In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati reveals how a volcanic eruption has increased our knowledge of everyday life among the Maya.
David Lentz is a professor of biological sciences and Executive Director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Field Studies. His primary research interests are in paleoethnobotany and ethnomedical botany, with a specific focus on the archaeobotany of the ancient Maya and Olmec, where he is studying differences in dietary habits among groups of varying economic status. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama.
Dr. David Lentz – Mayan Agriculture
The Ceren site in central El Salvador is a unique archaeological find because of the extraordinary preservation of plant remains and other artifacts. The site is unique because most archeological sites in the humid tropics are plagued by poor preservation, particularly in regard to plant materials. Typically plant tissues just rot quickly, but Ceren is different.
Sometimes referred to as the Pompeii of Central America, this small Maya village was covered with volcanic ash in AD 590 and has been a treasure trove of information about ancient Maya agriculture and plant use practices. The site was discovered by accident in the late 1970s when the Salvadoran government was building a silo complex and came across one of the ancient houses. The antiquity and archaeological value of the site was recognized by Dr. Payson Sheets, now project director. I have had the good fortune of being the paleoethnobotanist for the Ceren Project.
My job is to examine and identify all of the ancient plant remains that are found during the excavations. Working at Ceren is so exciting because all of the plants the people of the village were using are still there, exactly where they left them when the Loma Caldera Volcano erupted. The occupants of the village seem to have escaped, but they left all of their worldly goods behind. The value of this discovery is that we not only know what plants they were using for food, medicine, house construction etc, but we also know how they were growing their food, how they prepared it, how they served it and how they stored it.
Ceren serves as an excellent model for interpreting agricultural practices at other Maya sites because the knowledge gained from Ceren allows an unprecedented understanding of the ancient Maya agricultural system and the plant cultigens used.