Studying human remains reveals unique information to archaeologists about a civilization’s customs and traditions. In addition to cause of death, archaeologists can create a complete profile of the body’s lifestyle based on physiological features combined with intense critical thinking. Similarly, the remains of animals in the area can also provide great insight into a society’s culture by helping archaeologists gain a better understanding of the type of environment that the people lived in. What kind of predators threatened their safety? Did they domesticate animals and train them to perform actions to benefit the entire community? A group of archaeologists used animal remains to analyze a unique aspect of Mayan culture—the interaction between different social and economic classes based on the distribution of animal resources.
Very little was known about the political and economic systems of Mayan society, as compared to archaeologists’ extensive knowledge of their advances in art and astronomy. The way animal resources were distributed offered clues to the ways in which different social classes interacted, and archaeologists learned that their societies were not homogeneous by any means. Instead, there were complicated systems in place to regulate trade relations, food distribution, and accessibility to species. Because animals were used so widely for hides, tools, jewelry, and musical instruments, studying the geographic distribution of these resources revealed that there were elite classes that controlled a majority of the valuable resources. But surprisingly, the middle classes used the widest variety of animals, as the wealthiest people only used exotic animals, such as jaguars and crocodiles, and the poorest could only afford to use inexpensive animals, such as a variety of fish and shellfish.
The study of animal bones has provided insight into the way Mayan cities interacted with surrounding villages through trade and commerce and has provided such extensive information because Mayan culture relies so heavily upon animal resources accomplish. I am amazed by the amount of information that the archaeologists were able to infer about human cultures and tendencies from the examination of seemingly-unrelated artifacts. Similar observations and critical thinking are applied when analyzing human remains as when uncovering truths about a society and their culture. In the case of the Mayan civilization, the discovery of specific animal remains led archaeologists to believe that there were stricter class boundaries than previously thought. The emergence of social hierarchy is an aspect of the “big picture” of Mayan civilization and social structure. Without the creative approach to this investigative archaeology, they would be missing evidence of a significant aspect of Mayan culture which serves as further evidence of the often-overlooked sophistication of the ancient American civilizations.
It’s fascinating what animals bones can reveal to archaeologists about simple or complex systems of human culture. The hierarchal system of distribution of animals among Mayan people correlated with classism, an oppressive system that is unsurprisingly familiar to our contemporary American society. How do you think this affected animals species and extinction?
It would likely be a worthwhile study to collect data and tie hunting/animal use into the sustainability issues that led to the demise of most Mayan urban centers. It’s likely that the deforestation caused by agricultural pressure that ultimately led to the abandonment of Mayan cities affected the ability of Mayans to hunt and use animals, the types of animals different classes of Mayans used, and the frequency with which the aforementioned two occurred. Ecology is about balance, and I’d be willing to bet that hunting in the area disturbed that balance just as deforestation for agriculture did.