The Organization of Staple Crop Production in Middle Formative, Late Formative, and Classic Period Farming Households at K'axob, Belize

Helen Hope Henderson

PhD Thesis. 1998

Three questions guided this study on Maya household economy. Did large corporate households pool labor and follow a diverse productive pattern? Did smaller households follow a simple productive pattern and mainly cultivate Zea mays? Did the ways families managed labor and staple crop production result in inter-household and intra-household wealth differentiation? To answer these questions, I examined variability in a sample of 72 households that dated to the Middle Formative, Late Formative, and Classic periods.

By comparing 3 types of stable bone isotopes (13C collagen, 13C apatite, 15N collagen) in adults from 21 households, I found that adults from corporate households consume a more diverse carbohydrate diet that featured less Zea mays. Corporate households pooled labor to diversify staple crop production during the Late Formative and Classic periods. However, the productive pattern of smaller households, although less diverse than that of corporate households, was not very simple. From 800 B.C. to A.D. 900, the average carbohydrate diet of adults consisted of 34% Zea mays, 66% C3 plants, and consistent amounts of animal protein from terrestrial animals and turtles. Given this historical pattern, it was useful to reconceptualize simple and diverse production as endpoints on a continuous scale instead of dichotomous categories.

This study also found a relationship between household size and elaborate residential architecture. Corporate households used more sascab construction fill and built more platform structures than non-corporate households. Thus, the way households organized staple crop production was related to inter-household wealth differences. Intra-household differentiation may have also occurred since adults from corporate household were less likely than those from non-corporate households to consume the same proportions of C3 plants and the same amount of meat protein.

These results suggest that models of complex society, which examine elite authority as a function of elite political relationships, should widen their scope to include economic relationships and labor organization. Finally, (1) the slow formation of corporate households and (2) the subtle changes in staple crop production suggested that regional elites did not directly organize staple crop production at K'axob even though they could have mobilized either labor or products for their own purposes.