Ancient bones reveal the lives of working class

An archaeologist in Florida has turned to ancient animal bones in an attempt to find out more about the daily lives of ordinary Mayan people.

Most previous research into Mayan civilisation has focused on royalty and the priest class.

Ashley Sharpe, a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History, set out to see what life was like for the 99%.

“When you think about the Romans and the Greeks, we know a lot about all of the different social classes – from the Caesars down to the commoners – but although there were tens of thousands of middle-class and lower-income Maya in big cities, we still don’t know much about the everyday lives of most people.

“We looked at how the Maya acquired and distributed animal resources in order to learn more about the economy and how the royal, elite and lower classes interacted,” said Sharpe.

“It turns out, the Maya states and classes were not all homogenous. They had complicated systems in place for trade relations, distribution of food and access to species, which varied among the cities and social classes much like they do today.”

Sharpe and co-author Kitty Emery, Florida Museum associate curator of environmental archaeology, examined the animal remains recovered from the ruins of three Maya city-states in Guatemala.

Sharpe traced the movement of animals and their resources from trade partners and followed the flow of resources between royalty, the rich and the poor at the capital cities and to the less powerful surrounding villages.

“The Maya used animals for things like hides, tools, jewelry and musical instruments, but they were also vitally important as emblems of status, royalty and the symbolic world of the gods, and thus often were prime resources jealously guarded by the rich and powerful,” Emery said.

Surprisingly, however, study researchers found that middle-ranking elites used the widest variety of animals. Royalty and other high-ranking elites focused on a select group of symbolic and prestigious animals like jaguars and crocodiles, Sharpe said.

Their research is published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

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