Potographies and Biographies: The Role of Food in Ritual and Identity as Seen Through Life Histories of Selected Maya Pots and People

  • Linda Howie
  • Christine D. White
  • Fred J. Longstaffe


The centrality of food, drink and feasting in religious and ceremonial activities of the Lowland Maya, especially the nobility, is well recognized, and has also been tied to political economies (see Foias 2007). Numerous representations of drinking, serving and storage vessels appear in historical and mythological scenes depicted on figure-painted polychrome vessels and other media. These depictions testify to the integral role of consumption, offering and sharing of food and drink in religious and ceremonial proceedings. These ritual acts and forms of reciprocity signified, solidified, symbolized and reinforced conventional and appropriate social practices – proper and a distinctly Maya way of conducting affairs. Such practices, however, were not confined to the face-to-face interactions of the living but also played an important role in funerary and mortuary rites, and in ancestor veneration, when they would symbolize and reinforce relationships between the living and the dead, and among the ancestors and their descendents.


Building Group Residential Complex Dental Modification Funerary Rite Funerary Ceremony 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank the following individuals for their contribution to this study: Elizabeth Graham and David Pendergast for their meticulous excavation and documentation of the building groups and for allowing us to study the burial assemblages; Jaimie Awe and the Institute of Archaeology of Belize for permission to take and export samples for analysis; Grace Yau for sample preparation, and Cliff Patterson for his assistance with some of the figures. We are also grateful to the following funding bodies for their generous support: The Canada Research Chairs program, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and The Association of Commonwealth Universities.


  1. Ambrose, S. H. (1993). Isotopic Analysis of Paleodiets: Methodological and Interpretive Considerations. In Investigations of Ancient Human Tissue: Chemical Analyses in Anthropology, edited by M.K. Sandford, pp. 59-130. Gordon and Breach Science, Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  2. Ashmore, W. (1981). Some Issues of Method and Theory in Lowland Maya Settlement Pattern Archaeology. In Lowland Maya Settlement Pattrens, edited by Wendy Ashmore, pp. 37-69. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.Google Scholar
  3. Barrett, J. C. (2001). Agency, the Duality of Structure, and the Problem of the Archaeological Record. In Archaeological Theory Today, edited by Ian Hodder, pp. 141-164. Polity Press, Malden MA.Google Scholar
  4. Carr, C. (1995). Mortuary Practices: Their Social, Philosophical-Religious, Circumstantial, and Physical Determinants. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 2:105-200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chase, A. F. and Chase, D. Z. (1994). Maya Veneration of the Dead at Caracol, Belize. In Seventh Palenque Round Table, 1989, edited by Merle Greene Robertson and Virginia M. Fields, pp. 53-60. The Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.Google Scholar
  6. Coyston, S., White, C. D. and Schwarcz, H. P. (1999). Dietary Carbonate Analysis of Bone and Enamel for Two Sites in Belize. In Reconstructing Ancient Maya Diet, edited by C. D. White, pp. 199-220. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.Google Scholar
  7. Day, P. M., Kiriatzi, E., Tsolakidou, A. and Kilikoglou, V. (1999). Group Therapy: A Comparison between Analyses by NAA and Thin Section Petrography of Early Bronze Age Pottery from Central and East Crete. Journal of Archaeological Science 26:1025–1036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. DeNiro, M. (1985). Post-mortem Preservation and alteration of In Vivo Bone Collagen Isotope Ratios in Relation to Paleodietary Reconstruction. Nature 317:806-809.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. DeNiro, N. J. and Epstein, S. (1981). Influence of Diet on the Distribution of Nitrogen Isotopes in Animals. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 45:341-351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Foias, A. (2007). Ritual, Politics, and Pottery Economies in the Classic Maya Southern Lowlands. In Mesoamerican Ritual Economy: Archaeological and Ethnological Perspectives, edited by E. Christian Wells and Karla L. Davis-Salazar, pp. 167-196. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.Google Scholar
  11. Freestone, I. C. (1991). Extending Ceramic Petrology. In Recent Developments in Ceramic Petrology, edited by Andrew Middleton and Ian Freestone, pp. 399–410. British Museum Occasional Paper No. 81. British Museum, London.Google Scholar
  12. Freidel, D. A., Schele, L. and Parker, J. (1993). Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow, New York.Google Scholar
  13. Gillespie, S. D. (2001). Personhood, Agency, and Mortuary Ritual: A Case Study from the Ancient Maya. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20: 73-112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Goodenough, W. F. (1965). Rethinking ‘Status and ‘Role’: Toward a General Model of the Cultural Organization of Social Relationships. In The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology, edited by Michael Banton, pp. 1-24. ASA Monographs No. 1. Tavistock, London.Google Scholar
  15. Graham, E. (1987). Terminal Classic to Early Historic Period Vessel Forms from Belize. In Maya Ceramics: Papers from the 1985 Maya Ceramics Conference, Part i, edited by Prudence M. Rice and Robert Sharer, pp. 73–98. BAR International Series 345(i), British Archaeological Reports, Oxford.Google Scholar
  16. Graham, E. (2004). Lamanai Reloaded: Alive and Well in the Early Postclassic. In Archaeological Investigations in the Eastern Maya Lowlands, edited by J. Awe, J. Morris, & S. Jones, pp. 223-241. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology, Volume 1. Institute of Archaeology, National Institute of Culture and History, Belmopan, Belize.Google Scholar
  17. Graham, E. (2006). An Ethnicity to Know. In Maya Ethnicity: The Construction of Ethnic Identify from Preclassic to Modern Times, edited by Frauke Sachse, pp. 109-124. Acta Mesoamerica, Vol. 19. Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein.Google Scholar
  18. Graham, E. (2008). Lamanai, Belize from Collapse to Conquest – Preliminary report on radiocarbon dates from Lamanai. 106th Meeting of the AAA. 28 November to 2 December, Washington, D. C.Google Scholar
  19. Hammond, N. and Tourtellot, G. (2004). Out with a Whimper: La Milpa in the Terminal Classic. In The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse Transition and Transformation, edited by Arthur A. Demarest, Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice, pp. 288–301. University Press of Colorado, Boulder Colorado.Google Scholar
  20. Hendon, J. A. (1999). The Preclassic-Maya Compound as the Focus of Social Identity. In Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica, edited by David C. Grove and Rosemary A. Joyce, pp. 97-125. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  21. Houston, S. D. (1993). Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.Google Scholar
  22. Howie, L. A. (2005). Ceramic Production and Consumption in the Maya Lowlands During the Classic to Postclassic Transition: A Technological Study of Ceramic at Lamanai Belize. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, U.K.Google Scholar
  23. Howie, L. A., Day, P. M. and Graham, E. (2004). Late Classic Maya Paste Recipes at Altun Ha, Belize and the Meaning of Paste Variability. Paper presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of The Society for American Archaeology, Montreal.Google Scholar
  24. Howie-Langs, L. A. (1999). Ceramic Production and Consumption at Altun Ha, Belize: A Petrographic Study. Unpublished Masters Thesis, Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, U.K.Google Scholar
  25. King, R. B., Ballie, I. C., Abell, T. M. B., Dunsmore, J. R., Gray, D. A., Pratt, J. H., Versey, H. R., Zisman, W. A.C.S. and Zisman, S. A. (1992). Land Resource Assessment of Northern Belize (Vol.1). Natural Resource Institute. Bulletin 43.Google Scholar
  26. Krueger, H. W. and Sullivan, C. H. (1984). Models for Carbon Isotope Fractionation between Diet and Bone. In Stable Isotopes in Nutrition, edited by J. E. Turnland and P. E. Johnson, pp. 205-222. American Chemical Society: American Chemical Society Symposium Series 258, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  27. Lee-Thorp, J., Sealy, J. C. and van der Merwe, N. J. (1989). Stable Carbon Isotope Ratio Differencesbetween Bone Collagen and Bone Apatite, and their Relationship to Diet. Journal of Archaeological Science 16: 585-599.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Longinelli, A. (1984). Oxygen Isotopes in Mammal Bone Phosphate: A New Tool for Paleohydrological and Paleoclimatological Research? Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 48:385-390. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Luz, B., Kolodny, Y. and Horowitz, M. (1984). Fractionation of Oxygen Isotopes between Mammalian Bone-Phosphate and Environmental Drinking Water. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 46: 1689-1693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Masson, M. A. and Freidel, D. A. (2002). Ancient Maya Political Economies. Altamira Press, New York.Google Scholar
  31. Mock, S. B. (1998). Prelude. In The Sowing and the Dawning: Termination, Dedication, and Transformation in the Archaeological and Ethnographic Record of Mesoamerica, edited by Shirley Boteler Mock, pp. 3–20. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.Google Scholar
  32. O’Leary, M. (1988). Carbon Isotopes in Photosynthesis. Bioscience 38:328-336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Parfitt, A.M. (1983). The Physilogic and Clinical Significance of Bone Histomorphometric Data. In Bone Histomorphometry: Techniques and Interpretation, edited by R.R. Recker, pp. 143-223. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fl.Google Scholar
  34. Pendergast, D. M. (1975). Lamanai 1975: The Goods Are Oft Interr’d With Their Bones. ROM Archaeological Newsletter, New Series, No. 122.Google Scholar
  35. Pendergast, D. M. (1978). Lamanai 1978, Part II: Crocodiles and Crypts. ROM Archaeological Newsletter, New Series, No. 163.Google Scholar
  36. Pendergast, D. M. (1981a). Lamanai, Belize: Summary of Excavation Results, 1974–1980. Journal of Field Archaeology 8(1):29–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pendergast, D. M. (1981b). A Regular Three-Ring Circus. ROM Archaeological Newsletter, New Series, No. 192.Google Scholar
  38. Pendergast, D. M. (1982). Lamanai, Belice, durante el Post-Clásico. In Estudios de Cultura Maya XIV, pp. 19–58. Seminario de Cultura Maya, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.Google Scholar
  39. Pendergast, D. M. (1985). Lamanai, Belize: An Updated View. In The Lowland Maya Postclassic, edited by Arlen F. Chase and Prudence M. Rice, pp. 91–103. University of Texas Press, Austin.Google Scholar
  40. Pendergast, D. M. (1986). Stability through Change: Lamanai, Belize, from the Ninth to the Seventeenth Century. In Late Lowland Maya Civilization: Classic to Postclassic, edited by Jeremy A Sabloff and E Wyllys Andrews V, pp. 223–250. School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series. Douglas W Schwartz, general editor. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.Google Scholar
  41. Pendergast, D. M. (1988). Lamanai Stela 9: The Archaeological Context. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 20. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D. C.Google Scholar
  42. Pendergast, D. M. (1990). Up from the Dust: The Central Lowlands Postclassic as Seen from Lamanai and Marco Gonzalez, Belize. In Vision and Revision in Maya Studies, edited by Flora Clancy and Peter D. Harrison, pp. 169–177. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.Google Scholar
  43. Pendergast, D. M. (1992). Noblesse Oblige: The Elites of Altun Ha and Lamanai, Belize. In Mesoamerican Elites: An Archaeological Assessment, edited by Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase, pp. 61–79. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.Google Scholar
  44. Romero, M.J. (1970). Dental Mutilation, Trephination, and Cranial Deformation. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by T.D. Stewart, pp. 5-67. University of Texas Press, Austin.Google Scholar
  45. Ruz, A. L. (1965). Tombs and Funerary Practices in the Maya Lowlands. In Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica Part 1, edited by G. R. Willey, pp.441-461, Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 2, Robert Wauchope, general editor. The University of Texas Press, Austin.Google Scholar
  46. Schoeninger, M. J. (1985). Trophic Level Effects on 15N/14N and 13C/12C Ratios in Bone Collagen and Strontium Levels in Bone Mineral. Journal of Human Evolution 14:515-525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sullivan, L. A. (2002). Dynamics of Regional Integration in Northwestern Belize. In Ancient Maya Political Economies, edited by Marilyn A. Masson and David A. Freidel, pp. 197–222. Altamira Press, New York.Google Scholar
  48. Tiesler Blos, V. (1998). La costumbre de la deformación cefálica entre los antiquos mayas: Aspectos morfológicos y culturales. Mexico, Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia.Google Scholar
  49. Welsh, W. B. M. (1988). An Analysis of Classic Lowland Maya Burials. BAR International Series 409. British Archaeological Reports, Oxford.Google Scholar
  50. Whitbread, I. K. (1995). Greek Transport Amphorae: A Petrological and Archaeological Study. The British School at Athens Fitch Laboratory Occasional Paper 4. The Short Run Press, Exeter.Google Scholar
  51. White, C. D. (1996). Sutural Effects of Fronto-Occipital Cranial Modification. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 100: 397-410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. White, C. D. (1997). Ancient Diet at Lamanai and Pacbitun: Implications for the Ecological Model of Collapse. In Bones of the Maya: Studies of Ancient Skeletons, edited by Stephen L. Whittington and David M. Reed, pp. 171–180. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  53. White, C. D. (2005). Gendered Food Behaviour Among the Maya: Time, Place, and Status. Journal of Social Archaeology 5: 356-382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. White, C. D. and Schwarcz, H. P. (1989). Ancient Maya Diet: as Inferred from Isotopic and Elemental Analysis of Human Bone. Journal of Archaeological Science 16: 451-474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. White, C. D., Price, T. D. and Longstaffe, F. J. (2007). Residential Histories of the Human Sacrifices at the Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 18: 159-172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. White, C. D., Pendergast, D. M., Longstaffe, F. J. and Law, K. R. (2001a). Social Complexity and Food Systems at Altun Ha, Belize: The Isotopic Evidence. Latin American Antiquity 12: 371-393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. White, C. D., Pendergast, D. M., Longstaffe, F. J. and Law, K. R. (2001b). Revisiting the Teotihuacan Connection at Altun Ha: Oxygen-Isotope Analysis of Tomb F-8/1. Ancient Mesoamerica 12: 65-72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. White, C. D., Longstaffe, F. J., Spence, M. W. and Law, K. R. (2000). Testing the Nature of Teotihuacan Imperialism at Kaminaljuyú Using Phosphate Oxygen-Isotope Ratios. Journal of Anthropological Research 56: 535-558.Google Scholar
  59. Williams, J. S. and White, C. D. (2006). Dental Modification in the Postclassic Population from Lamanai, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica 17: 139-151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wright, L. E. and Schwarcz, H. P. (1999). Correspondence between Stable Carbon, Oxygen, and Nitrogen Isotopes in Human Tooth Enamel and Dentine: Infant Diets and Weaning at Kaminaljuyú. Journal of Archaeological Science 26: 1159-1170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Linda Howie
    • 1
  • Christine D. White
  • Fred J. Longstaffe
  1. 1.The University of Western OntarioLondonCanada

Personalised recommendations