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Journal of Social Archaeology

ARTICLE

Copyright 2005 SAGE Publications (www.sagepublications.com)


ISSN 1469-6053 Vol 5(3): 356382 DOI: 10.1177/1469605305057572

Gendered food behaviour among the Maya


Time, place, status and ritual
CHRISTINE D. WHITE
Department of Anthropology,The University of Western Ontario, Canada

ABSTRACT
Ethnohistoric and archaeological evidence indicates that the production and distribution of food was an important source of agency and
power for ancient Mayan women. Although it is believed that elite
women controlled food used in rituals, isotopic measures of diet from
a variety of sites representing different environments and time periods
indicate that they ate fewer ideologically valued foods than males. By
contrast, non-elite women appear to have consumed the same foods as
their male equivalents. This finding may suggest that: women did not
participate in ritual consumption of food in the same way or to the same
extent that men did, or that food consumption was associated with
gender identity. Preferential access to ritual foods by males ceases after
the Spanish conquest but males continued to have more carnivorous
diets. This phenomenon could be caused by the conversion of public
rituals to private the assimilation of Spanish gender values or an
underlying ideology that is maintained in gendered dietary differences.
KEY WORDS
ethnohistory gender
analysis status

356

Maya

paleodiet

ritual

stable isotope

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INTRODUCTION
This article is an exploration of the nature of power in Maya gender
relations as it is expressed in food consumption. Food is both macronutrient and metaphor, its organic character transformed by cultural means and
imbued with ideological meaning such that nature becomes integrated with
nurture. During the process of producing, preparing, cooking, distributing
and consuming food, it becomes an object of culture and performance
(Srensen, 2000: 100). All of these activities involve cultural practice and
the rules governing them differentiate individuals and groups (e.g. gender,
age, social status, religion, occupation). Thus food is not just a resource and
its consumption is not just how we use it, but both are transformed into
events that involve the performance of differences at individual and group
levels (Srensen, 2000). The foods we eat become organically and socially
embodied. Thus the assumption that we are what we eat refers to both our
cultural and biological beings. Our bones, which carry this information,
become narratives for the meaning and lived experience of the everyday
and ritual practices of eating. The saying that we are what we eat is also
the scientific basis for stable isotope studies in paleodiet. Most lines of
archaeological dietary evidence (e.g. faunal and floral analyses, ceramics,
processing tools, artistic renderings, etc.) tell us about available menus, but
stable isotope analysis is a direct means of measuring the organic embodiment of food consumption. Where the ideological values of foods are
known, it is also a useful line of evidence for inferring cultural embodiment,
and has a potential for identifying discourses on the negotiation and maintenance of gender construction.
This article is an exploration of these discourses. Chemically reconstructed dietary histories are used to contribute to our understanding of
Maya gender relations among elite and non-elite groups at a number
of sites in Belize that represent different time periods, regions and levels of
political importance. Direct evidence of diet from human skeletal remains
was used to examine the following general issues of gender and diet in the
Maya:
1 Did gender affect food consumption?
2 Did social status affect diets by gender?
3 Did culture change, including colonialism resulting from the Spanish
Conquest, affect diets by gender?
Gendered food behaviour can be found in both archaeological and modern
studies of subsistence and consumption (e.g. Claassen and Joyce, 1997;
Counihan and Kaplan, 1998). In archaeology, research on food and gender
is dominated by subsistence studies, which reconstruct procurement,
processing and preparation. These are cultural activities that often involve

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agency, i.e. social actions that have consequences. In subsistence studies,


women are often viewed as exercising agency, primarily as gatekeepers of
food at both family and community levels, and in the roles they play in menu
choice, distribution and storage. Although this function could be a source
of much female autonomy, as originally suggested by Lewin (1943), there
have been many challenges to this assumption (McIntosh and Zey, 1998)
which suggest that decisions regarding the movement of food through the
gate(s) are heavily influenced initially by the politics of production over
which women may have no control and, at the end point of serving, by
approval of the consumers.
Food consumption studies, however, are reconstructed directly from
stomach contents and fecal remains but, most commonly, from chemical
analysis of tissues, which provide data on short and long term diets respectively. Because we are also what we do (Butler, 1993), gender differences
could result from regular activities that bring men and women in proximity to different immediately consumable resources, or a food system that
symbolically differentiates males from females (e.g. women eat eggs, men
eat meat) and is used for gender identity. The latter could be exercised
only at special times or be part of everyday life. These scenarios inform us
about social differences rather than relative social equality. However, just
as equal access to food resources is considered the hallmark of egalitarian
societies and unequal access denotes ranking, gender differences in food
consumption could also reflect social status by degree of access to
preferred foods.
Food preference is based on both ideology and availability, where rare,
difficult to obtain, or imported foods are usually the most valued and
reserved for more powerful or wealthy members of society, i.e. elites. For
the Maya, maize was imbued with the strongest ideological meaning of any
food. According to creation mythology, it was the substance from which
humans were formed and the foundation upon which their civilization was
built (Bhar, 1968). Most rituals were centred on the maintenance and
renewal of its growth (Bassie-Sweet, 2002: 170) and involved food (Landa,
1566). Since it was the responsibility of elites to conduct rituals, it is not
surprising that in previous isotopic studies elite individuals appear to be
consuming more maize, and more maize-fed animals (Coyston et al., 1999;
Metcalfe et al., 2004; White et al., 1993, 1996), the latter probably purposefully fed for ritual consumption (White et al., 2001a, 2004). Other studies
suggest that elites consumed more animals and marine/reef resources
(Beaubien, 2004; Moholy-Nagy, 2004; Pohl, 1985, 1990; Teeter, 2004),
depending on the effect of environment and trade networks on resource
availability. The archaeological identification of elites is made from
mortuary context and treatment. While it is always possible that mortuary
treatment may be a more accurate reflection of the status of the living than
that of the dead, grave type, size and goods are still our most accessible

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measure of the socioeconomic status of a grave occupant. If female elites


share equal status with men, we might expect their diets to be the same.

PERSPECTIVES ON THE STATUS OF MAYA WOMEN


The social, economic and political status of ancient Maya women is a
burgeoning focus of debate in the archaeology of gender (Ardren, 2004;
Bruhns and Stothert, 1999; Cohodas, 2002; Gustafson and Trevelyan, 2002;
Joyce, 2000; Pyburn, 2004). To date, lines of evidence are based mainly on
analysis of material culture (e.g. monumental sculpture and iconography,
ceramic art), use of space (residential architecture and activity analysis)
and, to a lesser extent, mortuary data.
The principle of complementarity, i.e. that men and women played
separate, but equally important, roles in the function of society, is found in
many studies that define an ideological basis for various expressions of
female power, including complementary male/female pairing and gender
amalgamation (Bassie-Sweet, 2002; Gillespie and Joyce, 1997; Hewitt, 1999;
Joyce, 2002; Looper, 2004; Reilly, 2002; Tate, 2002; Vail and Stone, 2004).
For example, in the iconography of Classic period public monuments in
which elites are represented, Joyce (1996: 187) argues that although women
are seen as pieces of male histories in the texts of monuments depicting the
lives of rulers, the images on the same monuments de-emphasize sexual
characteristics. Males and females are identifiable only by costume decoration presenting a unified elite identity, in which male/female pairs are
dichotomous. Grave goods, inscriptions and texts also provide evidence of
complementarity via the authority elite women gave to ruling lineages often
through marriage alliances outside their natal homelands (Krochock, 2004;
Looper, 2004; Schele and Freidel, 1990). Although the monumental images
interpreted by Joyce (1992, 1996) were likely state-controlled, gender-amalgamation is also found in the images of less public gender representations
such as carvings (Claassen, 1992) and ceramic imagery (Joyce, 1993), Classic
period glyphs (Gillespie and Joyce, 1997), as well as in mortuary data
(Fekete, 1996; Pyburn and Rathje, 1984), ethnohistorical accounts (Landa,
1566), modern ritual (Vogt, 1969) and codices written by the Maya (Vail
and Stone, 2004).
In addition, to the ideological basis for high female status, women exercised agency through their labour. Hendon (1996) cogently argues that
because domestic labour fuelled ritual and political ceremony it could be
translated as political action. According to Landas (1566) account, during
the Historic period, the labour of women was very important both socially
and economically, but their participation in public ritual was limited.
Because of the potential ethnocentric and geographic bias in Landas

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writing, and caveats about the use of analogy (Wylie, 1985; Vail and Stone,
2004), Landas observations are offered here with great caution. In addition
to being in charge of housekeeping and the education of children, he
described women as controlling spinning, weaving and food preparation,
and drew them making pottery. Although it is not clear how much control
they had over the production of the agricultural staple (maize), they are
described as working in the fields and harvesting the crops when necessary.
This observation is substantiated by archaeological evidence from spatial
analysis (Neff, 2004; Robin, 2004) but the degree of female engagement in
agriculture varied over time and location. Women were also in charge of
raising domestic animals (including deer) and fowl (for feathers) (Landa,
1566; Pohl and Feldman, 1982). Landa (1566: 55) also describes women as
great economists, in charge of the payment of tributes, hiring each others
labour, buying and selling.
The social and economic importance of female activities is also visible
in earlier times (Bruhns and Stothert, 1999; Clancy et al., 1985; Clark and
Houston, 1998; Clarkson, 1978; Hammond, 1975; Hendon, 1997; Joyce, 1993,
1996; Schele and Miller, 1986; Sweely, 1999; Tate, 1999; Vail and Stone,
2004). Among other things, the evidence consistently points to the importance of women in the production of food and textiles, a role that seems to
have been widespread in Mesoamerica (Beaudry-Corbett and McCafferty,
2004; McCafferty and McCafferty, 1998; Sweely, 1999). Both textiles and
food were vital to the success of rituals, and rituals were essential for not
only ensuring good relationships with the supernatural world but also functional social relations within communities. According to Landa (1566),
virtually all rituals involved feasting and women were in charge of the preparation of food and drink used as offerings and for consumption, as well as
providing offerings of cloth. Feasts and rituals were a visible and significant
means used by competing Maya elites to demonstrate their status (Joyce,
2000). As Srensen (2000: 106) notes, once the food is consumed in rituals
and feasts it is taken out of social circulation, and therefore takes on special
meaning that is also accentuated by the associated cultural items, e.g.
textiles. Female labour used to produce food and textiles was thus critical
to the success of ceremonies. Whether or not women were active participants does not belie the social, symbolic and political meaning of their
contribution.
There may have been temporal and/or regional differences in the degree
of female participation in ritual. According to Landa (1566), during the
Historic period only older women were allowed to participate in larger
temple ceremonies, but both men and women engaged in domestic ritual.
During earlier times, however, there is archaeological evidence for the
active participation of women in public rituals, e.g. depictions on figurines
of women dancing and holding bowls of food and bundles of cloth offerings (Joyce, 1993).

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The other side of the debate is the more hierarchical view that female
labour was exploited by men for the exercise of power (Pohl, 1991) and did
not create real influence in political decision making or authority. Pyburn
(2004) warns us that this perspective may be a bias of modern world systems
but Cohodas (2002) notes that arguments for female subordination can be
found in patriarchal political systems (McAnany, 1995; Restall, 1995;
Tourtellot, 1988), mortuary data (Haviland, 1997), agency resulting from
factionalism (Brumfiel, 1994), and the time-consuming, labour-intensity of
female production in the tribute system, which limited their ability to
exercise agency and political power (Pohl, 1991) (although the latter could
also be argued in favour of the complementarity model). The argument for
hierarchy can also be found in the conflict between biological and social
status indicators (Ardren, 2004), female expressions of resistance (Restall,
1995), and textual analysis of the Popul Vuh, a sacred Maya text that reflects
declining female power over time (Pia Chan, 2002). Although political and
economic power, as well as social and ideological systems, were steeped in
gender relations, status was negotiated differently over time and in different contexts (Joyce, 2002; Gustafson and Trevelyan, 2002). For example,
both Brumfiel (1991) and Joyce (1992, 2002) have noted that female participation in ritual may have been restricted in the Post-Classic, but more open
in the Classic period. During the Historic period, ethnohistoric evidence
suggests that males occupied most positions of political and ritual power in
the sixteenth century (Joyce 2002; Landa, 1566).
Joyces (2002) argument that gendered status and power in Meosamerica were variable by time and place is also consistent with the idea that the
gender system of any society cannot be simply slotted into the binary
categories of complementary versus hierarchical (Cohodas, 2002; Gero and
Scattolin, 2002). In addition to the potential general effect of culture change
on gender status, female negotiations of power at different social levels
were probably multivocal. Differences in food consumption behaviour
between males and females should also reflect this variability.

ISOTOPIC THEORY, METHOD AND SAMPLE


DESCRIPTION
The stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen are expressed in per mil () as
-values using the formula:
= [(Rsample/Rstandard) 1]  1000

Carbon-isotope ratios are measured relative to the Vienna PDB (VPDB)


standard (Coplen, 1994) and the nitrogen-isotope standard is purified

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atmospheric nitrogen calibrated using IAEA-N1 (0.4 ) and IAEA-N2


(+20.3 ).
During photosynthesis, plants that discriminate most against 13C have
the lowest or most negative 13C-values (average of 26.5 ; OLeary,
1988; Smith and Epstein, 1971). These are called C3 plants and include the
majority of wild plants in Mesoamerica, most vegetable cultigens, nuts,
fruits, wild plants and many temperate grains such as wheat, barley and rice.
Plants that incorporate more 13C during photosynthesis, resulting in higher
or more positive 13C values (average of 12.5 ; OLeary, 1988; Smith
and Epstein, 1971), are called C4 plants. Tropical grasses such as maize,
sorghum and millet constitute the majority of these. Maize was the major
cultivar in Mesoamerica. One other category of plants has flexible photosynthetic pathways, and consequently a more variable range of 13C-values
(27 to 12 ) that overlaps with C3 and C4 plants. These are CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) plants, which are mainly succulents. Although
some of these may have been consumed by the ancient Maya, there is no
evidence that they were food staples. Alcoholic drinks used for feasting in
Mexico were made from cacti, but the alcoholic drink described by Landa
(1566) used for rituals and feasting was produced from C3 sources.
The isotopic composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been
altered by the burning of 12C-enriched rich fossil fuel, so modern plants
have 13C-values that are 1.5 lower than pre-industrial plants (Friedli et
al., 1986; Keeling et al., 1979; Marino and McElroy, 1991).
Because 13Ccol represents the source of protein as it is ultimately
derived from C3 or C4 plants, it naturally includes the flesh of C3- and C4consuming animals (Ambrose and Norr, 1993; Krueger and Sullivan, 1984).
Although wild terrestrial animals would have consumed predominantly C3
plants (carnivores mainly consuming C3 plant-eating animals), animals that
were purposefully fed maize (e.g. dogs, deer; White et al., 2001b, 2004)
would have had C4 signatures. Where protein consumption is sufficient,
there is normally an increase of approximately 5 in the 13C-values of
the organic portion of bone collagen ( 13Ccol) from one level of the food
chain (or trophic level) to the next (Ambrose and Norr, 1993; Gerry and
Krueger, 1997; van der Merwe and Vogel, 1978).
The 13C-values of apatite ( 13Cap) reflect the combined major food
components (protein, carbohydrate and lipids) and the difference between
13Cap and 13Ccol can be used to determine the relative quantities of
animal foods in the diet based on the assumption that animals have more
lipids, which have lower 13C values than either protein or carbohydrates.
The 15N-values of collagen establish the source of dietary protein, as
well as the trophic level of the consumer. Legumes and blue-green algae
are the only plants that fix nitrogen and therefore have distinctive 15Nvalues, i.e. close to 0 compared with other terrestrial and marine plants
which have 15N-values ranging from 2 to 6 . Because nitrogen-isotope

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ratios are passed on to consumers and increase by about 3 to 4 with each


step up the food chain, they are useful indicators of trophic level (DeNiro
and Epstein, 1981; Schoeninger, 1985). Marine animals tend to have higher
15N-values (range 1013.5 ) than terrestrial animals (Schoeninger and
DeNiro, 1984; Sealy and van der Merwe, 1986; Virginia and Delwiche, 1982)
because marine plants have 15N-values approximately 4 higher than
those of terrestrial plants (Delwiche and Steyn, 1970) and marine food webs
contain more trophic levels than terrestrial webs. Marine/reef resources
also often have 13C-values that emulate C4 plants, confounding interpretations based solely on collagen analysis. This problem is overcome by the
use of 15Ncol-values to establish trophic level and 13Cap-col to determine
the degree of herbivory versus carnivory. The consumption of marine/reef
resources results in extremely low 13Cap-col-values that appear as exaggerated carnivory (Ericson et al., 1989; Lee-Thorp et al., 1989; White et al.,
2001b).
In terms of identifying available protein resources, the ethnohistoric
record and earlier artistic representations document access to a large diversity of animals and birds. Only males are represented in hunting activities,
but some animals were raised or husbanded by women (e.g. deer, pisote,
dogs, pigeons, ducks, turkeys) and some were garden-hunted at the edges
of maize fields (e.g. deer, peccary; White and Schwarcz, 1989; White et al.,
1993, 2001a, 2004). Hunted animals would have C3 signatures because they
feed on wild plants. Marine resources and domesticated animals would have
C4 signatures, and husbanded or garden-hunted animals (e.g. deer) would
have intermediate signatures.
In this study, the degree of maize consumption was determined using
stable carbon-isotope ratios from both bone collagen ( 13Ccol) and apatite
( 13Cap). The source of protein and trophic level was determined using
carbon and nitrogen-isotope ratios from bone collagen ( 13Ccol and
15Ncol). The degree of carnivory versus herbivory was determined using
the difference between collagen and apatite values ( 13Cap-col). The more
positive the 13Ccol and 13Cap-values, the more C4 foods were consumed.
The higher the 15Ncol-values, the higher the trophic level. The lower the
13Cap-col-values, the more meat and/or marine/reef resources in the diet.
Therefore, the comparison is of relative quantities of consumption rather
than breadth.
As a general expectation, the higher the status, the more positive the
13Ccol and 13Cap-values, the higher the 15Ncol-values and, most significantly, the lower the 13Cap-col-values. Returning to the key questions of
this study: (1) if food consumption was affected by gender, then males and
females would differ in one or more of these measures; (2) if social status
and political importance of the site affected the gendering of food consumption, then either the females from the higher order sites (i.e. elite females)
or the lower order sites (i.e. low status females) should have differed from

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Figure 1

Map showing location of sites

their male counterparts in one or more of these measures; (3) if culture


change affected diets by gender, then the pattern of male/female food
consumption would not be constant over time.
Samples come from seven sites in Belize, representing culture history
from the Pre-Classic period (1250 BC250 AD) to the Historic period
(15201670 AD). These sites are also located in several distinct eco-zones
(Figure 1) which helps to elucidate the effects of environment on food
preference. Details of sample composition, as well as sample processing,

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instrumentation and tests for post-mortem chemical alteration can be found


in previous publications (Tykot et al., 1996; White and Schwarcz, 1989;
White et al., 1993, 1996, 2001a). All samples come from adults with good
sex identifications. Because bone has a very slow turnover rate, its isotopic
composition represents an homogenization of food intake over about the
last 1015 years of the individuals life. Therefore, the data reflect a combination of everyday and special dietary events and their meaning.

RESULTS
Food, particularly maize, consumption is known to have varied regionally
as well as temporally (White, 1999; Table 1). Differences between culture
periods are likely related to changing socioeconomic and political activities
(e.g. trade, warfare), as well as relationships between human populations
and their environments (e.g. population density). In recognition of Pyburns
(2004) warning about generalizing gender from small and biased sample
sizes, the interpretations here must be taken with great caution and are
mainly intended to create models for better statistical testing in the future.

Pre-Classic period
Maize was well-established as the agricultural staple by Pre-Classic times.
Isotopic evidence from the inland site of Cahal Pech (Powis et al., 1999;
White et al., 1996) indicates that status differences were already expressed
in food consumption. Elites consumed imported marine/reef resources and
those who did the farming consumed the least amount of maize. Unfortunately, poor preservation of skeletal elements used to determine sex
prohibits any comparison of male/female diets at this site.
The data presented here from both Cuello and Altun Ha are Pre-Classic
but cannot be assigned to Early, Middle or Late periods. Interpretations
must be taken with caution because there was a regional explosion in population density that probably resulted in the intensification of maize production and dietary change toward the end of the Pre-Classic. Tykot et al.
(1996) examined sex differences in maize consumption at Cuello, an agricultural community in northern Belize comprised of relatively low status
individuals. Both sexes consumed the same kind of protein, i.e. mostly
terrestrial animals, but males consumed more C4 foods and were slightly
more carnivorous (see Table 1 and Figures 25). He suggests this difference
might be due to greater male consumption of C4-fed animals or maizebased alcohol. Because the only alcoholic drink described ethnohistorically
was C3-based and alcohol consumption would not make them appear more
carnivorous, the former explanation is the more likely.

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Table 1

Carbon and nitrogen isotope values by time period, site and sex

Site/
Time period/
Sex
Pre-Classic
Altun Ha
males
females
Cuello1
males
females
Classic
Lamanai
males
females
Pacbitun
males
females
Late Classic
Altun Ha
males
females

1 Data
2

13Cap
(0/00 )
Mean SD

13Cap-col
Mean SD

15Ncol
(0/00 )
Mean SD

3
3

13.2 1.9
12.6 2.1

8.6
8.0

0.3
2.2

4.6
4.6

1.7
0.4

11.1
10.1

0.3
1.0

15
11

12.8 0.9
13.2 0.9

9.8
9.8

1.3
0.9

3.0
3.4

8.8
8.8

0.9
0.9

11
2

14.2 1.6
13.0 3.3

7.0
6.0

1.3
0.4

6.4
8.3

2.8
1.2

10.3
10.0

1.1

8
8

9.0 1.2
10.7 1.2

5.5
6.0

1.1
1.9

3.6
4.7

1.4
0.5

9.1
9.5

0.6
0.7

3
7

12.3 0.5
13.4 1.1

9.2
9.1

1.2
1.0

3.1
4.3

0.8
1.1

10.5
10.0

0.5
0.3

9.5 1.0
9.1 0.5

6.3
6.1

1.4
2.1

3.3
3.7

0.7
1.1

9.7
9.1

0.7
0.5

6.8
7.8

2.2
3.9

10.4
10.2

6.8 1.1
7.0 1.2

4.2
4.2

1.3
1.2

2.5
2.8

1.0
0.8

9.8
9.6

0.6
0.4

6.7 0.9
8.1 1.0

6.5
6.4

0.7
1.2

1.4
1.8

0.9
0.8

10.9
10.0

0.7
1.0

9.9 1.3
9.8 0.3

5.7
5.2

0.2
0.8

3.8
4.6

0.8
1.0

9.7
9.7

0.3
0.8

Post-Classic
Lamanai
males
11
females
7
Altun Ha
males
2
females
3
San Pedro2
males
10
females
9
Marco Gonzalez2
males
9
females
13
Historic
Lamanai
males
females

13Ccol
(0/00 )
Mean SD

6
5

10.6
14.6

from Tykot et al. (1996)


Data from Williams et al. (in press)

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Gendered food behaviour among the Maya

male
female

Altun Ha
(Pre-Classic)
(Late Classic)
(Post-Classic)

Cuello1
(Pre-Classic)

Lamanai
(Classic)
(Post-Classic)
(Historic)

Pacbitun
(Classic)

Marco
Gonzalez 2
(Post-Classic)

San Pedro 2
(Post-Classic)

15

14

13

12

11

10

13

Ccol (, VPDB)

Figure 2 Isotopic values for 13Ccol by sex (1data from Tykot et al., 1996;
2data from Williams et al., in press)

In contrast, males at Altun Ha, a ceremonial centre located close to the


Caribbean coast and barrier reef in northern Belize (Pendergast, 1992),
consumed fewer C4 foods than females (White et al., 2001a; Table 1, Figures
2, 3). Even though males and females consumed the same modest quantity
of animal foods (from 13Cap-col; Table 1, Figure 4), males accessed more
protein from a higher trophic level (Table 1, Figure 5). Their protein did
not likely come from marine/reef resources because these would appear as
C4 foods. It is more likely that these males consumed high trophic level
fishes and/or other aquatic animals from beyond the reef. This sample is
from a mass burial that may be comprised of foreigners (Pendergast,

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male
female

Altun Ha
(Pre-Classic)
(Late Classic)
(Post-Classic)

Cuello1
(Pre-Classic)*

Lamanai
(Classic)
(Post-Classic)
(Historic)

Pacbitun
(Classic)

Marco
Gonzalez 2
(Post-Classic)

San Pedro 2
(Post-Classic)*

10

13Cap (, VPDB)

Figure 3 Isotopic values for 13Cap by sex (*male and female values are
identical; 1data from Tykot et al., 1996; 2data from Williams et al., in press)

1990), and therefore may reflect the diet of a different, perhaps more
coastal, polity.

Classic period
Lamanai and Pacbitun both provided samples from elite contexts representing the Classic period. Although the production potential for maize was
very high (Lambert et al., 1984), the inhabitants of Lamanai are among the
least maize-dependent of any Classic period population yet analysed (Gerry
and Krueger, 1997; White et al., 2001a), possibly due to the remarkable

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Gendered food behaviour among the Maya

male
female

Altun Ha
(Pre-Classic)*
(Late Classic)
(Post-Classic)

Cuello1
(Pre-Classic)

Lamanai
(Classic)
(Post-Classic)
(Historic)

Pacbitun
(Classic)

Marco
Gonzalez 2
(Post-Classic)

San Pedro 2
(Post-Classic)

13Cap-col

Figure 4 Isotopic values for 13Cap-col by sex (*male and female values are
identical; 1data from Tykot et al., 1996; 2data from Williams et al., in press)

heterogeneity of eco-zones accessible to them (e.g. river, estuary, coast,


jungle, pine ridge, savannah, swamp). Because of the small sample size and
variability of the data, interpretations during this period are made with
extreme caution. However, the 13Cap-col-values suggest that both males and
females predominantly consumed a plant-based diet but males consumed
proportionately more animals (Table 1, Figure 4) and less maize. The
15Ncol-values indicate that protein for both sexes came from both terrestrial animals and probably some aquatic resources (Table 1, Figure 5).
At Pacbitun, males consumed more C4 foods and were more carnivorous
(Table 1, Figures 2, 3, 4) than those from Lamanai. Because both sexes had

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370

male
female

Altun Ha
(Pre-Classic)
(Late Classic)
(Post-Classic)

Cuello1
(Pre-Classic)*

Lamanai
(Classic)
(Post-Classic)
(Historic)

Pacbitun
(Classic)

Marco
Gonzalez 2
(Post-Classic)

San Pedro2
(Post-Classic)

10

11

12

13

14

15

15

Ncol (, AIR)

Figure 5 Isotopic values for 15Ncol by sex (*male and female values are
identical; 1data from Tykot et al., 1996; 2data from Williams et al., in press)

similar 15Ncol-values that indicate terrestrial animals as the protein source


(Table 1, Figure 5), the greater meat consumption indicated by the 13Capcol-values (Table 1, Figure 4) suggests that males may have consumed more
C4-fed animals. Greater C4 food consumption among the elite indicates that
maize was likely more socially valued there possibly because of population
pressure on food resources (Healy, 1986; White et al., 1993).

Late Classic period


This is the time that generally marks the Classic period collapse. At Altun
Ha, the sample size is small, especially for males, and consists of elites only.

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Nonetheless, the pattern of sex differences is exactly the same as for


Pacbitun, i.e. males consuming more C4 protein (Table 1, Figure 2), being
more carnivorous (Table 1, Figure 4) and possibly consuming more C4-fed
animals.

Post-Classic period
The aftermath of the Classic period collapse was experienced differently by
the sites in this study. At Altun Ha the gap in sex differences in maize
consumption seen in the Late Classic period widened (Table 1, Figures 2, 3).
Although both sexes consumed more maize than in previous times, males
consumed even more, became increasingly more carnivorous (Table 1,
Figure 4) and consumed more C-4-fed animals (Table 1, Figures 3, 5).
At Lamanai, there is a significant drop in the consumption of maize for
both sexes (Table 1, Figures 2, 3), but the pattern of difference between the
sexes is still much the same as during the Classic period. Males were still
consuming slightly less maize (Table 1, Figures 2, 3), were more carnivorous
(Table 1, Figure 4) and accessed their protein from a slightly higher trophic
level (Table 1, Figure 5).
San Pedro and Marco Gonzalez are located on Ambergris Cay, off the
coast of northern Belize and close to the barrier reef. Marco Gonzalez was
probably a gateway community for Lamanai (Graham and Pendergast,
1989). Males at Marco Gonzalez consumed more C4 protein (Table 1,
Figure 2), were more carnivorous (Table 1, Figure 4) and consumed more
protein and from a higher trophic level (Table 1, Figure 5). In this case, the
protein sources probably came from the nearby C4-based marine-reef
because the 13Cap-col-values are exceptionally low.
By contrast, the small fishing village of San Pedro shows very few, if any,
gender differences in food consumption (Table 1, Figures 25).

Historic period
Historic period sites are rare because many were abandoned before the
arrival of the Spanish Conquest and few have been excavated. During this
period at Lamanai, there is a shift in the distribution of food by sex. There
is no longer any difference in maize consumption (Table 1, Figures 2, 3) or
protein source (Table 1, Figure 5). However, males were still more carnivorous (Table 1, Figure 4).

DISCUSSION
The data in this article support what Joyce (2000: 162) describes as the
mosaic quality of gendered status and power, where control of food and

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its consumption are complex variables in the expression of social authority, autonomy and control. Availability of resources and site size are major
determinants of intra-populational food distribution. Each site is located in
a distinct ecological zone and each zone has a different balance of food
resources, a different productive potential for maize, and a different suite
of available protein resources. Although the Maya had a shared ideology,
each polity also carved out its own symbolic identity and may have used
ritual foods as part of that identity. Indeed, there is isotopic evidence to
suggest that elite lineages used food as a means of social identification
(White et al., 2001a). The source of socially valued foods, therefore,
probably varied by site and possibly time period. This is reflected in the
range of isotopic values.
The isotopic composition of bone is a reflection of long-term consumption. The differences observed are sometimes subtle, but some patterns in
consumption behaviour are observable. With the exception of Lamanai (all
periods) and Pre-Classic Altun Ha, males consumed more C4 foods
(although the difference was marginal at San Pedro). The apparent lower
consumption of C4 foods by males at Lamanai might be consistent with the
hypothesis that maize was less valued where it was easier to grow (White
et al., 1993). However, it is not possible to know if either environment or
culture were factors in the differences at Pre-Classic Altun Ha because the
geographic origin of the individuals in this mass burial is unknown.
The greater male consumption of C4 foods at all the other sites could
have been caused by variation in snacking due to proximity during production or preparation, the use of food in the identification of gender, or a
reflection of social status. The latter explanation is preferred at present
because the gender pattern is consistent with the way that diet is associated
with social status at these sites.
The most salient aspect of the data, however, is the consistent sex difference in protein consumption. Greater carnivory among males is the
common denominator but differences in the quantity and/or type of
protein consumed by males and females are found at all sites (except the
low status site of San Pedro) and vary by time period. Gender differences
in protein consumption could be due to an ideology that favours differential access on a daily basis, gender roles in the production/procurement of
food, or greater (or more frequent) participation of males in ritual involving protein consumption. Except for samples from Cuello and San Pedro,
most of the individuals in this study were elites of varying degrees who
would certainly have participated in public rituals. The sources of greater
animal consumption among males included marine-reef resources and
C4-fed animals. Greater animal protein consumption has been generally
associated with high status (Pohl, 1985, 1990) and preferred protein was
generally sourced from higher trophic levels whether it came from food
webs that were terrestrial (e.g. mammals rather than beans) or marine

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(e.g. large fish or mammals rather than crustaceans). Higher trophic level
animals would only be accessed by hunting carnivores or accessing coastal
areas. Both carnivores (e.g. jaguars) and marine resources had great ideological significance among the Maya and were used in ritual (MoholyNagy, 2004; Pohl, 1990). Therefore, the regular consumption of hunted
animals or marine resources by males might also support the interpretation of greater male participation in ritual. How much captured food was
used for public ritual versus domestic consumption is unknown. Protein
resources captured for public ritual may also have been species-limited,
were not likely used for snacking in the wild and may not have been shared
with women, unlike those captured for domestic use (regular or ritual). It
is possible that female dietary protein came dominantly from resources
captured for domestic use.
Deer and dogs were commonly associated with ritual (Carr, 1985;
Clutton-Brock and Hammond, 1994; Pohl, 1983; Wing, 1978), and there is
isotopic evidence that those used for ritual and feasting were exclusively
fed maize from very early ages (White et al., 2001b, 2004). Considerable
investment must have been made in producing these animals. If this investment means that C4-fed animals were reserved mainly for ritual feasting,
then the greater quantities of C4-fed meat in male diets could indicate
greater male participation in ritual food consumption on a regular basis.
Proponents of gender complementarity would argue that the ritual
consumption of such ideologically important food by males was only made
possible through the female effort of creating it. For example, Hastorf
(1991) argues that the greater consumption of C4 foods by men in ancient
Peru is a result of ritual consumption of the maize-based alcoholic drink,
chicha, by males, and that the female labour used to produce chicha was an
important source of female status (Hastorf, 1991; Skar, 1981). An opposing
argument could be that if male consumption of these foods was exclusive,
the performance of consuming might have symbolically given males more
direct access to the supernatural, at least in terms of this aspect of the
ceremonialism. Such behaviour would be consistent with Clendinnens
(1982) view that hierarchic and complementary behaviour can be interwoven in cultural practice. In this case, women could have been hierarchically
excluded from political and religious authority and some ritual practices,
even when subsistence and ritual labours and some ritual practices were
complementary.
It has been argued that elites exhibited more gender equality (Joyce,
1996, 1999) as well as less (Haviland, 1997). Because the samples used in
this study are dominated by elites (with the exception of San Pedro and
Cuello), it is not possible to test this hypothesis within sites. However, the
differential consumption of protein resources by sex among the elite
strongly suggests that males had greater access to socially valued and ideologically based foods. While it is likely that elite females displayed status

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through their proximity and contribution to public ritual, the different


performance of food consumption suggests either identity differences or
unequal direct involvement with the supernatural. Whether or not these
differentials can be equated with political or public decision-making power
is the cardinal question. It could be argued that even though labour of elite
women is required for the successful completion of ritual by males, if they
are excluded from consuming the same foods as men, they are distanced
from products of their labour, and separated politically and spiritually from
men.
By contrast, dietary differences are the weakest between the sexes at the
lower order sites, San Pedro and Cuello, which also provide little archaeological evidence for status differences and were probably much more
involved in food production than ceremony. It could be hypothesized that
women at lower order sites experienced greater equality.
The effects of the Spanish Conquest on gendered food behaviour can be
examined with Historic period data from Lamanai. During this period,
status determination is not possible because the Spanish altered mortuary
practices involving traditional signifiers of status, i.e. grave structures and
goods. All individuals came from a church cemetery. Males and females
consumed identical protein sources. This shift might be reflecting the end
of public ritual. However, males were still more carnivorous than females.
Reasons for this differential could include:
1 A change in ritual practices. Spanish efforts at repressing traditional
public rituals may have resulted in the adaptation of private domestic
rituals for their replacement. Traditional ritual foods may have been
abandoned, but the principles of differential performance in ritual
food consumption may have been maintained, resulting in the
greater consumption of protein by men.
2 A deeper traditional ideological behaviour that was masked during
earlier periods and dictated preferential male access to protein.
Differential access to preferred resources on a daily basis could
explain the tendency for males to be generally more carnivorous in
most samples regardless of time period.
3 The inculcation of Spanish attitudes that devalued women and
produced a different ideological core. There are references to
increased abuse of women in the ethnohistoric documents
Mesoamerica (Landa, 1566). There is also isotopic evidence that
culture change introduced by the Spanish in the Andes had a
dramatic effect on female status (Hastorf, 1991). As Silverblatt (1988:
441) notes: Spanish norms held men to be innately more suitable to
public life, economic activity, and positions of power.

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CONCLUSION
Hastorf (1991: 133) states that gender is created from division of labour,
differential access, social negotiation, production and reproduction.
Archaeological, ethnohistoric and chemical lines of evidence for subsistence and diet indicate that all of these behaviours are gendered among the
Maya, but expressed in different ways. Maya foods were highly imbued with
ideological meaning, symbolically consumed during ceremonial activities,
and also promoted social and political meaning for both men and women.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Maya women exercised agency and
power in the religious domain by controlling the food provided for ceremonies, as well as in the economic domain through their control of food in
exchange networks and the payment of tribute. However, although further
testing will be needed, isotopic measures of food consumption suggest that
there were gender differences in diet, and that these were most pronounced
among elites. Lower order sites at both the earliest (Cuello) and latest (San
Pedro) stages of the civilization showed the weakest gender differences in
food consumption.
Dietary gender differences can be caused by variation in proximity to
certain foods during production or preparation, the use of food in the
identification of gender, or differential access related to social status.
Among elites, men were fairly consistently more carnivorous than women
and consumed more foods that might be considered ideologically important such as maize, maize-fed animals and marine/reef resources. Gendered
dietary differences vary by resource, time, and site location, which is consistent with Joyces (2002) view that female status and power were unevenly
negotiated over time and place. The differences seem to have been broadly
distributed but are not dramatic. Their meaning is still unclear, but it is
argued that because elite males consumed more preferred foods, most of
which were used in rituals, elite women may not have participated in ritual
food consumption in the same way or to the same degree. While the production of Maya ceremonies involved complementary gender participation,
female access to the products of their labour may have been more limited
and may even have resulted in less direct access to the supernatural. This
interpretation is consistent with the view that hierarchical behaviour can
still be embedded in complementary social systems.
The arrival of the Spanish seems to have brought an end to gender differentiation by protein type, but males continued to consume more protein
than females in general. Whether this represents an underlying ideology of
preferential access for males, a conversion of public rituals to private, or the
assimilation of Spanish gender values requires further research.

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376

Acknowledgements
I thank David Pendergast, Elizabeth Graham, Hermann Helmuth, Paul Healy, Jaime
Awe, and the Department of Archaeology, Belize, for access to these samples.
Samples were analysed in the isotope labs of Fred Longstaffe, The University of
Western Ontario, and Henry Schwarcz, McMaster University, who were involved in
various aspects of their isotopic interpretations in previous publications. I also thank
Robert Jackson and Karyn Olsen for the figures.

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CHRISTINE D. WHITE holds a Canada Research Chair in Bioarchaeology and Isotopic Anthropology at The University of Western Ontario.
Working with human remains primarily from Latin America and the Nile
Valley, she reconstructs living conditions, social structure, political and
economic behaviour, migration, colonization, warfare and marriage
patterns.
[email: white2@uwo.ca]