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Ancient Manioc Agriculture South of the Ceren Village, El Salvador

  • Payson Sheets (a1), David Lentz (a2), Dolores Piperno (a3), John Jones (a4), Christine Dixon (a5), George Maloof (a6) and Angela Hood (a7)...

Abstract

The role of seed crops in the Maya diet is well understood. The role of root crops in the ancient Maya diet has been controversial, with some scholars suggesting they were staples, and others arguing they were not cultivated at all. Research in the 1990s found occasional manioc plants in kitchen gardens within the Classic period Cerén village, leading to the interpretation that manioc did contribute to the diet, but was not a staple. Recent research outside the village encountered sophisticated raised-bed monocropping of manioc over an extensive area. This area was harvested essentially all at once, about a week prior to the eruption. An estimated ten tons of tubers were harvested. The various uses of manioc include consumption as food, exchange with other settlements, fermentation, drying and storage as a powder, and as an adhesive. It is possible that many or all these alternatives were being followed. At Cerén manioc was a staple, not just an occasional adjunct to the diet. Because Cerén is toward the wet end of the ideal range for manioc cultivation, other areas of the Neotropics that receive less than 1,700 mm of precipitation may be more suitable for manioc cultivation than Cerén.

Es probable que en la zona maya el cultivo intensivo de maíz y su consumo se remonten al periodo Preclásico Medio. No obstante, su importancia en la dieta maya está bien determinada desde el período Clásico hasta hoy. En oposición, la importancia del cultivo de raíces en la dieta de los antiguos mayas ha sido polémica. Dada la escasez de evidencia directa de su cultivo, proceso, y consumo, muchos arqueólogos han expresado incertidumbre sobre su papel en la dieta maya. Algunos de ellos han sugerido que las raíces no eran cultivadas en absoluto. En el otro extremo, hay quienes sugieren que su cultivo fue un componente dominante de la dieta. En el caso específico de la mandioca, hay quienes piensan que fue introducida al área maya desde el Caribe por los españoles. Durante nuestras investigaciones arqueológicas en el sitio de Cerén, en El Salvador, hemos contado con la ventaja del excepcional estado de preservación de los elementos enterrados por la ceniza de la erupción del volcán Loma Caldera, ocurrida cerca del año 630 d.C. En nuestras primeras excavaciones encontramos algunas pocas plantas de mandioca en los huertos de las casas del pueblo, lo que nos llevó a interpretar que sus tubérculos se cosechaban individualmente para ser incorporados en la dieta de forma ocasional. En esta etapa nuestra comprensión de la mandioca era escasa y pensamos que dicho tubérculo no era una parte importante de la dieta, y que sólo contribuía con unas cuantas calorías. En nuestras investigaciones más recientes, realizadas unos 200 m al sur del asentamiento arqueológico, encontramos un sofisticado monocultivo de mandioca sobre un área extensa, practicado sobre un sistema de amplios camellones. En contraste con el estilo de cosechar en los huertos caseros dentro del pueblo, en esta área de monocultivo, la producción completa de mandioca se cosechó en un sólo evento, una semana antes de la erupción del volcán Loma Caldera. Estimamos que se obtuvieron hasta diez toneladas de tubérculos con el procedimiento de arrancar la planta completa, jalándola por la base del tallo. Con esta técnica la mayor parte de los tubérculos de cada planta habrían sido recogidos de un sólo tirón, aunque algunas ramificaciones se habrían roto durante el proceso y permanecido enterradas en los camellones. Estos tubérculos desprendidos se descompusieron en el campo, dejando impresos su forma y volumen en huecos que fueron preservados por el depósito de ceniza volcánica. Cuando encontramos dichas oquedades, las llenamos con yeso dental por lo que se conservarán perpetuamente. Un tubérculo de mandioca se descompone en pocos días después de su cosecha. Por ello los agricultores de Cerén tuvieron pocas alternativas para procesar esta gran cantidad de mandioca. Es probable que una parte de la cosecha se haya consumido en la comunidad, pero un pequeño asentamiento de entre 100 a 200 personas no habría podido consumir una gran cantidad de tubérculos en tan corto tiempo. Es también posible que cierta porción de la cosecha se hubiera transportado rápidamente a otros pueblos o a los mercados de los centros regionales cercanos. Dos centros regionales con mercados se localizan respectivamente unos 5 km al sur y al norte de Cerén. Una posibilidad más es que los agricultores de Cerén hayan procesado la mandioca hacia un polvo que llaman almidón, el cual puede almacenarse por tiempo indefinido mientras se mantenga seco. Otra cantidad de mandioca pudo haberse fermentado para ser consumida como bebida alcohólica durante la ceremonia de la primera cosecha del asentamiento, la cual se vio interrumpida por la erupción volcánica. Hemos identificado que una ceremonia de primicias, quizás una versión de la ceremonia maya tradicional “Cuch”, estaba en marcha en la Estructura comunitaria 10. Con estos nuevos hallazgos, la mandioca de Cerén ya no puede considerarse únicamente como un suplemento dietético ocasional sino como un cultivo primario. Cerén se localiza en una franja de alta precipitación, que no es la más ideal para el cultivo de mandioca. Esto nos hace pensar que otras áreas de la zona maya, así como otras regiones neotropicales de México y Centroamérica, con precipitaciones menores a 1500 mm, hayan sido más propicias para el cultivo de la mandioca de lo que fue en Cerén. Para contrarrestar la alta precipitación, los antiguos cultivadores de Cerén preparaban sus camellones para el cultivo de mandioca con una pendiente de entre seis y 10° que facilitaba su desagüe.

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