Prehispanic and colonial Maya subsistence and migration: contributions from stable sulfur isotope analysis

Rand, Asta Jade (2021) Prehispanic and colonial Maya subsistence and migration: contributions from stable sulfur isotope analysis. Doctoral (PhD) thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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The Maya who inhabited southeastern Mesoamerica from the Preclassic to Colonial periods (1000 BCE to 1821 CE) have been the focus of intensive archaeological study for over a century. Recent theoretical and methodological developments have contributed to nuanced understandings of Maya migration and subsistence practices. Stable sulfur isotope (δ³⁴S) analysis of bone collagen is a novel technique that has been applied to Maya skeletal collections, although the variation in environmental δ³⁴S values throughout the Maya region has yet to be systematically characterized. This research presents the first Maya faunal sulfur isotope baseline based on the δ³⁴S values of 148 archaeological faunal remains from 13 sites in the Northern and Southern Lowlands. As expected, terrestrial animals in coastal areas had elevated δ³⁴S due to sea spray. However, those from inland sites had unexpectedly high δ³⁴S values that varied depending on the age of the underlying limestone. Although the δ³⁴S values of marine animals were lower than expected, similarly low values in freshwater animals permits the differentiation of freshwater and terrestrial animals at inland sites. These data demonstrate that sufficient variation in δ³⁴S values exists in the Maya region to identify sources of protein and nonlocal animals, which speaks to prehispanic Maya animal exchange and interregional interaction. The δ³⁴S values of 49 humans from seven Maya sites ranging from the Preclassic to Colonial periods were also interpreted using the faunal baseline. The spatial distribution of human δ³⁴S values differed from that of the terrestrial fauna, demonstrating sociocultural variation in Maya resource procurement in addition to underlying environmental influences. A comparison of carbon and nitrogen data from the same individuals also revealed the consumption of protein from different catchments. Nonlocal δ³⁴S values show three individuals migrated near the end of their lives, and when integrated with childhood strontium and oxygen isotope data from tooth enamel, demonstrate a more robust means of investigating the length of residence and potentially the extent of integration into the receiving community. Finally, a case study of the prehispanic Maya from Nakum, Guatemala, demonstrates the contributions of stable sulfur isotope analysis to the interpretation of Maya subsistence strategies and migration when integrated into a multi-isotopic approach.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral (PhD))
Item ID: 15087
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (pages 207-276).
Keywords: Maya, Archaeology, Sulfur Isotope Analysis, Faunal Baseline, Multi-Isotope Analysis, Bioarchaeology
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > Archaeology
Date: June 2021
Date Type: Submission
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Subsistence farming--Central America--History; Mayas--Migrations--History; Mayas--Antiquities; Sulfur--Isotopes--Central America--Analysis.

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