AHA Today

Transdisciplinary Study Sheds New Light on History of the Mayan People

AHA Staff | Jan 24, 2012

Mayan Flask
A codex-style Mayan jar from the Mirador Basin in southern Campeche, Mexico, now in the Kislak Collection of the Library of Congress. Photo by Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman.

Whatever might be the truth about the apocalyptic eschatology of the Mayan calendar and its endtimes forecast for the Gregorian 2012, one thing is clear, it seems: The Mayan people knew about extracting pleasures from their existential present, as they appear to have used tobacco. That the peoples of Mesoamerica used nicotine could be surmised from other evidence, but a study published on January 12, 2012, in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, a journal published by Wiley-Blackwell, provided material evidence of tobacco use by the ancient Maya.

As if taking a cue from speakers at a digital humanities session at the recent AHA annual meeting—who exhorted historians to interact with practitioners of other disciplines—the study’s authors, Jennifer A. Loughmiller-Newman, an anthropology PhD student at the University of Albany, and Dmitri Zagorevski, director of the proteomics core in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, used gas and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry to detect the presence of nicotine in a codex-style flask (see image). They thus provided, for the first time, physical evidence for the use of tobacco by the Mayan people in the late classical period (600 to 900 CE). The spectrometric analysis also allowed the two researchers to conclude that the tobacco residues had not been subjected to any thermal effects, and thus that the container did not serve as an ash tray and that the tobacco was not “smoked.”

The jar that was used for the study was made around 700 CE in the Mirador Basin in southern Campeche, Mexico, and is now a part of the Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. It is similar to many such jars that have been recovered from burial sites, but this was the only one found so far that showed clear evidence of tobacco. Interestingly, the researchers also discovered that the “label” on the outside of this jar, in Mayan hieroglyphics (“y-otoot ’u-may,” “the home of its/his/her tobacco”), matched the contents of the jar. According to the researchers, only one other example of such a match between the description outside and the contents has been found until now. Usually, the hieroglyphic label and the contents did not match, a situation familiar to any frugal householder who has stored cookies in a coffee can labeled “Cereal”!

The marriage of science and archaeology has been enduring and productive. Carbon-14 or Potassium-Argon dating, palaeobotany, the tracing of mitochondrial DNA, and a multitude of other scientific tools have been used by archaeologists and anthropologists in their neverending quest for better understanding of human pasts. This latest and a particularly dramatic example of using a multidisciplinary approach to human history comes to remind us that beyond the archives lie unexplored worlds with rich seams of evidence waiting to be mined with new tools and methods.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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