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Carious lesions and maize consumption among the Prehispanic Maya: An analysis of a coastal community in northern Yucatan



Patterns of carious lesions were analyzed in the Classic period coastal Maya population of Xcambó, a salt production and administration center in northern Yucatan. To this end, the study investigated caries in the permanent dentitions of 163 adult skeletons, 23 from the Early Classic (AD 250–550) and 140 from the Late Classic period (AD 550–750), equally distributed between sexes. The archaeological and bioarchaeological evidence indicates a wealthy and socially homogeneous population dedicated to salt production and administration in the Early Classic that switched to pure administrative functions in the Late Classic. The results indicate an increase in caries from 7.4% and 21.2% (males and females respectively) from the Early Classic to 14.0% in males and 27.4% in females from the Late Classic period. The rate of caries in the Early and in the Late Classic phases of continuous occupation is not consistent with a simple interpretation of a heavier reliance on maize during the latter phase, characterized by a sedentary lifestyle, particularly for the male segment of the society now dedicated completely to the administration of the salt mines. Rather, the increase in caries rates in both sexes is best explained within a broader context of overall food habits, new cariogenic foods for both sexes, and the changes in lifestyle imposed by the increased socioeconomic role of the site. Our conclusions stress the limitations imposed by interpreting carious lesions solely in terms of single dietary components, such as maize consumption, without taking into account broader aspects of cultural and socioeconomic relevance. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.