Public Release: 

Rich, vibrant community life of rural Maya described by BU archaeologist

Patricia McAnany sees cacao as key product of ancient Maya in Belize's Sibun River Valley

Boston University

(Boston, Mass.) -- Two thousand years ago, a trek through present-day Central America would have rewarded the traveler with a look at the Maya civilization in full flower -- from the bustle of activity and architectural wonders of urban centers to the quieter pace and more utilitarian structures of rural communities. For today's traveler, the voices of Maya's well-studied urban centers remain vibrant. The voices of rural Maya, however, remain silent, largely unfound.

A team of archaeologists from Boston University have spent the past four years gathering and analyzing items left behind by Maya living in rural Xibun, a community in the Sibun River Valley of central Belize. With the researchers' coaxing, the Xibun artifacts are providing a story of life among rural Maya during the civilization's Late Classic Period (600 - 900 A.D.).

Patricia McAnany, team leader and an associate professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at BU, and several members of her team will bring their findings together for the first time during the 69th Annual Society for American Archaeology in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Their Saturday, April 3 symposium, "Balancing Culture and Ecology: Envisioning Maya Physical and Ideational Landscapes in the Sibun River Valley," emphasizes the comprehensive, systematic approach the team is taking to their analyses.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, McAnany's team of graduate and undergraduate students is blending information from pollen and river sediment samples, pottery remains, architecture, and agriculture into a tale of a vibrant community that sustained itself while producing goods for trade with other citizens of their far-flung empire.

Their likely trade product? Cacao, the stuff from which chocolate dreams are made.

In their research, McAnany's team is discovering a community that practiced sustainable agriculture, not the slash-and-burn method often attributed to the Maya. Using core samples taken from the banks of the Sibun River, the team is assembling a picture of the number and types of plant species known to the Xibun. From this and related evidence, they believe the Xibun cultivated small kitchen gardens and fields by their homes but maintained dense vegetation elsewhere. This understanding is particularly vital to investigations of their cash crop: cacao. The cacao tree needs shade, therefore a full and dense forest canopy would need to have been maintained if indigenous cacao were to thrive and produce.

From pottery remains found in the settlement, the team is piecing together an understanding of the contact the people in Xibun had with other Maya communities. Mesoamerican pottery has been extensively studied and the decorative styles and methods of peoples throughout the Maya world have been well documented. From this base of knowledge, the team has been able to show how decorative styles from other areas made their way into Xibun pottery and vice versa, indicating extensive contact, perhaps through trade.

They also are finding a community with a deeply embedded spiritual life, described not only by the presence of altars and tablet-like stelae in round shrine structures but also by indications of ritualistic practices conducted in the many caves in the Xibun region.

Because caves were sacred spaces to Maya, the team speculates the settlement may have grown from the use of the caves for rituals.

It is McAnany's goal to have the picture of Xibun life that her team is assembling show the relationship that smaller Maya settlements had with seats of power such as Chichen Itza. By making clear the political role that chocolate-producing regions like Xibun had, she hopes to contribute to the complete story of life both great and small in the Maya Late Classic Period.


The Archaeology Department at Boston University provides education and training in the recovery, analysis, and interpretation of archaeological materials while ensuring training in related fields such as classics, art history, anthropology, and history. Degree programs in the Department also include classroom and practical training in biological and physical sciences and in quantitative methods.

The Department is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest of the 17 colleges and schools that make up Boston University, the fourth largest independent university in the United States.

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