Madrid 5 (European Press)
Although a series of droughts coincided with the decline of the Maya in the ninth century, a new study shows that this culture consumed 500 different plants, many of which are resistant to lack of rain.
“Even in the most severe droughts, and we have no clear evidence of the most severe situations occurring, 59 species of edible plants would have survived,” explains Luis Santiago, a plant physiologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of a new study. In this regard, published in PNAS.
Some of the hardier plants that the Mayans resorted to include cassava with its edible tubers and hearts of palm. Another is chaya, a shrub domesticated by the Mayas and eaten by their descendants today. Its leaves are rich in proteins, iron, potassium and calcium.
“The kaya and yucca together could have provided a lot of carbs and protein,” Santiago said.
Unable to find a master list of indigenous Mayan food plants, co-author Scott Fedick recently compiled and published a list based on decades of knowledge of Mayan plants. Faced with much speculation about drought as a cause of social unrest in the Maya, he and Santiago decided to examine the 497 plants on the list to determine their drought tolerance.
“When botanists study drought resistance, they are generally referring to a specific plant or ecosystem,” Vidic said. “One of the reasons this project was so difficult is that we examined the food plants of an entire civilization: annuals, perennials, herbs, trees, both domestic and wild species. It was a unique endeavor.”
Although researchers do not have a clear answer as to why ancient Maya society collapsed, they suspect that social and economic upheavals played a role.
“One thing we know is that an oversimplified explanation for the drought that led to the collapse of agriculture is probably incorrect,” Vidic said.
The research also demonstrates the importance of exploiting a variety of plants to survive drought and climate change.
“Even in the face of a series of droughts, maintaining a resilient crop diversity will allow people, ancient and modern, to adapt and survive,” Santiago said.