Maya Ethnobotany: Four Studies

Maya Ethnobotany:  Four Studies


E. N. Anderson


1.  Yucatan Maya Herbal Medicine:  Practice and Future                                      2

2.  Wild Plum Shoots and Jicama Roots:  Food Security in

Quintana Roo Maya Life                                                                        12

3.  African Influences on Maya Foods                                                            21

4.  From Sacred Ceiba to Profitable Orange                                                            30




1.  Yucatec Maya Herbal Medicine in Quintana Roo:  Practice and Future




The Yucatec Maya of west-central Quintana Roo maintain an herbal medical tradition involving over 450 named taxa.  Some 347 species have been identified botanically (at least to genus level) to date; others remain unidentified.  Significant differences exist between this tradition and those found in neighboring Yucatan state.  Conditions treated are usually minor:  skin problems, respiratory diseases, stomach upsets.  However, more serious conditions, including diabetes and cancer, are also treated routinely.  Commercialization of major herbal drugs is beginning.  This presages problems with biopiracy and overexploitation in future.  To avoid conflicts such as those in Chiapas recently, there must be cooperation between governments, biologists, and Maya communities.  Some efforts in this direction have been made.



The Yucatan Peninsula is home to some 800,000 Yucatec Maya.  Far from becoming extinct at the fall of classic Maya civilization, the Maya maintain their language and culture with vigor and pride.  Most of the Yucatec live today in the three Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.  Many still live by subsistence agriculture.  This is based on slash-and-burn cultivation of maize and other crops, supplemented by extensive dooryard gardens and orchards.  Until recently, 75% of calories were derived from maize.  In the villages and small communities today, treatment of illness is largely by traditional means, especially herbal medicine.

The Yucatec Maya are well known for their extensive herbal pharmacopoeia.  Dictionaries of the Spanish Colonial period, most notably the Calepino de Motul from around 1610, mentioned many herbal drugs (Arzápalo 1996).  Various versions and editions of a mysterious work called The Book of the Jew (El libro de Judío; Barrera and Barrera Vásquez 1983, Andrews Heath 1979) began circulating in the 18th century; whoever the “Jew” was (if he existed at all), he was certainly a convert to Maya medicine, for most of the book consists of directions for using well-known Maya medicinal plants.  In the 20th century, many ethnobotanists studied Maya herbal medicine.  First was the pathbreaking ethnohistorian Ralph Roys (1976), who relied largely on the botanical identifications of Central American pioneer botanist Paul Standley.  Later, the great Maya scholar Alfredo Barrera Vásquez collaborated with his botanist son Alfredo Barrera Marín and with Rosa Maria Franco in a major work, Nomenclatura etnobotánica Maya (1976).  This was followed by a number of general ethnobiological works, and by a list of medicinal plants of Quintana Roo (Pulido and Serralta 1993).  Research has also been carried out in Belize (Arvigo and Balick 1993).  Finally, Anita Ankli carried out major research in Yucatán state in the 1990s (Ankli 2000), working with her professor Michael Heinrich and with Otto Sticher to analyze and test Maya plant drugs in the laboratory (Ankli et al.1999a, 1999b).  More broadly, excellent background material on the culture, beliefs, and traditional knowledge of the Yucatec Maya can be found in the works of Betty Faust (1996) and William Hanks (1990).  Comparable and really superb work on the Itzaj Maya, who are very close linguistic and cultural relatives of the Yucatec, is reported in the writings of Scott Atran and his associates (see Medin and Atran 1999 and references therein, especially Atran’s article; some of his group also work with the Yucatec; see Atran et al 2001).  And of course all this research is more or less related to the well-known work of the Berlins and their group in Chiapas (Berlin and Berlin 1996 and references therein).

Over the last 12 years, I have spent a total of a year and a half in west central Quintana Roo, in and around the large Maya town of Chunhuhub (pop. approx. 6000).  I have been studying uses of plants and animals, including herbal medicine.  This has involved working with local jmeen—Maya healers who are also ceremonial officiants in traditional rituals.  Don José Cauich Canul (of the community of Polyuc) and Don Marcos Puc Bacab (of Presidente Juarez) have been particularly willing to share their knowledge with me and with the world; Don José in particular has been pushing me to get it out in full publication.  However, I remain cautious, given the current vexed situation of intellectual property rights to traditional medical knowledge.  The present paper reports largely material that is already in public domain (via the above books or via almost universal knowledge in the Peninsula).  The issues are discussed more fully below.  In what follows I will generally stick to aggregated data.

I have recorded, so far, 347 named taxa that can be identified to species (or in some cases only to genus) level.  Another eight taxa can be identified to the level of family or larger group.  Another 152 names have been recorded but have not yet been pinned down to species.  This is less serious than it sounds, since all these names were recorded from two senior healers who tend to use names in an unconventional manner.  Often, they used an odd name for a plant that was not in flower (or, occasionally, for one for which the specimen was lost).  In such cases, the name could not be pinned to the species.  Most or all the names actually refer to species already in the full list.  There are, therefore, probably not many more than 355 species in the total pharmocopoeia reported here.

On the other hand, I have certainly not exhausted the medical knowledge of the Maya of west-central Quintana Roo.  I have interviewed only a small fraction of the population.  I failed to ask about some plants known to be medically important elsewhere in the peninsula.  (An extreme case is the huge, common tree known as pich, Enterolobium cyclocarpum.  This plant is recorded as medically used in nearby Maya villages [Ankli 2000], but I never heard of a medical use for it and failed to ask systematically.  Judging from the pattern of commonalities between Ankli’s findings and mine, pich is almost certainly used in Chunhuhub.)  I have not been out in the forest with all healers during all seasons.  In short, there is much to be done.  I believe the total Chunhuhub-area pharmacopoeia must be around 500 species.

This number is most impressive, but perhaps less impressive than it looks.  Most of the plants are used in a minor, casual way.  Almos any plant that seems astringent is used as a wash for skin conditions.  Almost any small vine is used as a wash for ojo (on which see below).  Almost any tannin-rich tree bark is made into a tea for diarrhea.  Any wild tuber can be mashed and put on wounds and sores.  In short, assigning medical value to a plant is often done on the basis of very general qualities, and the healer simply uses the first plant encountered that satisfies these criteria.  As one healer put it:  “Sometimes one plant is available, sometimes another.  If you can’t find the best one, you use whatever you find.”  Even so, simply knowing the astringency level or tuberous habit of 500 kinds of plants is already a rather major accomplishment.

Almost all plants used are flowering ones.  Nonflowering plants are very poorly cognized by the Maya.  Algae, fungi, and ferns are used very sparingly, and no specific names for them are used.  The only native gymnosperm (a cycad, Zamia lodigesii) is used, but mainly for rat poison.

Among flowering plants, 89 families contribute medical herbs.  The usual suspects—the mint family, bean family, and spurge family, among others—contribute a disproportionate number of drugs, and the grass family and orchid family contributes disproportionately few, as elsewhere in the world.  Also fairly typical in worldwide perspective are the popularity of the Rubiaceae and Rutaceae.  Moerman (1998) has shown that North American Native peoples draw disproportionately on certain families for drugs, and the Maya are typical.  Perhaps less typical is the relatively high usage of Acanthaceae, Apocynaceae, several of the minor families, and especially the verbena family.  Almost every Verbenacea in the state seems to be a cure, and many are important, widely-known ones.  Composites (Asteraceae) are widely and heavily used, but not disproportionately so, given their abundance (both number of taxa and number of individuals being huge).

Robert Voeks (1997) has noted that most plants used medicinally in coastal Brazil are garden, weedy, and second-growth plants, not plants of the deep forest.  This is true for the Maya as well, but not to the same extent.  The Maya use almost everything, wherever it occurs, except for plants so rare and obscure that they are not worth seeking.  Many of these are deep forest plants, which makes the forest relatively less a source than it might be.  The common and obvious forest trees, however, are all well used, and several of the most important drugs come from the forest; some are not common, and must be sought. The natural tendency is to grab the nearest plant, which will, of course, generally be a garden plant or town weed.  Counterbalancing this, though, is the great popularity of such deep-forest remedies as Malmea depressa, Aristolochia maxima, and the various Rutaceae called tankasche’. These are sought out carefully.  They are a part of the Maya strategy for using the forest; everything is seen as valuable and usable, unless it is truly rare and obscure.  This provides an incentive to conserve and manage the forest, which the Maya of west-central Quintana Roo do very well.

To be exact, 125 of the plants herein recorded are forest plants (some are sometimes cultivated too, notably Achras sapota and Sabal mexicana).  Another 122 are weedy (including short-lived trees that do not persist as forest regrows, but not trees that invade abandoned milpas as part of forest regrowth).  Yet a further 104 are cultivated.  Three are water plants.  There are surprisingly few plants that cannot be easily classified into one of these categories.  The most important is Dorstenia contrayerva, a major cureall; it invades milpas abundantly, but persists in mature forest.  I have logged it as weedy.  Cedrela odorata can be a cultivated tree, a forest tree, or a weed, but is almost always seen as a cultivated tree in my area, as is so logged here.  (The list of “weeds” of Yucatán given in Villaseñor R. and Espinosa G. 1998:308-313 includes 108 of my plants, plus 20 further plants that are members of genera in my list.)

By comparison, the total Chunhuhub flora that I have recorded and identified includes 208 named forest plants, 205 weedy ones, 235 cultivated plants (not counting wild plants often cultivated), and four water plants.  The ratio of forest plants to weedy plants is thus essentially identical in both lists.  Most cultivated plants are ornamentals or foods, so relatively fewer species are used medicinally.  However, the ones that are used include the most heavily used herbals.  Among other virtues, they are readily available.

It is worth noting that Maya medicine is a developing, productive science.  Several new weeds have invaded western Quintana Roo in recent years.  Many of them now have medical uses—inferred or constructed by expert healers.  The ones used are aromatic or astringent (e.g. Sonchus oleraceus, Conyza canadensis), as opposed to things like grasses that are regarded as mere pests.


Medical knowledge can be conveniently divided into three sorts:

Remedies that are almost universally known among traditional families.

Remedies that are fairly common knowledge, but known only to people seriously concerned about herbal lore, usually senior male or female heads of households.

Remedies that are definitely expert knowledge, known to and used by professional or semiprofessional healers.  These fall into two categories:  jmeen, who are male herbalists and ritual officiants, and midwives.  The jmeen know hundreds of plant species.  Midwives know many fewer species, but their specialized knowledge of birth includes some special plant lore (Anderson et al ms).

In the first category are several plants that deserve some brief note.  The three most famous and distinctive medicines of the region are elemuy (Malmea depressa, Annonaceae), wako (Aristolochia maxima), and kambaljau (Dorstenia contrayerva).  Elemuy is basically a diuretic, used for any and all kidney and urinary conditions (and occasionally for other purposes).  Wako goes most often into stomach preparations.  Kambaljau is a cureall, used internally or externally for almost anything, from fever to snakebite.  Elemuy and wako are both deep-forest plants, though very rarely they are grown in gardens.  Kambaljau is a weedy perennial, not deliberately planted, but encouraged when it invades fields—as it generally does without any need for help.  Another cureall, tankasche’ (a term applying to several small bushy Rutaceae spp.), is rare and found only in certain parts of the deepest forest, yet it is carefully sought.

Elemuy, wako and kambaljau are all commercialized to some extent.  Attempts to farm them have been made, but they are common enough in the wild to need no special attention so far.  They are even brought as far afield as Los Angeles by Maya traveling there.  (A Yucatec Maya beachhead exists in Inglewood, and Maya foods and remedies are available there if someone has recently been visiting home.)

Though these plants are seen as the highline drugs, recourse is more often made to garden plants and weeds, since those are readily available.  Virtually every family grows medicinal herbs in their gardens.  Most of these are Spanish introductions:  mints (Mentha spp.), rue (Ruta chalepensis), aloe vera (Aloe cf. barbadensis), citrus fruit trees, etc.  The uses came with the plants, including not only obvious matters like using mint for stomach upsets, but also the use of rue in magical practices—an old Spanish tradition widely established in Mexico.

Weeds, however, are a different story; they are almost all native plants used in traditional Maya ways.  K’anaan (Hamelia patens) is one of the commonest, being not only a universal weed but also planted in many gardens for medicinal use.  It is the most popular antiseptic wash, being used on all skin conditions.  It appears to be effective.  Jawaij (Parthenium hysterophorus, Asteraceae) is popular for a tea for respiratory and other ills.  It grows on every roadside, so few bother to grow it deliberately.  A range of small weedy fabaceous vines make washes for ojo.

At this point something needs to be said about traditional Maya medicine.

Maya medicine’s most basic principle is that the human body must maintain a balance of heat and cold, and must be centered and organized (Hanks 1990).  The body must center on the tipte’, a lump behind the navel; if this is hard, disarranged, or dislocated, illness is experienced.  (Similar beliefs are widespread in indigenous Mexico; cf. Young and Garro 1994.)  The body is also very susceptible to overheating and overcooling.  Most disease results from cold drafts striking an overheated body.  Overall pain, fever, cancer, and respiratory problems result from the whole body being hit by a cold draft when overheated.  Stomach ills normally result from rapidly taking a cold drink under the same circumstances—a very common occurrence in a culture where long hours of work in the blazing tropical sun is the norm, creating almost unbearable thirst.  Rheumatism and other localized pain result when a cold draft strikes a particular part of the anatomy.  Getting chilled at night can result in night sweats, a greatly feared condition.  Even barrenness in women is explained by a cold draft hitting the womb.

However, as noted by several previous observers, the remedies are not things that are perceived as heating (in sharp contrast to, say, Chinese folk medicine).  The remedies are plants that are known pragmatically to work.  Whatever the cause of diarrhea, the cure is usually a tea made either from tannin-rich bark (guava, nance, etc.) or a plant that is known to have genuine antiseptic value (Ankli 2000).  These cures work just fine—in fact, much better in my own case than drug store remedies.  Whatever the cause of rashes and skin infections, antiseptic or soothing washes are used.  These too work very well, as anyone who tries them can attest.  Rheumatism may be from cold air, but the remedies are all topical applications of stinging, counterirritant, or rubefacient plants.  In short, pragmatics wins over logic.  Plant drugs are chosen with virtually no reference to the folk medical theories.  They are chosen because they are known to work—or, in many cases, because they look like, smell like, or grow like plants that are known to work.  Healers, especially, will try anything, and are especially prone to assume until proven otherwise that a plant that resembles Herb X will work like Herb X.

Moreover, many problems are known not to result from clear pragmatic causes, rather than from inferred effects of cold and heat.  Wounds, scratches, local infections, snakebite, insect stings and bites, and similar accidents are treated directly and appropriately.  Many remedies for snakebite are known; there is no evidence that they work against snake venom, but most of the local snakes are nonpoisonous or very weakly poisonous, and the bites need only cleansing and topical treatment.

The third and last category of illness is supernatural.  Most common among these is ojo or mal ojo, a concept introduced by the Spanish.  Certain categories of person, notably drunks and pregnant women, cause diarrhea in a young child by looking at him or her.  This sort of diarrhea is usually treated with herbal baths and magical rites, not with astringent teas.  Usually, ojo is diagnosed when a young child’s diarrhea and sickliness go on and on, failing to respond to the usual herbal remedies (and sometimes to medicine from local clinics as well).  Far less common, but still a serious problem, is bewitchment.  If one is bewitched, a professional jmeen must be called to perform rituals as well as provide herbal cures that are strictly expert knowledge.  Magical treatment is also used for alcoholism, impotence, and the like.


Names for medicinal plants can be complex.  Cultivated plants and common wild plants are well known to everyone, and everyone agrees on the names.  This is not the case for the hundreds of small trees, vines, and herbs used by specialized curers.  The following kinds of name usage occur:

One name for one well-recognized taxon. Mangoes are called mangos, to take a simple case; the word—a loan, of course—refers only to Mangifera indica.

One name for what is known to be a larger group, but is clearly recognized and treated as a unit, at least for these purposes..  All orchids are used alike, and all are called by the same name, ch’it ku’uk (“squirrel’s broom”), in spite of the fact that everyone knows there are many different kinds.

One name covers two or more quite different plants that are used alike. Paay che’ (“skunk tree”) refers to Achyranthes and Petiveria, for instance.

One name used for the commonest and most typical member of a group, extended to others in the group (“focus and extension” nomenclature).  Ukuch focally means Solanum americanum, but extends to any Solanum.

One name used for a common, well-known plant, extended to cover vaguely similar plants that are rare and poorly known..  This is often done ad hoc. Sometimes qualifiers are added to make the point that the names are not meant to cover the same plant.  One person coined the name lechuga k’aax (“forest lettuce”) for Sonchus oleraceus, a plant new to the area and thus lacking a widely-known name.

One name covers a big, vague group of plants that are not much alike but are not worth giving special names. Most people lump all small fabaceous vines as iib cho’o’ (rat’s beans) or some such term.  Some notably useless plants are just chan xiiw (“little herb”) or sak lool (“white flower”) or the like.  (This can be confusing when a plant has a term that can also be a very general term; chak lool “red flower” specifically refers to Salvia coccinea, but, of course, can just mean “red flower.”  Context decides.)

A disease name is used for any plant that treats that disease. Ojo or ojo ak’ (“ojo vine” or ojo xiiw (“ojo herb”) is used for any plant that treats that condition.  Healers, especially, are very fond of using this method of naming.

Outright coinage. Conyza canadensis, new to the area, was labeled moteera xiiw by at least one healer.  This is an outright coinage, the origin of which escapes me.  Early dictionaries show that the process of coinage and ad hoc usage has not changed much since at least the Spanish conquest.  Oranges are naranja in early dictionaries, that being the Spanish word, but the tree soon became known as pak’al, Maya for “planted thing.” No plant case is as well traced as the name for a bird, the chicken, which was first called kaaxlan ch’ich’ “Castilian bird,” then just kaaxlan “Castilian,” and finally this word was shortened to kaax.


The Maya today are extremely healthy, and are very well served by a network of well-run, professionally staffed, completely free rural clinics.  Life expectancy, infant mortality, and other measures are comparable to the United States.  Health care for the poor in Chunhuhub is notably better than in San Bernardino, California.  There is thus rather little need for herbal medicine, except for minor matters like insect bites and headaches, and for first aid when one is in the field or the local clinic is shut for the weekend.  Within living memory, things were very different.  My healer consultants remember a time when there were no roads, no clinics, no medicines, and basically no services of any kind.  Infant mortality was close to 50%.  Life expectancy was low; malaria, dysentery, and other diseases were rife.  Accidents in the forest had to be treated on the spot.  Among the unpleasant and abundant skin diseases was cutaneous leishmaniasis, a dreadful scourge spread by fly bites.  (Alfonso Villa Rojas 1945 provides an excellent and harrowing account of those times.  My wife Barbara contracted a point infection of this disease in South America; all medications failed and the infected area had to be surgically removed—and this with the best of modern care.  Imagine what the Maya went through a century ago.)  It was under such circumstances that the Maya learned how to use almost every plant in their environment for first aid and more serious medicine.

Today, however, one problem is getting worse:  diabetes.  Several of my older friends have had it.  All have gotten it under control, partly through lifestyle changes, but partly or wholly—in their opinion—by using local medicines.  Leaf tea of Cecropia shoots is particularly popular, but many other remedies are used.  These range from diuretic teas to eating certain foods that the outsider can identify as having few calories but high fibre content.  Maya diabetes medication would seem to have much to offer the world today.

This brings us to the question of the future of Maya medicine.  The herbal lore of the Yucatec Maya has been documented now in many sources.  Much remains to be done, but the general contours of the system are clear, and a huge range of drugs has been listed.  Unlike many indigenous cultural traditions, Maya medicine shows no signs of dying out.  However, the esoteric knowledge of the jmeen is not always being passed on.

The following issues are being raised in Maya circles.

Commercialization. Farming the major medicinal plants has been tried.  So far this has been unsuccessful, because there is no market, due to the ease with which plants can still be gathered from the wild.  As population increases and forest shrinks, this will change, and farming will become profitable.  It will probably start in dooryard gardens and spread from there.  Limited commercialization of dooryard medicinals has already happened, and is increasing.  The age-old tradition of swapping garden specialties between families (cf. Herrera 1994) has provided a basis or skill development arena for local marketing.

Further research.  So far, the work of Ankli et al (1999a, 1999b; Ankli 2000) is the only systematic research on the actual value of traditional Maya medicines, though many of the individual plants are widely known and have been tested and found valuable elsewhere (e.g. guava, mint).  Ankli and her associates found considerable antiseptic value in several traditional Maya plants.

Intellectual property rights. This, of course, brings us to the great problem facing ethnobotany today.  In so far as valuable healing effects are found in Maya plants, how can we get these to the world without cheating the Maya?  International drug companies are now wary of commercializing traditional remedies, because of fights over intellectual property rights.  The Maya case is particularly vexed, because the Yucatec Maya are a cultural and linguistic unity but are not a political or social unity.  Moreover, their medical lore is not the same everywhere.  In fact, it varies enormously, according to local vegetation, ecology, and cultural tradition.  There is thus no way of assigning a particular remedy to “the Yucatec” or to any one community.  I have encountered remedies that work far better than any biomedical drug (sorry, my lips are sealed as to what they are).  These remedies are known to experts in several communities; they are not the property of one person, or of one community, or of the Yucatec as a whole.  How could we possibly assign rights or fairly distribute benefits if we commercialized these remedies, which the world seriously needs?  Any solution that occurs to me seems unfair.  One could set up a Maya medical corporation that could distribute benefits widely or invest them for the benefit of all, but how would one decide who should belong?  One could simply give the benefits to the Mexican state, but that polity has, alas, spent much of its history fighting the Maya in wars of oppression.  One could attempt to identify all the experts who know the remedies, and compensate them, but the practical difficulties of doing this are insuperable.  (People learn faster than bureaucrats can find them.)   My current solution is to publish only in Mayaland, if at all, and to keep a great deal of knowledge to myself, unless my friends choose to write it down expressly for open presentation (cf. Vogel 1994, 2000).


Based on a paper for the Society for Economic Botany, Tucson, AZ, 2003



I am enormously indebted to a large number of people for the work reported here:  first and foremost to José Cauich Canul, Marcos Puc Bacab, Felix Medina Tzuc, Aurora Dzib and the Dzib family, Tomas Yam, Prisciliano Lopez, Pastor Valdez, and many other people of Chunhuhub, Polyuc, Presidente Juarez, and neighboring communities; and to Gerald Islebe, Odilón Sánchez, Salvador Flores, J. J. Ortiz, and J. J. Castillo, who ran (most of) the identifications.  Vouchers are deposited at ECOSUR, Chetumal, Q.Roo, and the University of Yucatan herbarium, Xmatkuil, Mérida, Yucatán.  (For various reasons including limitations of the latter herbarium, I did not voucher obvious plants like mangoes and avocados.)



Total of Maya plant taxa identified at least to genus:  347

Total identified to family or wider group:  8

Totally unidentifiable:  152


Discounting the last, and confining attention to the 355 identified:

Internal use:

Stomach 122

Respiratory (coughs, catarrhs, asthma, etc.) 39

Urinary system 21

Diabetes 17

Menstruation and childbirth 14

Fever and general disease 12

Snakebite 11

Intestinal worms 9

Jaundice 7

Nerves 4

Ojo 3

Impotence/aphrodisiac 2

Slenderizing 2

Vitamins 1

Stimulant 1


External use:

Overall washes:

Fever and related conditions 41

Ojo 23

General pain 18

Jaundice 8

Nerves and mental problems 7

Respiratory conditions 1


Skin conditions, wounds, bruises 158

Vaginal washes, birth problems 35

Headache 25

Rheumatism 18

Snakebite 18

Eye 17

Mouth 17

Toothache 13

Ear 4

Nose 3

Helping babies learn to talk 2

Flea/lice repellant 2



Apotropaic magic 25






Anderson, E. N.  Mss. Available electronically on request.


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Ankli, Anita; Otto Sticher; Michael Heinrich.  1999a.  “Medical Ethnobotany of the Yucatec Maya:  Healers’ Consensus as a Quantitative Criterion.”  Economic Botany 53:144-160.


Ankli, Anita; Otto Sticher; Michael Heinrich.  1999b. “Yucatec Maya Medicinal Plants Versus Nonmeidicinal Plants:  Indigenous Characterization and Selection.”  Human Ecology 27:557-580.


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— 2000.  The Biodiversity Cartel. Quito, Ecuador: CARE.


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2.  Wild Plum Shoots and Jicama Roots:  Food Security in Quintana Roo Maya Life




Major hurricanes devastate any given part of Quintana Roo, southeast Mexico, about once per generation.  Droughts and floods are also frequent.  The Yucatec Maya have lived here for some 5000 years, and have learned to cope.  Roots are especially important, being hurricane-proof.  Tame roots such as sweet potatoes, and wild roots such as jicama, are left in fields.  Edible shoots like those of the wild “plum” are also left to grow.  Dooryard gardens, staggered plantings, growing many varieties with different tolerances, and cutting fields in different edaphic environments also provide insurance.  This paper compares such practices with similar behaviors in Madagascar, Malaysia, and elsewhere.



Hurricane Janet in 1955 devastated Quintana Roo, Mexico’s southeasternmost state.  The Yucatec Maya were prepared, and survived.  A bit over a generation later (1988), Hurricane Gilbert repeated the process in the north.  Other hurricanes followed in the center and south.  Again the Maya were prepared, and again they survived.

Global warming has brought greater extremes:  heavier rains when rains come, but harsher, hotter droughts in many summers.  Again the Maya survive.

They survive in a harsh environment.  The soil is a thin layer over solid limestone rock.  The climate oscillates from blazing, rainless drought in spring to torrential but unpredictable storms in summer and fall to bitter cold in many winter nights.  Pests abound, ranging from large crop-devouring mammals like deer and coatis on down to viral and bacterial plant diseases.  There are even jaguars and mountain lions, devouring livestock and the occasional human.  Milpa agriculture—slash-and-burn farming in the rainforest and drought-deciduous forest—produces a ton per hectare in a good year, sometimes more, but is unstable.  (Specifics on this and all that follows are found in Anderson 2003, 2005a, 2005b, from which books this paper is abstracted.)

Over thousands of years, the Maya have persisted in basing their diet on maize—75% of the traditional diet.  Maize does well in the Yucatan Peninsula in a good year, and it is eminently storable, so it is worth growing as a major crop in spite of its sensitivity.  Also, the tough local strains, mostly variants of the nalt’eel type of maize, endure conditions that kill the more delicate hybrids recently introduced.

However, crops often fail.  In recent years, in the west-central area where I work, the main crop of maize has failed almost every year.  Most seasons now bring too much or too little rain, a hurricane, or a disease outbreak.

Moreover, hurricanes and heavy rains are hard on stored corn.  Storage is always a problem, because of fungus and bruchid weevils, but hurricane rains rot the maize and destroy most or all of it.

Naturally, the Maya have developed strategies to deal with this.  If they hadn’t, they would not have lasted a decade.

The overarching strategy is to use every conceivable resource to the fullest sustainable extent.  Highly efficient, sensitive, generally carefully regulated use allows the Maya to use an incredible variety of local products.  In the small area in which I work, I have recorded around 150 plants—domestic and wild—used for food, as well as 350 plants used medicinally.  Similar totals have been found by several researchers in other parts of the peninsula.

The first recourse if the maize fails is root crops.  The Maya do not like roots.  They grow manioc, sweet potatoes, makal (Xanthosoma yucatanense), taro, yams (Dioscorea spp., originally from Africa), and sometimes jicama (Pachyrrhizus spp.).  All but the taro and yams are indigenous, with long pre-Columbian histories; words for manioc (ts’iin in the Yucatec reflex) and sweet potatoes (iis) are pan-Mayan and may date back to proto-Mayan.   So these plants have been back-ups for a very long time.  The Maya always grow a lot of them, in homegardens and in odd corners of the milpa.  In good years, the pigs get them, except for a few that go into mixed stews.  In poor years, the people sell the pigs and eat the root crops.  “Living on sweet potatoes” is a way of describing really hard times.

Even hurricane winds do not blow away roots.  Moreover, these crops are more resistant than maize to drought, heavy rains, cold, heat, and pests.  Perhaps in a more rational world the Maya would give up maize and use the roots as staples.  In this world, however, maize is the sacred food and the standard of food quality, and will not be abandoned so long as Maya culture survives.

Another, less reliable, fall-back food is fruit.  Fruit is seasonal.  Hurricanes blow it off the trees and often blow the trees down too, so fruit is not a reliable hurricane resource.  Native fruits were once dried and kept as a back-up staple, but only the oldest elders remember this now.  The advantage of fruit is that the native species, particularly mamey (Pouteria mammosa), abal (Spondias purpurea), and chicosapote (Manilkara zapota, a.k.a. Manilkara achras), endure drought and heavy rain well if they are in decent soil and have deep roots, so that they will produce huge crops of highly nutritious fruit as soon as the season comes, even after harsh conditions.  Extreme drought makes the crops fail, but next year will be better.  The same is true for the introduced but now universal mangoes and bananas.  Avocadoes, oranges and other citrus, and many species of Annona are common but less heavy-bearing and reliable.  Many other fruit species occur.  Again, excess fruit is fed to pigs in a good year.

Also important are wild resources.  Here we may bridge via fruit.  Chicosapotes occur both tame and wild.  Some wild fruits are occasionally taken into cultivation, notably uspib (Couepia polyandra), wayum (Talisia olivaeformis; the closely related Melicoccus bijugatus, mamoncillo, is a common cultivated fruit), and chooch (Lucuma hypoglauca).  Any and all of these are usually left uncut when forest is cleared.  Palms, including the fruit-bearing corozo (Orbignya cohune) and tuk’ (Acrocomia mexicana), are also left.

Wild foods that are specifically famine foods include wild jicama (Pachyrrhizus spp.) and the wild “hogplum,” jujuub (Spondias mombin, closely related to S. purpurea).  The shoots, not the fruits, of the jujuub are eaten.  They are almost exactly like rather bitter celery.  Many other wild roots, berries (including wild grapes), shoots, leaves, buds, herbs, and flowers will serve.

This knowledge is passed on from parents to children, from grandparents to grandchildren, and, more generally, from elders expert in such matters to all the young. Parents try to make sure their children know what to eat in a crisis.  Hurricane Janet forced all Quintana Roo to review this knowledge, and guaranteed that the generation rising at that time knew their famine foods.  They taught it to their descendents, who were thus prepared for the greatly increased number and ferocity of hurricanes from 1988 onward.

The Maya consciously manage forests and milpas to have plenty of such famine foods.  Since fruit trees are carefully preserved, they become more and more common in the forests, because of successive cycles of slash-and-burn agriculture with selective preservation.  The same applies to annual and small perennial plants.  Edible and otherwise useful ones are left in the milpas.  A traditional milpa may look as if it needed a thorough weeding—there are as many wild plants as tame ones—but questioning often reveals that the wild plants are all useful, and are tolerated.  (Of course, sometimes it’s just that the milpa really does need weeding.  Weeding is generally deferred till the problem is overwhelming, because the labor is hard; family members dislike it and hired workers charge appropriately.)

The other great bulwark against famine is the dooryard garden.  All Maya households have gardens, except for new households in the most crowded parts of cities.  All the households of Chunhuhub and neighboring villages have substantial gardens, almost always with food-producing plants.  Fruit trees are by far the commonest and most important of these, but almost every garden also has some edible and medicinal herbs, notably mint, basil, garlic chives, and (for medicinal reasons) rue.  Many families raise vegetables in dooryard gardens, but usually on a very small scale; serious vegetable-raising is in the milpa.  (The most fertile and central section of the milpa is devoted to pachpak’al, mixed plantings.)  More important are animals.  A sizable dooryard garden is alive with chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and sometimes sheep and even cattle.  These provide a constant supply of eggs, frequent meat, and much of the cash for the household.

Food preparation is also a matter of concern.  Women boil down the maize grains with lime from burned limestone.  This produces nixtamal, more nutritious than maize alone, and easier to work with.  It becomes tortillas—the daily staple—and tamales, or it is mixed with water to make pozole (sak ja’ in Maya), or it is mixed into stews to thicken them.

Until recently, maize was pre-eminent, and no other food was even close.  The other daily or almost-daily foods were highly nutritious, however:  beans, squash seed meal, the above-mentioned fruit, chiles, tomatoes, onions, and garden herbs.  Squash seed meal was apparently the second most important food in traditional times, and it is a superb source of protein, oil, vitamins, and minerals—the perfect food to complement maize, which is not much more than starch.  Beans added protein.  The other items added vitamins, especially vitamin C.  I assume, but cannot prove, that foods field-grown under Maya conditions would have relatively high amounts of nutrients per unit weight, compared to foods bred for high yield and watered heavily.

Tortillas are roasted on a griddle.  Other foods are boiled or roasted; boiled foods are eaten with the boiling liquid.  These techniques preserve nutritional values and do not add empty calories.  Foods tend to be mixed.  The classic minimal meal, tortillas and beans, has herbs, chile, tomatoes, and onions for flavoring.  Even famine foods have some variety—wild greens to eat with the sweet potatoes.

Today, white flour, white sugar (especially in soft drinks), and fried foods have come, drastically lowering nutritional quality and causing an epidemic of diabetes (Type II), to which the Maya seem genetically predisposed.  On the other hand, chicken and pork, highly nutritious both and very lean in Quintana Roo, have become common, and have improved protein and iron intakes.  Iron especially was problematic in traditional times, and still is for women living under traditional conditions.  (Women’s iron needs are higher because of menstruation and childbirth, and in Maya households they get less meat than men do.  Low-level anemia remains the major nutritional problem in Mayaland, at least in my data.)

Finally, one other strategy deserves mention, though it has nothing to do with food production.  The Maya usually find local part-time cash work of some sort.  Any village displays an amazing range of casual occupations, from party clown to tailor.  This is a major failsafe.  Hard times bring out creativity in perfomring creative roles.  I found almost 80 different part-time occupations in the research area.

In short, food security in a Maya village is assured in all but the worst times by a comprehensive strategy of maximizing diversity of recourses.  People do everything to maintain every sort of option.  In economic terms, this is portfolio diversification carried to a micromanaged extreme.  One never knows what will work, or when one has to draw on every single resource.


This is a highly labor-intensive and knowledge-intensive way to make a living.  A reasonably competent individual must know how to recognize those 150 food plants, and know what about them is edible, when it comes, how long it lasts, how to harvest it, how to store it, how to care for or cultivate or grow it, and how to prepare it for food.  Many of the plants are wild rainforest trees and bushes, confusing because of the notorious convergent evolution in form and leaf shape that besets tropical forest perennials.  Fortunately, there are not many poisonous plants in Mayaland, but there are a few, and these must be recognized and avoided.  The Maya farmer must also know an incredible amount about how to raise, process, and use plants, as well as how to find, take, and prepare animals.  Basic knowledge and practical skills reach encyclopedic levels.

An outsider quickly realizes that industrial monocrop agriculture is dumbed-down food production.  It is suitable to a world of machines and uneducated, inexperienced workforces.  It is inefficient—highly wasteful of resources and food.  It is possible in a world of lavish resources and lavish subsidies which is also a world of limited education and information. It would not work in the harsh environment of Quintana Roo.

This may seem strange to those few who still believe that traditional agriculture is practiced by backward, foolish peasants, while modernized agriculture is informed by vast scientific knowledge.


I now have experience with local fields, homegardens, and food security issues in several tropical countries, including long and detailed work in Malaysia and Hong Kong and fair familiarity (short visits plus longer student research) in Madagascar, Indonesia, Hong Kong, several parts of Mexico, and the Andean region.  Broadly, to summarize a large and varied amount of data, the Maya situation is fairly typical but is well toward the extreme limit in terms of intensive knowledge of the local environment and extremely wide-scale management based on that.  Everywhere, people know the local environment very well.  Everywhere, they manage it with some degree of knowledge and intensiveness.  Everywhere I have traveled, there is a contrast between fields and dooryard gardens, such that the fields produce staple grains or roots and the dooryard gardens produce everything else.  I have, however, seen a huge range of dooryard gardens, from ones as intensive as the Maya (in Malaysia and Indonesia) to rather simple ones (Madagascar) to none at all.  Chinese traditionally lived in compact villages and cultivated land outside those, so individual dooryard gardens were rare.  In Bolivia I found intensive dooryard gardens around Lake Titicaca, where the lake modifies the climate, but no gardens on the high altiplano, where few garden crops survive.

Wild plant use, however, is more a Maya specialty—though the Mediterranean, despite 5000 years of high civilization, is also a center for exploitation of every imaginable wild food.  There is even a gourmet tradition of this; I have seen Italian professionals in expensive suits foraging on the roadside during their lunch breaks!  Many poorer people seem less prone to use wild foods.  The Tanala (forest people) of Madagascar use some, but Madagascar’s flora is smaller and seems to have fewer fruits than Yucatan’s.  Indonesians use many species, but population density and lack of access to forests limits the amount people can get.  The high altiplano of the Andes has very few edible plants or other foods to gather.  One thing worth noting in the Andes is a firewood bush, yareta, that grows a fraction of an inch a year, and is intensively harvested for firewood, but local rules are so strong that it is sustainably cropped!  Whole communities restrain themselves enough to take only a fraction of an inch per person per branch per year.

The Maya need not worry about animal food, since chickens and pigs eat anything, but others have more problems. In East Africa I discovered what many others have discovered before me:  the cattle nomads know every plant’s value for cattle forage and veterinary medicine.  Llama herders in the Altiplano are similarly knowledgeable about llama foods and herbs.


In fact, the pooled local knowledge of the world’s traditional communities is far greater than the knowledge actually used in modern agricultural practice.  (The whole knowledge pool of crop science and agricultural biology and ecology may well be greater, especially since traditional agriculture is fairly well documented, but ordinary modernized agriculture draws on only some of this.)  More to the point, the local cultural knowledge pools of the world are highly adapted for maintaining food security.  Often, their low yields in per-acre terms are a price paid for this.  Low-yield but tough crops dominate harsh environments, for instance.  My student Richard Lando (pers. comm.) found in Cambodia that floating rice yields only a few hundred pounds per acre, but yields it even when floodwaters pond up 20 feet deep; modern hybrid rice strains yield up to 5 or 6 tons per acre, but require perfect water control to do this, and drown if the water is two feet deep.  So the loss of floating rice, with modernization (and with Khmer Rouge violence), meant a loss of deepwater areas as productive zones.

In Quintana Roo, local (criollo) varieties of maize don’t do better than hybrid maize, but they don’t do worse, either, and they survive drought better.  By allowing cultivation of marginal land, such crops extend cultivation.  Wild food use extends food production still further, into lands that cannot be cultivated at all or must be fallowed temporarily.


Food security is linked with social justice (Gottlieb and Fisher 1996; Pottier 1999).  Amartya Sen has devoted a whole career to linking famines, food affordances, food security, and justice (Sen 1973, 1984, 1992, 1997, 1999, 2001).  Other concepts of social justice, not directly related to food or environment, would have a similar corollary; surely John Rawls’ idea of “justice as fairness” (Rawls 1971) implies that protecting poor people’s food supply is a just cause.

A major part of this is land availability.  The Maya obviously depend on having a large land base, since they not only practice shifting cultivation, they also draw on forest resources as a key part of their survival strategy.  They have to have abundant tall forest.  This is currently not a problem, because conservation has been excellent and population pressure is not overwhelming.  However, in nearby areas, population growth and breakdown of traditional conservation ideologies have combined to ruin the forest base and thus the Maya livelihood.  Migration to the cities has become the only recourse.  Many Maya from my area also migrate to cities, but to seek adventure or more money rather than because of outright necessity.  In urban areas, there is always some sort of work or other economic activity, but food can be chancy.

So the diverse, low-impact, knowledge-intensive Maya method for food security has political implications.  The forest and the milpa system need to be preserved because they are necessary for food security, and food security is an important part of social justice.  If it isn’t a right, it is very close to one; many countries do regard it as a right.


Attention to environmental justice, including social justice as applied to the environment, has exploded in the 1990s and especially the 2000s (Anderson 2006).  An avalanche of new books discusses every aspect of the issues.  The sudden explosion in the 2000s has much to do with the rise of right-wing governments in many areas, and the consequent mushrooming of environmental injustice.  However, it also has much to do with a natural evolution within environmentalism.  Until the 1990s, environmentalists could say that the problem is people wrecking stuff, and the solution is to stop them.

By the 1990s, several problems emerged with this simple paradigm.  First, many local communities turned out not only to be not wrecking the land, but to be managing it in ways essential to its biodiversity and environmental health.  Second, even if they were not, dispossessing them raised major justice issues.  Third, many governments were not above using the environmental concerns as an excuse to dispossess unpopular minorities or to clear the land for rich people or giant corporations.  Fourth, and most serious, the whole question of local rights vs the common good would not go away.  It had to be addressed.

The most important question now is how to make traditional knowledge widely available.  Small local communities rightfully object to having their knowledge taken without compensation and propagated worldwide.  After all, these communities have to pay—and pay exorbitant prices, at that—for the benefits of global scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, there are many problems with arranging fair compensation to traditional communities.  First, their knowledge may or may not be valuable on a worldwide scale; research has to be done.  Second, no one can figure out who has rights to the knowledge.  Unlike United States “Indian tribes,” the Yucatec Maya are not a corporate body in any way.  Their communities are, but Maya knowledge is spread far beyond community limits.  Also, Maya knowledge is already somewhat shared by many other indigenous peoples, and by many mestizos.  And knowledge is often confined to experts.  A wild plant expert in one community may share knowledge with wild plant experts several miles away but not with his own neighbors.  There would be simply no way of arranging compensation under such circumstances.

Thus, unless some new methods of calculating compensation are found, Maya knowledge will die out, or at best remain very local.  The profound and clearly extremely valuable herbal wisdom of the highland Maya has been definitively shut out of world knowledge because of recent developments in local politics (Anderson 2004).  Possibly, thousands of people will die as a result; we do not know how valuable and irreplaceable the remedies are, and we never will.  I know many Yucatec remedies that are better than anything in the drug store, but my lips are sealed, pending resolution of these indigenous intellectual property rights issues.

Most Maya famine foods are already recorded in an extensive literature, but many rare plants and rare techniques are still local knowledge.

The current battles over indigenous intellectual property rights have worked enormously to the advantage of the giant international agribusiness corporations.  These are saved from competition with local superior crops, local superior knowledge, and local superior skills, because all these are locked up in small isolated communities by the debates and their political fallout.  In many cases, the local crops and truths need development in collaboration with modern bioscience before they can be globally useful.  Medicines have to be isolated and laboratory tested.  Foods have to be assessed for consumer safety, bred for mass production, and distributed.  This sort of cooperation has been almost completely shut down.  Even if the old knowledge somehow survives, much of it will remain only locally valuable.

The entire world is losing incalculable benefits because of this.  The efforts of Vandana Shiva (1997, 2001) and others are certainly well-intentioned, and I support their cause.  However, as long as no resolution is at hand, the beneficiaries are the multinationals and the losers are all humanity.  The multinationals are quite aware of this, and appear to the outside observer doing what they can to prevent a resolution of the issue.


This comes against a background of rising food insecurity.  The much-maligned Green Revolution worked fairly well, and bought the world a generation.  Its benefits have now been largely realized, and no major new breakthrough is on the horizon (see Smil 2002).  Population continues to grow.  Global warming is changing the world’s food production scene.

Above all, rampant unplanned development is destroying farmland.  The scope of this has not been widely realized.  In Mexico, perhaps half the country’s top-quality land is urbanized or eroded into ruin.  The Mexico City conurbation has sprawled over the best land in the country.  Hermosillo and its environs have taken over about half the fertile land in its valley.  The incredibly rich, superb farmland along the Yaqui River is massively degraded by urbanization, erosion, and salinization.

In 1995, Lester Brown wrote a book called Who Will Feed China?  Wake-up Call for a Small Planet. In it he predicted that China would lose massive amounts of farmland in the coming years, and be forced to import food.  He was widely denounced as an alarmist, “Chicken Little,” and so forth.  Time has already proved him right.  Urbanization, desertification, water overdraft and pollution, erosion, and flooding by incredibly ill-planned dams have run even ahead of Brown’s worst fears (see e.g. Economy 2004).  China is now importing its soybeans, much of its grain and meat, and much else.  A major threat—for the future, probably the major threat—to Brazil’s forests is China’s irresponsible land planning; China now imports many or most of its soybeans from Brazil.  The lands were wild forest until China’s demand soared.  Indigenous people are being displaced and their knowledge—and lives—lost because of this.

In the near future, the world will either starve or fall back on unconventional food sources, most of them from local knowledge.  There is very little time now to resolve the intellectual property rights issue.  The next Green Revolution must be one of applying such local knowledge.  Yet we are allowing it to die.  Part of the problem is overconfidence induced by the success of the Green Revolution.  After all, the world has plenty of food today, and overnutrition is as big a problem as undernutrition.  But the reckoning is at hand.  Rampant urbanization of the world’s best farmland, ruin of water resources, and global warming are a deadly combination.  Destroying Brazil’s forests for China’s sins is, essentially, eating the world’s seed corn.


Food security, traditional rights, and environmental justice thus come together in a nexus in Maya land use.


Based on papers for the Society of Ethnobiology, 2006, and the American Anthropological Association, 2006

Thanks to many, many Maya friends, and especially to Noemy Chan, Aurora Dzib, Felix Medina Tzuc, and Pastor Valdez Chale and his wife Zenaida Estrella, for information and help in the field.  Thanks also to Myra Appel and Betty Faust for help and information in and out of the field, to Salvador Flores, Gerald Islebe, and their helpers for plant identification, and above all to my wife Barbara Anderson for help and moral support.






Anderson, E. N.  2004.  “Doctor Faustus, Ethnobiologist:  The Morals of Ethnobiology.”  Ms.


—  2005.  Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community.  Tucson:  University of Arizona Press.


—  2006.  Environment and Social Justice:  Some Issues.  Report to the administration of the University of California, Riverside.  Available on request.  24 single-spaced pp. incl 9-p selective bibliography.


Anderson, E. N., and Felix Medina Tzuc.  2005.  Animals and the Maya in Southeast Mexico.  Tucson:  University of Arizona Press.


Brown, Lester.  1995.  Who Will Feed China?  Wake-up Call for a Small Planet.  New York:  W. W. Norton.


Economy, Elizabeth C.  2004.  The River Runs Black:  The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press.


Gottlieb, Robert, and Andrew Fisher.  1996.  “Community Food Security and Environmental Justice:  Searching for a Common Discourse.”  Agriculture and Human Values 13:23-32.


Pottier, Johan.  1999.  Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Security.  Cambridge, England:  Polity Press.


Rawls, John.  1971.  A Theory of Justice.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.


Sen, Amartya. 1973.  On Economic Inequality.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


—  1984.  Resources, Values, and Development.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.


—  1992.  Inequality Reexamined.  New York:  Russell Sage Foundation.


—  1997.  Hunger in the Contemporary World.  London:  London School of Economics.


—  1999.  Commodities and Capabilities.  Delhi:  Oxford University Press.


—  2001.  Development as Freedom.  New York:  Oxford University Press.


Shiva, Vandana.  1997.  Biopiracy:  The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge.  Boston:  South End Press.


—  2001.  Protect or Plunder?  Understanding Intellectual Property Rights.  London:  Zed Books.








Chapter 3.  African Influences on Maya Foods





Recent research has shown that the influence of African agriculture on New World societies has been extremely strong.  Often this was direct, via slaves who knew and propagated specific crops and techniques.  This is best demonstrated in the case of rice (Carney 2001; Hall 1992; Hess 1992).  West African rice (Oryza glaberrima) was introduced by slaves, but is uncommon, though present, in the New World.  Far more common was the use of skilled slave labor to grow East Asian rice (O. sativa).  This crop was introduced early to the New World, from several sources.  The plantation owners who introduced it found that they had no one who knew how to raise it, but that west Africans from the Senegambia and Guinea coast had their own rice and rice culture.  This led to importation of vast numbers of Wolof, Bambara, and other speakers of Mende languages, from that area.  This group dominated early slave populations in what are now the Carolinas (Carney 2001) and Louisiana (Hall 1992).

African influences on the Yucatec Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, were less direct.  There was actually a huge forced immigration of Africans to Mexico, where they remain a major but little-recognized cultural influence (Bonfil Batalla 1996; Restall 2000).  Mexican music, in particular, owes far more to Africa than is usually alleged.  Cumbia, for instance, was noted as early as the early 18th century (as “cumba” or “cumbee”) by such composers as Santiago de Murcia (Murcia 1998) and was identified as an Afro-Mexican form.  The Jarocho music of Veracruz is also Afro-Mexican, as are many other local Mexican folk musics.

This African influence extended to Yucatan (Quezada Domínguez 2001 and pers. comm.).  However, by and large, African crops and skills were transmitted to the Maya by the Spanish.  Many came through the Antilles, where the Spanish had large numbers of African slaves.  However, many African traits had entered Spain much earlier, with the Moorish conquest from Morocco.  The story of Africa in America is not confined to direct sub-Saharan introductions, and the Moroccan connection is more important than previously realized.

In this paper I will consider these borrowings and then put them in wider context, comparing them with other African influences on Caribbean food systems.  Most of what follows is from my field investigations over 20 years (hence a certain lack of referencing).  My work was focused in the area of Chunhuhub, Quintana Roo (Anderson 2003, 2005), but I have traveled throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and, more thinly, through much of the rest of Mexico and Belize.



The major crops of the Maya were, of course, the famous pre-Columbian trinity of maize, beans, and squash.  The squash was more important for its protein-rich and oil-rich seeds than for its flesh; the seeds were apparently the second most important food, after maize.  Also very important were many other New World crops:  sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts, chocolate, chiles, tomatoes, and such local south Mexican domesticates as Mexican mamey (Pouteria mammosa ), chicozapote (Manilkara zapota = M. achras), and vanilla.  The Maya probably domesticated at least some of these, and certainly gave us henequen (Agave fourcroydes), chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius var. chayamansa), and some wonderful but little-known fruits like k’anistel (Pouteria campechiana) and uspib or uxpiib (Couepia polyandra, one of several Rosaceous fruits domesticated in Mesoamerica).   In short, they hardly needed more plants!

However, they took to Spanish introductions with great enthusiasm.  This enthusiasm for interesting new crops persists to this day, showing that “traditional ecological knowledge” is just as dynamic and quick to adopt good new ideas as any other kind of ecological knowledge.



A few African crops came to Yucatan, almost all with the Spanish via the Caribbean.  Cuba in particular was in constant contact with the peninsula.  Merida is closer to Habana than to Mexico City, and until the days of rail and highway Yucatan’s contact with the outside world was largely via Merida, not Mexico.

The most obvious African food crop in the Yucatan is the black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata), known as pelon, the Spanish for “bald one.”  The blackeyed pea has become an important Maya crop.  It is an Asian or African domesticate that came to the New World from Africa via the Caribbean very soon after Columbus.

The pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) is also common, and is universally miscalled lenteja, “lentil,” in the Peninsula; true lentils do not grow there, for reasons of climate.  Pigeon peas come from India, but were established in the Caribbean islands at some early point and became identified with African populations.  I have no idea when they got to Mexico.  Even the indefatigable B. W. Higman, who has sought out the origins and early history of every crop in Jamaica and much of the Caribbean, admits defeat here:  “Sorting out the many varieties of legumes cultivated and consumed in Jamaica…is often a puzzle” (Higman 2008:254).  No one seems to know how this pea got to the West Indies.  I suspect a direct introduction by African slaves.   In the Yucatan Peninsula, pigeon pea seems to have displaced the native jack bean (Canavalia ensiformis), probably common before Columbus but now no longer grown in areas known to me. Pigeon peas remain very minor, but widely grown, partly because they do well in neglected and infertile corners of fields and gardens.

Not native to Africa, but established there by 1000 BC or earlier, is the banana.  It was known there in two forms:  the starchy plantain (platano) and the sweet banana.  The terms are interesting.  “Banana” is a native African word.  “Plantain” is a corruption of platano, influenced by the totally unrelated English weed; platano in turn is actually the name of the sycamore tree, Platanus in Latin, transferred to the very dissimilar starchy banana.  (Just to top it off, “sycamore” is a misapplication of Greek sykomoros, “mulberry fig,” a term for the mulberry-like fig tree of Africa, Ficus sycomorus. The sycamore tree has similar bark.)  Africans with the Spanish probably introduced the banana to the Caribbean, including the Yucatan Peninsula.

Next most important is the watermelon, which has become a major dooryard garden crop and also a major crop grown on a large scale for sale.  It came from Africa via the Moors to Spain and thence to the New World.

Sorghum has also become established in the Yucatan Peninsula, though in a minor way.  It is grown for feed.  Attempts to grow it on a large scale have been tried in the past, without success.

Finally, the castor bean (Ricinus communis) came with the Spanish as a medicinal plant and as a weed.  It is originally from northeast Africa, but that fact was probably long forgotten by the time it reached the New World.  It is the only one of the African plants that has a Maya name:  the Maya assimilated it to the native Cecropia tree, because of similar leaf shape, and now confuse the two as k’ooch or k’ooch le’ (“Cecropia-[like] leaf”).  The latter seems to be the correct term for the castor bean, but in practice people mix them up all the time.  They manage, fortunately, to keep the medicinal uses straight:  castor bean as a purgative and poultice, cecropia for diabetes and similar complaints.

Some plants did not take the Caribbean route.  One was coffee.  This is a minor crop in Yucatan, grown strictly for household use, because the climate makes good coffee impossible to grow.  However, coffee in the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala proved fateful for the highland Maya of those areas.  A huge industry developed in the 19th century, and the Maya became workers on the great coffee estates.  They worked under hard conditions for miniscule wages, and were often terribly abused and mistreated.  However, they learned to produce good coffee, and now produce wonderful shade-grown organic products, which you all should definitely seek out and buy.  Always insist on shade-grown coffee, and try to find Mexican coffee—it may not be the best but it supports my people!

Yams abound in Maya gardens, but the only species identified as food plants are Dioscorea alata and D. bulbifera.  (Many wild native species occur and are used locally for medicines and the like.  See Arellano R. et al. 2003.)  However, I suspect African and West Indian yams have been introduced at some point, and I will not be surprised if they turn up.

An interesting introduction to Belize is more recent and is not found among the Maya of Mexico.  When at the Crooked River wildlife sanctuary in Belize I became acquainted with, and fell in love with, “blackberry wine.”  Asking to see the blackberry, I was shown something very different from the Rubus spp. so familiar to us in Seattle.  The blackberry was a majestic tree, some 20 m tall and 1 m thick (dbh).  It turned out to be Syzygium guineense or something indistinguishable therefrom.  S. guineense is a widely distributed African tree, found in moist areas within drylands, and I met it often in the Okavango Delta.  Mike Balick thinks it was introduced by the British from Africa to Belize, possibly in the 19th century, but I suspect an earlier introduction by slaves.  In any case, this plant is marginal to Yucatec Maya life.

Otherwise, direct African imports are confined to recent introductions of several forage grasses (Eleusine spp., etc.), which have come in with modern cattle raising in the last 20 to 30 years.  They are proving unfortunate in the Yucatan region, as elsewhere, because they carry fire, and lead to much more forest damage by fire than was previously a problem.  So far, the Yucatan Peninsula has faced nothing like the devastation seen in Sonora, however.

Thus only a tiny handful of more than 2000 plants used by the Yucatec (Arellano R. et al 2003) are actually African.



More important are plants introduced from Spain but owing their presence in the Iberian Peninsula to Arab influence coming through northwest Africa.  The latter region is known by a number of variants of a Semitic root for “west” or “sunset”—maghrib in Arabic.  The Romans already knew the people as mauri, presumably from a Berber cognate.  They called the land Mauritania.  The national names “Morocco” and “Mauritania,” as well as Spanish moro and English Moor, are all from the same root.

Crops native to Africa and tropical Asia were astonishingly rarely cultivated in the Roman Empire.  For some reason, the Romans simply stuck with the very ancient Near Eastern crop roster, domesticating little except local vegetables, and borrowing little. The Arabs were the extreme opposite.  They seem to have loved nothing better than to find beautiful and lush crops and propagate them widely.  The story has been told for Spain by Andrew Watson (1983).  Two of these were native African crop:  sorghum and the watermelon, the latter known today in Spanish by its Arabic name, sandía. Both had long been established in Arabia.  Sesame may be from Africa, but is likely also native to west and south Asia; in any case, it had been cultivated for millennia in the Near East.  The other new crops came largely from India and neighboring parts of south Asia:  sugar cane (ultimately perhaps from New Guinea), rice (ultimately from China), cotton, sorghum, alfalfa, and many other crops.

Especially notable were citrus fruit:  Bitter oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines, and citron (already local in the Roman Empire).  Most of these existed in multiple varieties. The sweet orange came later, when China could be directly contacted from the western world.  Note that all these plants have Arabic names in Spanish, and these have often carried over into English, as in the cases of cotton, alfalfa, oranges, lemons and limes, and even rice, though it is ultimately from the Greek; oryza became ar-ruz, whence arroz (Andalusian Arabic generally pronounced u as o) and rice.

Most of these came early to the Yucatan Peninsula, but some would not grow there, notably lemons and alfalfa.  Sesame was tried on some scale but did not flourish.  Also, Old World cotton was replaced by the New World species.  One of the very first things the Spanish discovered in the West Indies was the vast superiority of West Indian cotton to anything in the Old World.

Oranges soon lost their Spanish name, naranja, and became pak’al, which just means “planted thing.”  They were the planted crop par excellence!  This change took place somewhere around the 18th century.  They were still naranjas in 17th-century dictionaries, but were pak’al in 19th-century usage.  The other plants all keep their Spanish (Arabic) names, though I have heard sugar cane rather informally called things like chuhuk su’uk “sweet grass.”  (By contrast, all the introduced animals have Maya names, usually transfers from native animals, like yuk “brocket deer” for goat and tsiimin “tapir” for horse.)

Rice was late and rather minor in the Yucatan, though a rice industry briefly flourished in southwest Campeche.  It was too high cost to compete, and the fields are now extensive cattle pastures.  Africans had no role in this industry, so far as I know.



Most of these plants remained as homegarden plants till recently.  The great exception was sugar cane, which became a major crop very quickly.  It does not grow well in most of the peninsula, because it needs deep and well-watered soil.  However, the central part of the peninsula is hilly, and around the bases of the hill ranges are large valleys filled with rich alluvial soil that has washed off the hills.  These are good for sugar cane, and supported a major industry until modern transportation made it noncompetitive with nearby Tabasco, which has much better growing conditions.  In any case, Yucatan’s sugar produced some sugar and a great deal of rum.  Chunhuhub had a distillery in early days (Anderson 2005).

Fruit raising, always extremely successful in the Yucatan Peninsula, took off as a major activity around the beginning of the 20th century (Morales V. 1987).  Oranges in particular became an enormously profitable moneymaker, such that the Maya women of Oxkutzcab were so bedecked with gold chains, rings, earrings, and other goods that a local proverb was “what is a mestiza without gold?”  (Morales V. 1987; mestiza theoretically means a woman of mixed ancestry, but in Oxkutzcab Spanish it means a Maya woman).  These are mostly sweet oranges, introduced, as I mentioned, at an unknown time, probably directly from Asia.  A really strange local introduction is Thai lime (lima agria in Yucatecan Spanish), which is common in Yucatan state and important in cooking there.  It is not grown where I work, in Quintana Roo, and lime is used instead.  No one has a clue how it got to Yucatan.  It was already basic to cooking by the beginning of the 20th century, as old cookbooks show.

Oranges were grown in Chunhuhub in dooryard gardens, but government programs in the 1980s led to more and more development of citrus fruit of all kinds.  So the North African-Andalusian Arab orchard system of oranges, limes, and tangerines, supplemented by grapefruit and by many native New World fruits, fused with what was apparently an indigenous Maya system of orchard keeping and agroforestry (see e.g. Gómez-Pompa 1987; McNeil 2006).  The Spanish added large numbers of southeast Asian fruits, such as mango, and a few from their South American conquests, notably the cherimoya.  The orchard industry came into its own in a new location.  The enormous and affluent market of Cancun absorbed all the fruit possible.  A genuine African crop, watermelon, came into its own; Chunhuhub supplies many a watermelon eaten on the waterfronts of the “Maya riviera.”



The other North African Arab influence was in spicing.  Until recently, the only foods that the Maya regularly used but did not raise themselves were wheat flour and spices. As any medieval Arab cookbook will show (see e.g. Rodinson et al 2001; Perry 2005), the standard North African and Andalusian Arab spicing for over a thousand years has been black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, and occasionally (for special dishes) saffron and coriander, with raisins and sometimes almonds added in very small amounts as if they were spices.  All these are used in small amounts, to bring out the flavor of the food rather than to add much of their own flavors.  This is exactly the non-native spices the Maya use now, and exactly the ways they use them.    Of course the Maya were already spicing their food heavily with chile and achiote.  More interesting is the addition in many cases of allspice.  It is native to the Yucatan Peninsula; giant allspice trees abound in the southern forests.  I find no record of its pre-Columbian use, but I can’t believe the Maya ignored it.  At least they must have used it medicinally, as they still do locally.  The Spanish discovered it in the West Indies at the very beginning of colonization, realized its potential, and commercialized it.  I suspect it was used as a spice in pre-Columbian times, but it is quite possible that the Spanish actually introduced the use of it as a spice to the Maya.

The North African spicing is used in almost all complex dishes, and many of these have some degree of Arab ancestry.  Obvious cases are the stuffed items, and several fish dishes, including fish in green sauce—a medieval Arab creation that has become a common Yucatecan dish, now generally made with cilantro and other herbs providing the green.   Yucatec cuisine, however, is highly local (Anderson 2008), and not as influenced by Moorish cooking as is that of central Mexico.  Puebla especially is a veritable museum of Moorish cuisine; mole poblana, for instance, is a well-known Moroccan dish with New World ingredients added, and Puebla’s stuffed chiles (chiles en nogada) are simply a medieval Moorish dish made with chile instead of the original gourd.  There are several Arab dishes in the modern Yucatan repertoire, but they mostly came with Arab immigrants in the late 19th century (see Anderson 2008).  Stuffed cheese is an odd exception; I wish I knew its ancestry.  It is basically Spanish with Arab roots, as shown by the spicing, but in its current form seems a rather unique Yucatan specialty.  Cheese, of course, is as far from a Native American food as one could get.



All of which proves that African influences on Maya agriculture were not great, and were largely limited to items that were not really African but that reached Mayaland via northern Africa.  On the other hand, the real African crops—watermelon, coffee, and perhaps the bean crops—have not been without influence.  They show that the Maya are good learners, always quick to adopt new plants.

The whole issue of Arab and African influences on American life has yet to be addressed.  Gary Nabhan (2008) has made a start at the Arab side of the equation, but is most aware of the recent contributions of self-conscious Arabs from his own Levantine background.  There is a small but important Mexican literature on the Arab influences on central Mexican cuisine.  Direct influences from sub-Saharan Africa remain relatively little known, especially in the culinary arena, which scholars like Bonfil Batalla did not discuss in detail.  The complicated dynamics of trans-Atlantic  contacts are only beginning to be worked out on the small scale.



Appendix:  more or less irrelevant, but too good to miss

One thing Nabhan mentions is the mysterious culture of the conversos, the Spanish Muslims who were converted, or pretended to be converted, after the “Reconquista.”  Spain after 1492 was torn by rebellion after rebellion.  Openly practicing Muslims were soon killed or expelled, but the conversos did not give up until well into the 17th century.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, they were therefore “encouraged” to migrate to the most remote parts of the New World.  Some must have come to Yucatan, but most of our evidence from New Spain comes from the northern frontiers, around Monterey and in New Mexico.  New Mexico’s Hispanics are a mix of Nahuatl from central Mexico with Spanish, and it appears likely that most of these were converted Moors and Jews.  Moorish recipes survive in New Mexican cooking (e.g. Jaramillo 1980).

I have recently discovered that the famous waffle gardens of Zuñi Pueblo are similar to the gardens of Arab Sicily in the Middle Ages.  Here is a reconstructed Arab-style farm in Sicily.

Arab irrigation was introduced to Sicily in the 9th century (Maurici 2006; Pizzuto Antinoro 2002), and persists today; Palermo still uses the ancient Arab waterworks!  Were the waffle gardens introduced to New Mexico and influenced Zuñi waffle gardens?  I would certainly love to see further research on this.  Paul Minnis (pers. comm., May 2011) tells me the Zuni gardens are probably pre-Columbian.  But were they so in their present (or historic) form?


As to the African influence, and getting totally away from Yucatan, I have recently become interested in the New Orleans dish called jambalaya.

Andrew Sigal wrote an excellent article about this dish in Petits Propos Culinaires in 2007.  Sigal demolishes the usual etymology (e.g. in Tooker 2009:96) from French jambon “ham” and a mythical West African word yaya or ya for “rice”; Sigal found no such West African word in any dictionary available to him.  I have checked on what dictionaries I can find, and I too find no such word.  Sigal traced the word no farther than mid-19th century Provence, and took it to be a Provençal word.  But in fact it occurs in Provence only in writings of people who had traveled to New Orleans.  They must have picked it up there.  Surely the enormous volume of Provençal literature would have included it if it had been around earlier.

Well, the first place to look when you have a mysterious rice word in the southern United States is the Wolof dictionary.  Sure enough, in  we find jamba “mix” and laax “porridge, dish made for [evidently meaning ‘from’] cereal” (Peace Corps The Gambia 1995; x represents a fricative like ch in German).

Moreover, though New Orleans people believe the dish is derived from Spanish paella, this is improbable.  Few Spanish came to old Louisiana, and most of them came from the Canary Islands, not from paella’s home in Valencia or from neighboring Cataluña.  On the other hand, jambalaya is identical to the Wolof dish known in West Africa as “jollof rice” (“jollof” is a version of “Wolof”).  Interesting here is that paella and jollof rice appear to be in every way mere variants of the same dish, yet said dish does not now exist in neighboring Morocco, so far as I can determine from consulting cookbooks and traveling and eating around Morocco fairly industriously.  Surely this must be an old Moroccan form of Arab pilaf, surviving only in derivative forms at the two ends of the Moroccan cultural world.

In any case, this is taking us farther from the Yucatec Maya, who do not eat anything of the sort.  The point is merely to illustrate how many unsolved mysteries remain in the long-buried history of Africans in the Americas.


Paper, Society for Economic Botany, annual conference, Charleston, SC, 2009






Anderson, E. N.  2003.  Those Who Bring the Flowers:  Maya Ethnobotany in Quintana Roo, Mexico.  With José Cauich Canul, Aurora Dzib, Salvador Flores Guido, Gerald Islebe, Felix Medina Tzuc, Odilón Sánchez Sánchez, and Pastor Valdez Chale.  Chetumal, Quintana Roo:  ECOSUR.


—  2005.  Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community.  Tucson:  University of Arizona Press.


—  2008.  Mayaland Cuisine:  The Cooking of Maya Mexico.  Lulu Press.


Arellano Rodríguez, J. Alberto; José Salvador Flores Guido; Juan Tun Garrido; María Mercedes Cruz Bojórquez.  2003.  Nomenclatura, forma de vida, uso, manejo y distribución de las especies vegetales de la Península de Yucatán.  Mérida:  Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán.  Etnoflora Yucatanense no. 20.


Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo.  1996.  Mexico Profundo:  Reclaiming a Civilization.  Tr. Phillip Adams Dennis.  Austin, TX:  University of Texas Press.


Carney, Judith.  2001.  Black Rice:  The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.


Gómez-Pompa, Arturo.  1987.  “On Maya Silviculture.”  Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 3:1:1-17.


Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo.  1992.  Africans in Colonial Louisiana:  The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press.


Hess, Karen.  1992.  The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection.  Charleston:  University of South Carolina Press.


Higman, B. W.  2008.  Jamaican Food:  History, Biology, Culture.  Kingston, Jamaica:  University of the West Indies Press.


Jaramillo, Cleofas.  1980.  The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes, 1942.  Santa Fe:  Ancient City Press.


Maurici, Ferdinando.  2006.  Breve storia degli arabi in Sicilia.  Palermo, Sicilia:  Flaccovio Editore.


McNeil, Cameron (ed.).  2006.  Chocolate in Mesoamerica:  A Cultural History of Cacao.  Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida Press.


Morales Valderrama, Carmen.  1987.  Ocupación y sobrevivencia campesina en la zona citrícola de Yucatán.  Mexico City:  UNAH.


Murcia, Santiago de.  1998.  Jácaras!  CD.  Paris: Harmonia Mundi.


Peace Corps The Gambia.  1995.  Wollof-English Dictionary.  Banjul, Gambia:  Peace Corps The Gambia.


Perry, Charles.  2005.  A Baghdad Cookery Book.  Blackawton, Totnes, Devon:  Prospect Books.


Pizzuto Antinoro, Massimo.  2002.  Gli Arabi in Sicilia e il modello irriguo della Conca d’Oro.  Palermo, Sicilia:  Assessorato Agricoltura e Foreste, Regione Siciliana.


Quezada Domínguez, Ricardo Delfín.  2001.  Entre la tierra y el mar:  la sociedad maya.  La Habana, Cuba:  Fundación Fernando Ortiz.


Restall, Matthew.  2000.  “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America.”  The Americas 57:171-205.


Rodinson, Maxime; A. J. Arberry; Charles Perry.  2001.  Medieval Arab Cookery.  Totnes, Devon:  Prospect Books.


Shanahan, T. M.; J. T. Overpeck; AK. J. Anchukaitis; J. W. Beck; J. E. Cole; D. L. Dettman; J. A. Peck; C. A. Scholz; J. W. King.  2009.  “Atlantic Forcing of Persistent Drought in West Africa.”  Science 324:377-380.


Sigal, Andrew.  2007.  “Jambalaya by Any Other Name.”  Petits Propos Culinaires 84:101-119.


Tooker, Poppy.  2009.  Crescent City Farmers’ Market Cookbook.  New Orleans:  Marketumbrella.


Watson, Andrew M.  1983.  Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World:  The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.



Chapter 4.  From Sacred Ceiba to Profitable Orange:  Tree Management by the Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo



The Maya of Quintana Roo (the eastern part of Mexico’s share of the Yucatan Peninsula) have a record of tree management extending at least 5,000 years into the past. The Maya have, since then, always been slash-and-burn cultivators. They have learned an exquisitely fine-tuned management strategy for preserving the forest, and even enhancing it by selective cutting. The Maya of the Classic Period (ca. 200-800 A.D.) cultivated trees in extensive homegardens and probably in orchards, as they still do today. Chocolate was important not only as a drink, but, at least in late pre-Spanish days, as money; cacao beans were the currency of Mesoamerica in the time of the Aztec Empire, and probably before that. The ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra) was sacred, as was the corn plant, whose tall woody stalk made it a sacred “tree.”

The Maya draw on their forests and orchards for literally hundreds of commodities, from firewood and poles to honey and medicinal herbs. This gives them every incentive to manage comprehensively and sustainably. Such management is viable over the long term, supporting relatively dense populations for millennia. By contrast, external development plans have usually involved managing for only one thing, leading to narrow, short-term exploitation strategies that quickly fail.

After conquest, the Maya quickly adopted trees brought by the Spanish from all corners of the globe—primarily the Asian wet tropics, whose climate and ecology are similar to the Yucatan Peninsula’s. The orange became especially popular; at first it was called by the Spanish name naranja, but it quickly became pak’al, the “planted thing”—the garden plant par excellence. It and other trees now support a huge and profitable commercial orchard economy. Meanwhile, management of trees in swidden farming continues, and logging has gone through commercial cycles. Today, government biologists work with Maya in the Plan Forestal, to guarantee sustainable management of forest for mahogany and other forest products, in a plan that—while not perfect—has become a model for tropical forestry. The usual threats of population growth and industrial modernization are obvious, but so far they have not destroyed Maya forestry and orchard management.




Several recent authors have stressed the need for emotional involvement in resource conservation. “Loving nature” (Milton 2002), religious reverence (Berkes 1999), or personal emotional involvement culturally constructed in religious concern (Anderson 1996) seem particularly important. People need to be not only emotionally involved in the resource, but emotionally involved in conserving it—in saving some for later.

The Yucatec Maya[i] of Quintana Roo provide a test case. They have a deep and long-standing involvement with their forests. Arturo Gomez-Pompa’s overview (1987) has become classic; the closely related Itzaj Maya have also been studied intensively in this regard; see classic papers by Atran and his associates (Atran 1993, 1999; Atran et al. 1999). The Yucatec are now involved in relatively successful comanagement projects that provide cautious hope for the tropical forests—not only of Quintana Roo, but of the world, for the Maya plans have provided models now rather widely known (see e.g. Primack et al. 1998).

The Maya use the forests and orchards to produce hundreds of commodities, ranging from firewood and poles to honey and medicinal herbs. This gives them powerful incentives to manage the forests comprehensively and sustainably. Almost everything has a use, and the commoner trees have many uses, including such indirect uses as providing food for game animals and shade for understorey medicinal plants. The Maya have shaped the forest to their needs by selective preservation and propagation of the most useful trees. Thus, they manage for long-term, wide-flung benefits. By contrast, most development schemes imposed from outside have involved managing for only one thing. Sugar, cotton, henequen, cattle, and other monocrop regimes have followed each other, usually into oblivion. Managing for short-term, narrow gains, outsiders quickly deplete the thin soil and pollute the sensitive water resources.

The Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula have been managing forests for a long time. Agriculture reached the area at least 5,000 years ago (Pohl et al. 1996), very possibly carried by ancestral Maya. Extensive deforestation began by 2500 B.C. (Pohl et al. 1996). By 3,000 years ago, agriculture had become quite intensive, and by 2,000 years ago it was supporting cities and towns in the tropical landscape.

Tropical Mexico is covered with some of the richest forests on earth. Mexico ranks fourth in plant biodiversity worldwide, with over 25,000 species of plants, a relatively high proportion of which are trees. In the Yucatan Peninsula, the forest grades from dense tropical rainforest in the south to dry subtropical thornforest and cactus scrub in the north near the coast. In the Pleistocene, at least the northern part of the peninsula was dry savannah, and some savannah persisted into modern times in the far northwest. This is shown by the presence there, and in a few other scattered places, of open-country birds and reptiles; the birds, at least, are now gone, or nearly so, since the country has recently become thorny woodland. Pollen records show that the forest moved northward very rapidly at the end of the Pleistocene.

The Maya have been managing the forest for a very long time. Native Americans may have had a hand in creating the forest in the first place, by burning the savannah in patches that allowed invasion of tough leguminous trees. In any case, once slash-and-burn agriculture reached the area, it changed the forests more and more radically over time. Slash-and-burn became highly sophisticated in the area. I will refer to it by the Nahuatl (Aztec) name of milpa (“field”; Maya equivalent, kool), a term widely used in Mexico. Milpas continue to be the foundation of Maya food production.

However, by the mid- to late Preclassic, milpa was not the only method used (Killion 1992; Whitmore and Turner 2001). Wetlands agriculture could be more productive over a longer time; ridged fields, drainage canals, and other features are indicated in the record. Extensive study has focused on large, low-lying wet pans, marshes, and river flats. In my experience, more sites are found near smaller areas where water temporarily accumulates. These have better soil. The Maya carefully distinguish between the rich, fertile alluvium of wetland sites with considerable streamflow entering them and the barren, acidic marls of the less alluviated wetlands. They recognize the former as problematic for cultivation because of frequent flooding, but the latter as much worse, because of infertility (due to low nutrients, low phosphate and potassium availability, and to accumulation of aluminum and other unfortunate ions). Higher water tables in the Classic period (Pohl et al. 1996) and drought in the Postclassic (Gill 2000) seem to have ruined the wetlands systems. Modern Maya farmers tend to avoid wetlands; recent hurricanes reminded them that this is a good idea, since wet sites were flooded and stayed so for months.

Terracing of well-watered drier areas with good soil was extremely extensive in many areas (Fedick 1996). Other environmental management for field development seems implied by stone copings around fertile wetlands, leveling of some sites, and other manipulations that seem agriculture-related. Finally, the large and tree-rich dooryard gardens so conspicuous among Maya today were already well established (Folan et al. 1983; Sheets 2002). The best record is from Cerén, a Maya (or culturally Maya-like) village buried by volcanic action around 650 AD. Here, Pompeii-like preservation has given us ancient dooryard gardens, with agaves, guavas, cacao, manioc, makal (Xanthosoma sp.), and nance (Sheets and Woodward 2002). Also present were avocado, cotton, hackberry, palm fruits, various firewood remnants, and a fence of the giant sunflower Tithonia rotundifolia (Lentz and Ramirez Sosa 2002; Tithonia is still grown today as a living fence, and is now known by the Spanish name arnica because it is similar in both appearance and use to that valuable medicinal plant).

The Classic Period, 200-800 A.D., represents one of the most striking cultural “golden ages” in New World history, and one of the few cases worldwide in which a great civilization arose in a tropical forest environment. This civilization drew heavily on that of the Olmecs to the west; it was the Olmecs who really started the tropical-forest civilization based on corn and tree crops, but the Maya made it famous.

Valued fruit trees found archaeologically in ancient Maya sites (Lentz 1999) include abal (Spondias sp.—presumably S. mombin and S. purpurea), annonas (Anona spp.), several palms, mamey (Pouteria mammosa), ciricote (Cordia dodecandra), papaya, avocado, nance (Byrsonima crassifolia), cacao, allspice, guava, and calabash (Crescentia cujete; fruit used for containers, not food). Other trees (all still important today) include chechem (Metopium brownei), ramón (oox, Brosimum alicastrum, a famine food source), ceiba, pines, mangroves, and perhaps two dozen minor fruit, timber, and firewood trees (Lentz 1999). Other useful trees included rubber (from Castilla elastica processed with sap from the morning glory Ipomoea alba; Hosler et al. 1999) and copal incense from the pom tree (Protium copal).

Traditional Maya cosmology certainly involved a religious response to at least some of these. The ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), ya’ax che’ “green tree” in Maya, has been regarded as a sacred axis mundi as long as we can trace Maya culture. It rapidly grows to enormous size. It lives near water, marking the cenotes and aguadas (temporary water bodies). Thus it stays green even in the harsh drought of spring in the north. Today, at least, it is associated with the xtabay, the demon woman, whose name goes back to the ancient Maya goddess of weaving and the moon, but whose current identity is that of the evil phantom woman of Moorish-Spanish legend. Presumably the tree was formerly associated with Ixtabay in her older goddess form, and probably with other high deities too.

At least two other trees were revered in Classic Maya times. One was the calabash tree,  juas in Maya. (This name is now used mainly for wild trees; domestic trees are more often called luuch after the calabash vessels they produce). It is involved in Maya myth and ritual. The severed heads of the unfortunate first set of hero twins in the Maya creation cycle came to hang on this tree, and even today the Maya hang animal skulls or jawbones on the tree to make it bear more fruit.

Second was the cacao tree. This tree was so important that the word “cacao” is in fact a Maya loan into English. (Kakaw was probably, in turn, a loan into Maya from a Mixe-Zoque language [Campbell 1976])  Cacao grows abundantly and successfully in the wet south, and in the north it flourishes in cenotes that have filled with alluvium and have only small standing water areas; Arturo Gomez-Pompa and his group have studied these isolated stands for many years (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990; Ogata 2003). Cacao produced the beverage of royalty, the foaming chocolate that filled those spectacularly beautiful fine-orangeware cups. Artists wrote on the rims of many of these cups a line of script so widespread that we now call it the “Primary Standard Sequence.”  When I was a student, scholars thought this line must be a powerful spell or holy prayer, but decipherment of Maya taught us that it means simply “This is so-and-so’s chocolate cup.”  Cacao beans were money, and we can now get some idea of Maya and, later, Aztec economics from cacao tribute lists (McAnany et al. 2002). There is much to be said for a standard of currency that must be used and cannot be hoarded. Cacao beans spoil and get weevil-ridden in misers’ hoards.

The baalche’ tree (Lonchocarpus spp.) had almost certainly already assumed its function as disinfectant and flavorant of the ritual honey-mead drink, and thus had acquired a sacral character. Also, the use of ja’abin (Piscidia piscipula) as a symbol of rain and growth in rain-bringing ceremonies must have started very early. Today, rain ceremonies require these, and the baalche should be served in calabashes. Maize, turkey (now usually chicken), squash seeds, and the tree seed achiote (Bixa orellana) are sacred foods, offered with the baalche and the inevitable homemade cigarettes of native tobacco rolled in cornhusks.

Probably other trees held high cosmic position, but we do not know. The astonishing murals of San Bartolo, from the Preclassic (perhaps 200 B.C.; see Saturno et al. 2005), show a lush tree surmounting a flower mountain with a cave; from the tree hangs an oropendola (giant oriole) nest, with a jaguar and a serpent seizing the birds. Unfortunately, most of the tree has failed to survive the ravages of time, so we do not know what species it is. What little is left looks rather like a ceiba, but like a fig, also.

The flower mountain was a concept universal in Mesoamerica, and extending far outside its borders (Saturno et al. 2005; Taube 2004). The flower mountain was centrally important to the religious cosmology of the Mesoamerican world. Like the Buddhist Mt. Sumeru, it was a world-center and a center or origin point of life. It featured lush and beautiful vegetation as a rich and complex symbolic realm. Concerns of life, fertility, and beauty united in it (Taube 2004). Apparently, ancient Mesoamerican thinking paralleled Greek philosophy in focusing on, and sometimes uniting, “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”  It seems most “natural” to the Uto-Aztecan peoples, who had a deep religious bond with the flower world (Hays-Gilpin and Hill 1999; Hill 1992, 200; the best-described ethnographic example is the cosmology of the Yaqui; see Evers and Molina 1987, Painter 1986). However, the Maya were enthusiastic devotees of the flower mountain. Even today, my Maya friends love to show me the strange and wondrous plants that grow on the hills above their communities.

All this bespeaks a close, highly spiritualized or religiously constructed relationship with the tree world, similar to that reported for many other Native American peoples (see e.g. Turner 2004), but having some unique characteristics that we do not fully understand.

The earliest Spanish accounts of the Peninsula mention, among other things, chicosapote, avocado, abal, guava, cacao, frangipani, cohune and cocoyol palms, pine (south of Mexico’s territory), logwood, and several minor trees (Hellmuth 1977). The first six of these would have been garden trees.

Maya civilization famously “collapsed” in the period around 800-900 A.D. (Demarest et al. 2004, Diamond 2005; Gill 2000; Webster 2002), but this demise, like Mark Twain’s, has been exaggerated. Civilization continued in the north and almost certainly in the west (little known at this time period), and to some extent in the south, leaving the vital center as the only area that was really devastated. Even then, my experiences (confirmed by informal conversations with many other investigators; and see Demarest et al. 2004) show that fairly large populations hung on, but dispersed into small areas of good soil in the pocket valleys of the limestone hills.

One immediate precipitating cause of the collapse was drought. The Medieval Climatic Anomaly (“Medieval Warm Period” in northern climes) led to a drop in precipitation and a rise in evapotranspiration (Gill 2000). However, chronic local warfare had already ravaged several areas (Demarest et al. 2004). Environmental overdraft was also serious. The Copan valley, among other areas, may have been deforested and eroded (though recent evidence is equivocal). All Mayaland was densely populated, clearly to the edge of sustainability. The drought seems to have given the final push over the edge (Diamond 2005; Gill 2000). Drought was particularly problematic in the central lowlands, where water sinks into the limestone, leaving almost no surface water. The drier north, paradoxically, was better off, because countless cenotes (sinkholes; Maya ts’oonot) tap groundwater. The water table is much nearer the surface there, because the land is barely above sea level. The sea provides back pressure. Near the coast, fresh water floats on deeper seawater layers.

In all areas, the thin, fast-draining soil does not hold water, so even brief and mild droughts destroy the corn crop. In 2004, for example, maize failed all over the Peninsula, due to dry periods in the critical summer season. Much drier conditions are normal in such maize-producing areas as the northwest Mexican mountains and the Hopi country of Arizona, but there the soils are deeper and the maize varieties selected for drought-tolerance. (My student Sharon Burton once suggested [personal communication, 1992] that the Classic Maya may have developed more high-yield but delicate varieties of maize. This seems highly likely, and should be investigated.)

The Postclassic continued until 1520, when Spanish conquistadors began the conquest of the peninsula. Contrary to stereotypes of an easy, rapid, dramatic conquest of all Mesoamerica by Spanish arms, the conquest was very slow in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya put up a ferocious resistance, and when resistance failed they fell back into dry, trackless, or hilly land. The last independent Maya state, deep in the Guatemalan Peten, fell in 1697—more than two centuries after Columbus first met the Maya.

The Spanish suppressed Maya religious culture. Often, conquerors and their prelates excused butchery and culturocide by recycling fabricated anti-Moorish and anti-Jewish war propaganda from Spain, and claiming to have elicited it from Maya pagans (Tedlock 1993; recycling age-old fictions was standard in religious debates in that age; see Lerner 1972). The Reconquista in Spain was still fresh in memories. Fortunately, suppression was neither totally effective nor did it extend past matters of religion. The Maya remained free to practice their traditional agriculture and medicine. Disease, reducing the population by 90 to 95 percent, may have done more damage to these aspects of culture. Countless Maya fled to the deep interior, there to become wiitsil, “hill folk,” not integrated into the “modern” world until the 19th or even 20th centuries.

Meanwhile a more stable future arose from tree crops. The Spanish introduced dozens of new fruit trees, largely from southeast Asia. Moreover, wild trees came to the fore. Logwood (Haematoxylon campechianum) sustained an enormous industry for black dye in the 18th and 19th centuries (Contreras Sánchez 1990, 1996; McJunkin 1991), but artificial dyes displaced it. Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), cedro (“Spanish cedar,” Cedrela odorata, not a cedar at all but a close relative of mahogany) and other trees provided, and still provide, valuable timber.

Trees had a healing function. The Spanish Colonial writers fortunately left us good records of the Maya language and of herbal medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries. Early dictionaries include the Vocabulario de Mayathan (Andrews Heath 1980) and the Calepino de Motul (Arzápalo Marín 1995). These include much interesting information on language and uses. Orange trees were still called by the Spanish name naranja, but in the Calepino “orange you plant” was pak[‘]al naranja; the tree is now simply pak’al, “planted thing.”  Halal (jalaal in modern transcription) “reed” was used for sugar cane, yiih Castelan (kaxlan yiij) “Spanish maize-ear” for a head of wheat. (One learns also that the modern word for “gun,” ts’oon, originally meant “blowgun,” a European gun being, at first, a “Spanish blowgun.”)  Most of the common modern tree names are in the old dictionaries. No change in meanings can be detected, but most of the plant names are so vaguely defined that one cannot tell. Often, dictionary definitions compared plants to vaguely similar Spanish plants—chicosapote to medlar, “chacah” (chakaj, Bursera simarouba) to mastic (because the resin is useful), and so on.

Herbal medicine books from the 18th century exist and have been published:  two variants of the “Book of the Jew” (Andrews Heath 1979; Barrera and Barrera V. 1983) and the “Book of Very Reliable Remedies” (Gubler 2005). The latter is arranged by illness. The former was apparently collected by a Jewish settler of uncertain identity, from Maya curers, in the early 18th century. It is arranged, more usefully to us, by plant names, including at least 50 that are clearly trees. Most of the names are still current, and clearly apply to the same plants they did then, so most species can be identified. The sap of chicosapote (Manilkara zapota), for instance, whitened teeth and soothed the rash caused by the chechem (which is basically a giant poison ivy); the Maya name of the chicosapote, ya’, was equated, wrongly, with ya (ya’ or yaab) “love” (Barrera and Barrera V. 1983:26).

The Maya settled into a dull existence as serfs on Spanish encomiendas and religious estates (Patch 1993; Restall 1997, 1998). They were subject to increasing religious and governmental exactions. Mexico’s independence jarred them from this inanition. Yucatan soon declared independence from Mexico, and then the Maya declared independence from all the above. The resulting “War of the Castes” was to a large extent a Maya vs. Hispanic conflict, but the Maya of the west peninsula stayed “loyal,” while some Spanish-speakers of the east sided with the Maya (Dumond 1998; cf. Sullivan 1989). From this time, many Maya of the western peninsula took to calling themselves “mestizos” (in spite of fairly pure Maya genetics and culture), to avoid being considered “rebels” (see Hervik 1999 for this and much more about ethnic labeling). The rebels eventually held for decades a vast tract of the east Peninsula. After they finally made peace in and after 1901, this land became the new state of Quintana Roo.

The Maya there are quick to point out that their defeat in 1901 at Chan Santa Cruz (now Felipe Carrillo Puerto) was not a final one. The last battle (to my knowledge) was actually fought in 1934, in Dzula, the community next to my field work base in Chunhuhub. The Maya never really gave up, and still feel that the “Mexicans” are in central Quintana Roo on sufferance (see Sullivan 1989).

Modernization came to the peninsula via commercial agriculture. The Spanish introduced sugar, cotton, cattle, and other crops. In the twentieth century, rice, sesame, chiles, tomatoes, and other crops added to the long list; all failed. The native Maya crop of henequen (Agave fourcroydes) proved more successful, and dominated the peninsula until bad management cost Yucatan world leadership (Benitez 1962).

Many of these schemes were disastrous to the forest. It was sacrificed to a long succession of experiments with monocrop cultivation. Most were so obviously doomed to fail that one wonders how anyone could ever have hoped for them. Cattle have paid in some cases, but not because they do well; they benefit from heavy subsidies by the Mexican government, which has always supported ranching. Cattle succeed well on natural savannah lands in Quintana Roo, but conversion of forest to cattle pasture (“ganaderizacion”) has been disastrous on the usual poor soils. It has succeeded, barely, in some forest areas of rich soil, but its future is not good. Typically, the forest is destroyed permanently, because soil deterioration and tough nonnative pasture grasses preclude re-establishment, but the cattle fail to thrive. One of my communities, Presidente Juarez, has lost a couple of thousand hectares of valuable forest this way. It was cleared for rice; that failed; cattle were tried, and failed; sheep were then tried, and were eaten by jaguars. The land is now total waste.

Finally, industry and tourism have brought the peninsula fully into the contemporary world. Their highly controversial impact is outside our purview here (see Castaneda 1996; Juarez, 2002; Primack et al. 1998). Suffice it to say that tourism provides 85 percent of all cash income in Quintana Roo. Cancun has grown from a fishing camp to a city of several hundred thousand people, and further tourist development now stretches along most of the coast, giving Quintana Roo some 31 percent of Mexico’s tourism (Hoffman 2005). The coastal environment has been sorely impacted and locally devastated.

A few botanic gardens, little visited, showcase native trees for tourists. Large reserves protect some of the coast, but these reserves have suffered from the “fortress conservation” mentality. Maya have been, to varying degrees, excluded, though they maintained and at least locally created the forests that are saved (see a superb account, Haenn 2005). They now have no vested interest in the reserves, and now often poach to death the game and valuable plant populations that they carefully managed and preserved until recently. Fortunately, the fortress mentality is changing fast, and ecotourism involving Maya communities is on the rise, though it has a long way to go.

However, the interior, where Chunhuhub lies, has been essentially unaffected except by the labor drain to the cities. This has the beneficial effect of absorbing excess population and generating remittances, but it lures the best and brightest away from agriculture and forestry. It has, also, the debatable effect of monetizing the local economy. Tiny, almost unvisited botanic gardens and an excessively crowded environmental theme park are the only contributions of the tourist sector to awareness of local ecology.

Today, dozens of trees find uses of every sort. The fruit, timber, and medicinal trees noted above still flourish everywhere. Only the dye industry failed to survive, as artificial dyes replaced natural ones.

Fruit production dominates the subsistence and cash sectors of the tree economy, but medicinal uses dominate in terms of number of species. The total number of plants used for medicine by the Yucatec Maya must run close to a thousand; I found 350 species in Chunhuhub and neighboring communities, and that does not count the many that were not flowering and thus unidentifiable. Among these were some 145 tree species. (“Tree” here means single-trunked, woody plants that at least occasionally grow two meters high.)  In nearby Tihosuco, M. J. Clark recorded about 70 trees out of 275 medicinal plants used (Clark 1999). Every common tree and almost every rare one has its medicinal use or uses. Many of these are effective in laboratory biomedical terms.  Particularly common is the use of tannin-rich barks and leaves to stop diarrhea. Guava, native to South America and found in Yucatan long before the Spanish, is now world-famous in this regard, being used in almost every rural clinic in the tropical world; its bark and leaves are as effective as many drug store remedies. Many other trees of Mayaland have similar virtues. Claudiosa (Capraria biflora), a shrub used as a wash in childbirth and for other purposes (B. Anderson et al. 2004), has an antiseptic resin. With the Spanish came new medicinal plants, such as citrus species, whose leaves make an effective (if mild) stomach-ache remedy.

New tree crops, including medicinals, are constantly entering the landscape. A striking example is provided by noni (Moringa citrifolia, Rubiaceae; see Dixon et al. 1999). This traditional Hawaiian medicinal tree now grows widely in the Zona Maya of Quintana Roo, where it has a reputation as a diabetes cure. My collaborators Don Felix Medina Tzuc and Don Pastor Valdez began growing noni trees in 2005. Maya vendors sell the fruit on the streets of the larger towns. Don Felix’ wife Elide is using for her diabetes not only noni but also nopales (Opuntia ficus-indica, a traditional Central Mexican remedy, proven effective), aloe vera (a Spanish introduction), and the standard native Maya remedy, sak k’ooch le’ (Cecropia spp.). The Maya are quick to learn from everyone.

Hispanic Yucatecans are also open to new ideas. Over the years, they have developed a number of fruit liqueurs and distilled fruit drinks. More recently, henequen—not quite a “tree” but woody-trunked—has been used for producing a tequila-like distilled liquor. (One brand is “Sisal.”  Theoretically, henequen and sisal are different species, Agave fourcroydes and A. sisalana, but they are routinely confused, and may not be different species.)  Sisal is not yet the equal of the finest tequilas, but it is definitely above the level of the cheap mescal drinks of Mexico.

Trees are most important as sources of food and medicine, but of course they are vital for many other reasons. Firewood is one critical aspect of life. One could easily write a book about Maya firewood knowledge and use—and, indeed, that book has been written (Sánchez González 1993), and is a valuable and important work.

Maya cook over open fires by preference. My landlord and his wife celebrated economic stability by getting a beautiful new stove. They used it briefly, then went back to the k’oben (three-stone hearth), because the food was so much better!  The k’oben is not fuel-efficient, and requires a tremendous amount of hard, clean-burning wood. Ja’abin (Piscidia piscipula) is preferred; fortunately, it is the commonest tree in the area. Knowing and obtaining firewood are extremely important skills for the Maya, and the quest for firewood consumes a significant part of every day. (A low point in the history of anthropology was Gerald Berreman’s condemnation [1966], echoed by Marvin Harris [1968:591], of Metzger and Williams’ classic paper on Maya firewood knowledge and use [1966] as “trivia.”  One wonders what was in Berreman’s and Harris’ minds; both had themselves studied areas that depended on firewood.  Worldwide, about a third of all wood use is for fuel, and the ecological consequences of the firewood quest are profound.)

Construction is another category, with special types of wood preferred for main houseposts, poles, and tie materials, while thatch has its own entire science (Anderson 2003, 2005; Barrera 1980). Furniture is often home-made or bought from local craftspersons, and thus quite poor individuals can revel in chairs and bedsteads made of precious woods that would cost a literal fortune in urban Mexico. A range of musical instruments, baskets, toys, and other minor uses round out the picture.

Living fences are important; like many Mexicans and others, the Maya find nothing better for preserving privacy and possessions. At least 113 species of plants are used for living fences in Quintana Roo (Salinas Peba 1999). Most are native (but teak is used!), and many used medicinally and otherwise. About 85% are trees and tall bushes. Of course, most popular are thorny or toxic plants, but fruit trees, timber trees, and even bromeliads and chiles occur. Probably the most popular is the most mysterious:  the blue sage, an unidentified Salvia.

No one looking at plant use in a Maya community can neglect ornamentals. Almost 200 species decorate the gardens of Chunhuhub. Most of these are flowering shrubs and annuals, but trees dominate much of the skyline. Many trees grow strictly for flowers, such as the astromelia (crepe myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica) and the chaksink’in (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). Others are valued for their magnificent skyline-dominating forms, such as the laurel (Ficus benjamina and relatives—not a laurel), several palms, almendro (Terminalia catappa), and others. In addition, Maya greatly appreciate the beauty of useful trees, notably the citrus, coconut, and cedro.

Wildlife food is a serious concern. Many trees are protected and encouraged simply because they help maintain birds and mammals—and not only game animals, for the Maya love and appreciate the forest life. Large old hollow trees attract bees and other useful hole-nesting creatures, and thus deserve protection.

Finally, and perhaps most important and thought-provoking, farmers leave many trees in the milpas for no apparent reason except that they regrow fast and shade out weeds and other annoyances. Large, fast-growing trees are often pollarded rather than being cut out completely. This allows these trees to restore forest immediately, short-cycling the sak’aj or cañada stage of milpa regrowth, when the milpa is taken over by weeds and small plants.


The Maya divide the rural world into several parts. Basic are three categories of economic growth:  kool (milpas), solares (homegardens and house compounds), and k’aax (forest). Recently, pasture lands, parcelas (“parcels” of useful land, normally orchards), and urbanized lands have added themselves to the list. Pet k’ot and wol k’ot survive locally as names for walled orchard areas, and apparently were labels for homegardens and orchards before Spanish terms for these came in with formal land registration, taxation, and commercialization. Management formerly included t’olche’, belts of forest left for borders, windbreaks, and general utility, but these have contracted in extent (Remmers and De Koeijer 1992).

Milpa farmers often protect but rarely plant trees, but papayas (giant herbs, not true trees) are often planted in the most fertile, deep-soil areas of milpa land, and sometimes such areas are planted to oranges so that they will regrow as orchard rather than forest. Wild fruit trees and other useful trees are carefully protected when the milpa is cut. Thus these species gradually become commoner over the decades. Old-growth forest in the area often displays about 15 percent cover by chicosapote, including giant old trees, and other popular fruit trees may add another five to ten percent. Regrowth stages, value of land for forest, and all other details of the milpa-forest cycle are very well known (Anderson 2003, 2005; Dalle et al. 2005).

Orchard parcelas are the sites of commercial tree cropping. Oranges are by far the most numerous and important, but Chunhuhub also produces huge quantities of grapefruits, mandarins, limes, bananas, mangoes, nances, and mameys from large orchard holdings. The federal government, in a rare example of a well-planned and successful development project, opened up “corredores frutales” along the main roads; this involved giving title and financial aid to Maya communities or individuals who would clear land along the highways and then plant this land to citrus. This not only led to a vast expansion of citrus acreage; it protected the forest beyond. The carefully protected strip of valuable orchard renders the forest less accessible to poachers and illegal loggers.

Homegardens (Anderson 1993; Herrera Castro 1994) produce many more of the same species, and, in addition, many other species of household and commercial value: chicosapote, guava, annonas of all sorts, many abal varieties, and minor local fruits. These latter include such Mayaland specialties as k’anistej or k’anistel (Pouteria campechiana), uxpiib (Couepia polyandra, interesting as one of the few tropical relatives of the plums and apricots of the north), chooch (Lucuma hypoglauca), and wayum (the native Talisia olivaeformis or, now more commonly, the close nonnative relative Melicoccus bijugatus).

Many of these native Mayaland fruits have enormous potential for development; they should be studied and introduced to other parts of the tropical world. The clear winner in this regard is the mamey. A well-grown mamey can produce well over 500 fruits in a season, each fruit weighing up to a pound. These fruits have extremely high vitamin A value, as well as high calorie count. The seed kernel of the mamey is also edible, being a nut rather like a giant almond. Both fruit and nut were once dried and ground for storage as insurance against crop failure. Mameys live under harsh conditions, and bear heavily without care or attention. They could truly transform life in seasonally dry, harsh tropical environments such as Madagascar or central India. The closely related k’anistej is already grown tropics-wide and found in commerce; I have seen it sold in Taiwan as “heavenly peach” and in Australia as “yellow sapote.”

The forest is far richer in species. Every tree in it finds a use, and many have several uses. Ja’abin, for instance, is the favored firewood, the favored construction wood for long-lasting posts, a necessary part of rain ceremonies, and a source of medicine. By far the most valuable forest trees today are the mahogany and cedro, but around 20 other species are commercially useful, and as many again are important for local construction and craft work. Even the chechem is a timber tree, in spite of its rash-producing sap. The forest is also a major source of remedies. Unlike some other parts of the world, where medicines come from weedy and garden plants, half the medicinal plants of the Chunhuhub area are forest species.

The Maya are quite aware of the humanized nature of the forest. They not only realize that the forest has all been cut and converted to milpa at various times; they usually know when any given patch was last cut, and by whom. (This latter clause does not apply to the old-growth forest lands farther from Chunhuhub, for they were last cut before the Caste War.)  They recognize that the old chicosapotes, ramon trees, and other useful species are numerous because of deliberate management. Thus, they have no concept of “wild nature” as opposed to a humanized or cultural landscape. The contrast of k’aax and che’ (trees) with community and with milpa is real and important, but it is cyclic, not essential. Today’s k’aax is tomorrow’s milpa, and today’s milpa is tomorrow’s k’aax. The nearest thing to a contrast of wild and tame is the contrast of ba’al che’ “things of the trees” or k’aaxij “of the forest” with alakbij “things we raise, or cultivate.”  Again, the contrast is real, but not essential.

The Maya deliberately care for the things of the trees, by leaving their food plants and protecting their environment from wildfire. Maya also maintain, in gardens and fields, countless wild and semiwild species that are useful. As in every other tropical area I have worked, from Madagascar to Malaya, no sharp separation exists between wild and tame.

There is, instead, a gradient from wildest (things like jaguars or the proverbially useless little tree called loob “weed,” Eugenia mayana) to the most cultured of all growths, ixi’im “maize.”  Wild forest plants, if medicinally useful, can be transplanted to gardens; the baalche’ tree is one such. Then the continuum passes through a set of frequently cultivated but not really domesticated plants (like uxpiib and k’anistej) to trees that are domesticated but not very much changed from the wild and not very clearly sorted into varietal groups (like the mamey). Then come trees that do have named, domesticated varieties but are still rather “wild” in habit (like the abal). Finally, there are trees that are almost as changed from the wild as is maize. All such trees are fairly recent introductions. Grapefruit, a non-natural hybrid citrus that exists in specially developed varieties, is one common example.

The forest is also, increasingly, managed for timber production (Primack et al. 1998). Plantations and smaller plantings of cedro are gradually increasing. The Maya now plant mahogany extensively, and carefully protect it; Maya woodsmen sometimes cut small firebreaks around young mahogany trees in the forest. Veteran Maya foresters know that mahogany requires small light-gaps for seed germination. Abandoned milpas are good, though often somewhat too large. Roadsides and clearing-edges are better.

Mahogany is selectively cut in the large tracts of forest remaining in Quintana Roo. Chunhuhub managed to cut itself out of precious woods in the early 1990s; the story is long and edifying (see Anderson 2005). Today, after some years of good government, the community is back in the mahogany business. Other, more careful communities nearby continue to enjoy high revenues. .

This brings us to the case of the Plan Piloto Forestal, now the Plan Forestal (Anderson 2005; Primack et al. 1998, esp. Flachsenberg and Galletti 1998, Galletti 1998). This plan was developed after a long series of failures at mahogany management in Quintana Roo. Previous schemes were top-down; the Plan Forestal is a particularly good example of comanagement, in which units at different levels of government work together to manage a resource.

Under the Plan Forestal, state and federal agencies work with the actual Maya communities:  ejidos (common landholding communities), ranches, and other settlements. The Maya have their own associations to deal with the government agencies. The government supplies experts in forest management and botany, as well as management and enforcement. The Maya and the government foresters set sustainable extraction rates and monitor the cut. About 15 ejidos and many smaller private settlements are involved, and success has been stunning; the plan has been called the best forest management plant in the tropics (informally, in my hearing, so no citation can be given). The main reasons for success, in my experience, are the dedication and honesty of the government technocrats—the foresters and biologists—and the strong conservation ethic of the Quintana Roo Maya. Similar schemes elsewhere have founded either on the rock of higher-up meddling and corruption or on the rock of local-level indifference and poaching.

With the help of the Plan, Naranjal Poniente, a community just to the south of Chunhuhub, has preserved a magnificent forest of ten thousand hectares, in which occur huge old mahogany trees as well as ocelots, jaguars, and other rarities. This forest is so carefully protected that my healer friends check carefully with the community heads before so much as collecting a roadside medicinal herb

The Plan requires a tremendous amount of effort, dedication, and accommodation on both sides. Success is not universal. Poaching does go on; the Plan works best in small, tight, isolated communities. Moreover, many communities are not involved in the Plan. Chunhuhub has not chosen to work with it, in spite of the fact that the office for west-central Quintana Roo is in the town. Chunhuhub, however, is not uninfluenced by the Plan. Chunhuhub’s government and wood industry both draw on some of the expertise, and, more to the point, Chunhuhub is forced to take into account this new view of forest management, and to be very self-conscious about precious woods.


All this, in turn, brings us to the Maya attitude toward trees, or, more accurately, toward the forest and toward plants in general. The Maya category of che’ “tree” is much broader than the English one, since even very small woody plants can be “trees”—some are under a meter in height. Thus, any generalizations about attitudes toward trees tend to apply to all plants.

In a word, the Quintana Roo Maya love trees. They do not make a point of it; they do not continually talk about “loving nature” (cf. Milton 2002), as westerners tend to do. They do not need to. Like other Native Americans, and like many rural people worldwide, the Maya do not care to talk inordinately about things no one can express in words. However, Don Felix said (personal communication, 2005), looking at the last large plot of truly high forest in the area, “Me encanta la selva, me encantan los arboles”—“I am enchanted by the forest, I am enchanted by the trees.”  He went on to say that would never cut such a forest down.

Actually, the Maya do not have anything like the concept of “nature” in the classical European sense, i.e. the places and things not affected by people. There is no Maya word that can be translated by the English word “nature” or the Spanish naturaleza. Since all Maya know that the forest is more or less a human construction, and certainly something that humans have to take care of, they do not see it as “nature” in the European sense. The whole landscape is a managed one.

Every house-compound is buried in vegetation almost as thick and lush as the forest. The front of the compound is a riot of flowers, colored leaves, and strange and unusual vegetation forms, all the way up from tiny ground-cover plants to soaring palms over 30 meters tall.

A walk through the forest with a Maya woodsman or woodswoman is even more enlightening. The Maya are constantly manipulating the forest in small, unobtrusive ways—cutting small firebreaks, opening trails, clearing weedy growth from around valuable trees, checking animal tracks, checking wildlife-food availability, gathering medicinal herbs or craft materials, marking sites, looking at the soil, assessing plots for future milpa, checking out sites where game animals have been lately, and on and on and on. The process reveals care and concern for all things of the forest. Felix Medina Tzuc, for instance, clears tiny firebreaks around mahogany saplings he encounters in the forest. Even insects get good treatment; Maya picking up ants to show me are careful not to hurt them, and careful to replace them pointing the same way they were going before (and see Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005). Trees, being the foundation of the forest and of the cash economy, naturally get the most concern.

The religious veneration of trees is still alive, though transformed. The ceiba still receives respect, more for its general qualities of sanctity and (rather self-conscious) Maya tradition than for its association with the feared xtabay. Much more serious are the yumilk’aax, the Lords of the Forest—the protective deities or spirits that guard the forest. (Their complements are the yumilkool, Lords of the Milpa. The ancient Maya maize god was known as the kichkelem yum, Handsome Lord, and this name transferred to Jesus in Colonial times; the priests seem not to have realized the syncretism. Deities in general are yuntsiloob.)

The Lords of the Forest still protect the beauty and harmony of that realm, and punish humans who take too much, take unnecessarily, or take without respect and reverence. Trees and forests are basically good, but dangerous if mishandled—especially if treated without respect. This is the Maya expression of an attitude toward forests and unfarmed resources that appears universal in Native North America. Everywhere, spirits guard the resources that humans do not create, and humans must treat these with respect by not taking anything unless it is really needed and unless enough of the resource is left to allow recuperation (see e.g. Anderson 1996; K. Anderson 2005; Turner 2004). In much of Native North America, and almost certainly in ancient Mayaland, trees were persons; they had indwelling spirits that needed respect and care (Turner 2004; I have encountered the same belief put to use for conservation in contemporary Thailand and Cambodia). The modern Maya do not usually believe the Lords of the Forest are literal indwelling tree gods, but they retain deep respect for the trees and the forested world. This ideology is fading among the young, but it survives, and is getting support now from urban Mexicans who are aware of world ecological issues.            Maya religious cosmology and modern ecological science thus unite in preserving the forest and allowing the Plan Forestal to work.

Against them are arrayed those who wish to destroy the wild and substitute a wholly constructed environment—tourist hotels, monocrop fields, airports and roads. Both this view and the Maya view are equally rational, in terms of the knowledge and wants of the people invoking them. The Maya use essentially all the plants and a large percentage of the animals, and so they manage for the sustainability and overall productivity of the whole ecosystem. The destroyers are uninterested in any of the plants and animals except a few introduced species, and they have short time horizons (or “steep discount slopes,” in economic terms), so they see the existing system simply as something to get out of the way so that they can replace it with a wholly introduced system.

The historical record makes clear the viability of the former and the nonviability of the latter. The Yucatan Peninsula is a harsh, unforgiving environment—short of water, short of soil, short of minerals, long on diseases and pests. The Maya have learned to make it extremely productive, by using all parts of it and managing it in an unobtrusive but thoroughgoing fashion. Far from being “primtive,” as swidden agriculture is held to be in some quarters, Maya land management is extremely skill-intensive and knowledge-intensive. Attempts to modify the land in other directions have failed. Monocrop agriculture has failed with cotton, sugar, henequen, sesame, rice, and several other crops. Single species extraction of logwood and mahogany has not done well. Industry has not flourished. The economy now runs on tourism, but the future thereof depends on global forces outside local control. Probably it too will run a cyclic course, and the Maya will go back to traditional cultivation and forestry.

If so, they will need the knowledge they have accumulated over the millennia, and it is up to us to help them preserve that.


The above suggests how to conserve trees worldwide. The basic plan is simple, but difficult to achieve in the modern world.

Trees are slow-maturing, so appear unworthy of conserving to people who have short-term horizons or steep discount rates. For conserving trees, people must have some way of driving long-term interest against the tendency to go for short-term profits (Anderson 1996).

The Maya have interacted with the forest for thousands of years. They have developed an exquisitely fine-tuned comprehensive plan for living with it. They have interacted with it long enough to know that they must conserve it if they want to survive.

They have thus generated institutions (North 1990) that preserve the forest. These institutions take the form of folk rules and moral strictures on managing the forest and conserving trees. These included a genuine and deep aesthetic and personal enjoyment of the forest. Moreover, the institutions included powerful emotional and personal involvement with trees, collectively or communally represented in religion. The Lords of the Forest protected the trees, and, in some sense, were the trees.

The rules were adequate until the coming of modernity with its short-term planning horizons, powerful chainsaws, and—in Quintana Roo until recently—lack of conservation institutions. Strictly economic valuation entered the picture, with short-term always beating out long-term planning, because short-term profits come in sooner. A tiny short-term return outweighed the promise of a vastly greater return in the mistily far future.

More to the point, new initiatives concentrate on only one thing, forcing a very short-term orientation. The Maya use the forest for hundreds of products, including intangible ones like beauty and enchantment. This gives them every incentive, economic and emotional, to manage for the long term.

With short economic horizons and heavy political backing, scrub cattle or monocrops suddenly looked more desirable than a rich, productive forest. Conservation meant trying to save a few scraps of land—by pushing out the Maya who had, through careful planning for both near and distant futures, developed, managed, and created the forest there. The result was disaster, in economic as well as social terms (Anderson 2005; Faust 1998; Haenn 2005). This type of economic enterprise is a self-eating animal. Indeed, any enterprise not embedded in a wider network of social and personal values is prone to destroy itself.

Maya wisdom has prevailed, so far, and government workers slowly learned they needed to work with the Maya and look to the long term if Quintana Roo’s rural economy was to survive. Even slower to come, and perhaps coming too late, is the realization that the old Maya attitude of genuine personal concern for the forest must be preserved and extended. We may not all believe in the Lords of the Forest, but the forests have to matter aesthetically, psychologically, and socially. If trees are not taken seriously—with all that implies about caring, responsibility, and moral involvement—they will fall. Economics and politics are never enough.

Worldwide, planning horizons grow shorter and shorter, and trees find less and less place. Without seeing trees as important to the community, and deserving of respect, responsibility, and care, we cannot conserve them.



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