Staple Crop or Ritual Beverage: Early and Middle Formative Uses of Maize in the Olmec Heartland

Date and Time: 
Friday, 13 April, 2012 - 18:00 to 18:20
VanDerwarker, Amber M.
Robert Kruger

Maize has been central to arguments regarding the social and political organization of Early and Middle Formative Olmec society. Traditional explanations argue that the large-scale cultivation of maize underwrote the mound-building and monument construction through the mechanism of tribute. Recent work suggests that maize was less important as a staple early on, instead used strategically in rituals by elites as a means to display their connections to a rare and coveted beverage. Until recently, these explanations have been limited to the realm of speculation, unsupported by any direct botanical data. In this paper, we consider regional variation in the presence and abundance of maize at several sites in the Olmec heartland. Our patterns show that maize is more ubiquitous and abundant at political centers, declining in importance at sites located further from centers. These data suggest a clear connection between elites and maize, possibly in the context of ritual use.