for National Geographic News
The ancient Maya cultivated crops of manioc—also known as cassava—some 1,400 years ago, according to archaeologists studying a Maya farm preserved in volcanic ash.
The discovery may help solve the long-standing mystery of how the ancient culture produced enough energy-rich, starchy food to support its large city-centered populations.
"There's a good chance that this will change the way we look at how the Mayans fed themselves," said study leader Payson Sheets, an anthropologist at University of Colorado at Boulder.
"It's a very important clue to resolving this [question]," Sheets said. "We're extremely happy to have found this."
(The research was funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)
Sheets's team found the ancient manioc field near Ceren, a Maya village in El Salvador about 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of modern-day San Salvador (see El Salvador map).
The team was excavating what it thought was an ancient cornfield when it discovered traces of cultivated manioc roots perfectly preserved by a volcanic eruption.
The discovery provides a glimpse into the Maya farm as it may have appeared around A.D. 600, when a volcano near Ceren erupted.
The nearby village was covered with as much as 17 feet (5 meters) of ash, preserving it in remarkable detail, the archaeologists said.
"When we excavate [at Ceren], we're looking at that moment from all that time ago," said Christine Dixon, a doctoral candidate from Lafayette, California, who was on the team.
"It's as close as the present can get to the past, which, for archaeologists, is a very exciting endeavor."
What the Maya Ate
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