December 13, 2008 Jennifer A. Loughmiller Newman: "Maize as Food, Maize as Drink at the Site of Calakmul"
 
            Jennifer A. Loughmiller Newman is a PhD candidate at the University at Albany. Her dissertation will focus on chemical and microfossil identification of residues extracted from special deposit ceramics at the Maya site of Calakmul. This analysis will apply highly sensitive chemical procedures, in addition to new techniques in microfossil identification, to residues found in the ceramics recovered in burials such as that of Yuknoom the Great and Yuknoom Yichak Kak, among others. Jennifer has recently published in the Spring 2008 Ancient Mesoamerica, and has a chapter coming out in Archaeology of Intoxication, edited by Sean Rafferty.
            Maize has a played an extraordinary role in the lives of the Maya, and Ms. Newman has begun to document its use in ritual vessels at the site of Calakmul.  In 2007, Ms. Newman extracted residue samples from 22 ceramics recovered from elite burials and dedicatory caches excavated at Calakmul, in order to discover their contents. As plants grow, they extract minerals from the soil, which can be stored in the cell walls, and later identified in microfossils left behind. Each plant type leaves characteristic microfossils of different appearance and chemical composition.   Centuries later, mineralized remains are still present in minute amounts in vessels which had contained these vegetal products. Even after washing, minute remains can be found in the small cracks and grooves of the hand built, low fired ceramics; phytoliths can often be found encased in cooked food char. Jennifer was able to able carefully extract this residue from the Calakmul vessels.  Using both chemical analysis and microscopic examination she was then able to detect, and even microscopically observe, silica phytoliths in a shape characteristic of maize in some of the vessels. Many of the other traditional Mesoamerican foods and drinks, which would typically be found in ceremonial containers have been extracted and analyzed recently, as well. Cacao, squash and any other seed bearing plant leave phytoliths of distinctly different composition and appearance, and agave remains contain calcium based crystalline phytoliths. Jennifer indicated that she has 23 very small samples in analysis, with 10 more in preparation, and she will continue with further liquid analysis, including lipid extraction.
            Ms. Newman then compared modern maize with its ancestor grain, teosinte, which she hypothesized was used originally to create a nutrient rich drink which was fermented into beer for preservation. Modern maize has the largest growing range of any domesticated grain, and is extremely drought resistant, explaining its dominant place in the nutrient base of the Americas. She concluded her talk with a description of the tombs in which the ceramics studied were found, which were rich in maize imagery as well as the discovered maize residue. The group enjoyed a discussion of her findings, and all wish Jennifer well in her future research!

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