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The history of maize in Central America and surrounding areas has implications for the slow transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The spread of early forms of domesticated maize from southern Mexico across Mesoamerica and into South America has been dated to about 8,700–6,500 years ago on the basis of a handful of studies relying primarily on the analysis of pollen, phytoliths, or starch grains. Recent genomic data from southern Belize have been used to identify Archaic period south-to-north population movements from lower Central America, suggesting this migration pattern as a mechanism that introduced genetically improved maize races from South America. Gradually, maize productivity increased to the point that it was suitable for use as a staple crop. Here we present a summary of paleoecological data that support the late and uneven entry of maize into the Maya area relative to other regions of Central America and identify the Pacific coastal margin as the probable route by which maize spread southward into Panama and South America. We consider some implications of the early appearance of maize for Late Archaic populations in these areas; for example, with respect to the establishment of sedentary village life.
The earliest Lowland Maya are commonly recognized by permanent architecture and the appearance of pottery. However, when other lines of evidence are considered, strong continuities with late Archaic populations can be seen. Reconciling these views relies on more than simply gathering more data. It is also necessary to consider the effect of decades of scholarship that defines the precolumbian Maya as “civilization” rather than considering the historical contexts of important transitions, such as the one that culminated with sedentism, the adoption of new technologies, and participation in long-distance exchange. The Archaic-to-Preclassic transition was relatively brief and largely obscured by the practices of establishing permanent dwellings. Nevertheless, this period must have been extremely dynamic and marked by significant cultural change, making it important to researchers interested in early Mesoamerica. Using three lines of evidence—subsistence, economy and technology, and stratigraphically controlled radiocarbon data—this article argues that the Lowland Maya had their cultural origins at least in the late Archaic and that the case for pottery before ca. 1000 B.C. remains uncertain. Future research is needed to determine precisely how far back in time certain cultural practices that characterize Preclassic and Classic Maya society can be documented.
Evidence from preceramic Paleoindian and Archaic time periods in Belize has been recorded over the past quarter of a century by a number of projects. This paper summarizes previously published information and presents new archaeological data in bringing the hunting-and-gathering and itinerant horticultural millennia of this region into a more accurate and comprehensive perspective than has been presented to date. The Paleoindian period includes influences from North as well as South America, with settlement preferences shown for river valleys and near-coastal margins. Cave sites hold particular promise for yielding new and well-preserved remains from this early period. The Archaic, beginning as early as 8000 B.C., is poorly dated until 3400 B.C. and was probably characterized by mobile hunter-foragers. The Late Archaic includes two facets, the Early (3400–1900 B.C.) and the Late (1500–900 B.C.) Preceramic, and represents the first appearance and gradual spread of cultivation together with habitat modification. The period beginning around 1500 B.C. shows intensifying maize cultivation, apparently mobile populations, and also the emergence of well-defined stone tool traditions that trend into the early Middle Preclassic. Ceramics seem to appear unevenly from ca. 1200 to 900 B.C., when the Cunil and Kanocha complexes in western Belize and Swasey sphere in northern Belize are reported.
Agriculture in prehispanic Mesoamerica necessitated not only a wide range of knowledge regarding soil types, fertility, and the growing cycles of different plants, but also the attendant rituals that firmly situated agrarian production into a shared Mesoamerican worldview. Due primarily to archaeological visibility, those attendant rituals have traditionally been investigated within the context of large centers. Recent investigations at the site of Quincunx, a hinterland architectural complex in northwestern Belize of the Maya Lowlands, provide evidence that some rural communities may also have had access to and control over esoteric knowledge involved in agricultural practice in the Late Classic period. Our findings are discussed in the context of ethnographic accounts and archaeological data that reveal the deep significance of quincuncial designs in Maya society and Mesoamerican ritual practices.
Off-mound excavations at a residential group near the site of Dos Hombres, Belize have revealed a series of unusual modifications to the limestone bedrock. The primary purpose of these modifications appears to have been to facilitate drainage of excess surface and subsurface moisture during periods of heavy rain. By utilizing a variation of lithic mulching in the soil, however, the Maya also may have been able to slow the loss of moisture through evaporation during lengthy dry periods. We suggest that these finds reflect soil and water management in house-lot gardening, and that these measures were necessary to overcome localized geologic, pedologic, and regional climatologic conditions. The use of such a drainage system together with gravel fill at the household level is previously unreported in the Maya Lowlands, and represents an important line of inquiry into gardens as ancient agricultural production systems.
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