and K'axob? Evidence from paleopathological indicators


Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston

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As George Armelagos has long taught, one has to look at paleopathological indicators of stress in a populational framework using a biocultural framework. He also was interested in the effects of social inequality on health in complex societies. The Precolumbian Maya of Mesoamerica have a high prevalence of pathological indicators during the cultural apogee of the Classic period (circa 250-900 CE). The morbidity burden indicated by this prevalence should be due to the interaction of diet and hygienic environment, both considered to be substandard in this population. Poor nutrition affects immunological competence. Elite individuals should have evidence of a more buffered lifestyle. However, diet was thought to be a stressor for the Maya, even for the elite, because of the lack of animal protein and the high dependence on maize, beans, and other vegetables and fruits. Calories could be lacking, especially as the diet has traditionally been thought to lack fatty foods. The recent evidence for the use of palm and cottonseed oil, by both elites and commoners, and the increased presence of root crops to provide calories, makes nutrition potentially less of a contributor to stress. The difference in prevalence of paleopathological indicators in the Classic period Maya of K’axob, Belize, and Copan, Honduras, by status are minimal. One explanation is the archaeological evidence that diet did not vary greatly by social status, especially in access to caloric-dense foods.

The Copan and K'axob studies have been supported by the World Bank, Fulbright Foundation, and the University of Houston.

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