A reconstruction of Middle Preclassic Maya subsistence economy at Cahal Pech, Belize

Terry G. Powis, Norbert Stanchly, Christine D. White, Paul F. Healy, Jaime J. Awe, Fred Longstaffe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


The recovery of animal and plant remains from the site of Cahal Pech provides data on early diet and subsistence practices in the Belize Valley region of the Maya lowlands. Analysis of the material remains suggests that the Middle Preclassic Maya were practising a mixed subsistence economy relying on agricultural foodstuffs, local terrestrial game species, freshwater fish and shellfish and marine reef fishes. Isotopic analysis of human bone is used to aid in the reconstruction of actual food consumption. The information gleaned from the Structure 1 midden in the Tolok group provides significant new data on Middle Formative Maya diet and subsistence practices. Preliminary results of the analysis of the animal and plant remains mirror a fairly common pattern seen in Maya archaeofaunas and archaeobotanical remains; that is, the utilization of a wide variety of resources reflective of the diversity seen in tropical ecosystems. This analysis of animal and plant remains from Cahal Pech has documented that the Middle Formative Maya were agriculturalists whose diet consisted, in part, of such cultivated plants as maize, beans and squash. The products of the coyol palm, as well as the ramon and fig trees, also contributed to Formative Maya food preparations. Their diet was further supplemented by a mixture of terrestrial herbivores (e.g. deer, agouti), marine reef fish (e.g. parrotfish, grouper) and small quantities of freshwater fish (e.g. catfish) and shellfish (e.g. river snail and clam). The identification of marine fishes and other marine resources in Preclassic Maya faunal assemblages is not in itself rare (Carr 1985; Shaw 1991; Wing and Scudder 1991); however, most of these assemblages have been recovered from sites on or near the Caribbean coast where procurement of marine resources would have been more easily facilitated. The presence of Caribbean reef fishes found so far inland at this early date suggests that the Maya were able to preserve these fishes so that they would not spoil during the 110-km trek up river. We suggest that the Preclassic Maya may have been salting or smoking marine fishes for inland transport. Salt-making communities dating to the Late to Terminal Classic have been identified along the Caribbean coast of Belize (MacKinnon and Kepecs 1989; McKillop 1995: 225). The presence of marine fishes at several inland sites found in Formative contexts may indicate that salt-making technology was known by the Preclassic Maya. Although no evidence for Preclassic salt-making communities have been found along the Belizean coast, this may be because such communities may now be inundated by rising sea levels (Dunn and Mazzullo 1993:123). An alternative method of inland transport may have been by keeping live fish in canoes partly filled with saltwater from the sea (Norman Hammond pers. comm.).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)364-376
Number of pages13
Issue number280
StatePublished - Jun 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Belize
  • Isotopic analysis
  • Maya
  • Middle Preclassic
  • Subsistence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • General Arts and Humanities


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