Bringing an Early City Back to Life: Plant Foodways as Social Fields at the La Blanca Site (900-500 BCE), Pacific Coast of Guatemala
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Bringing an Early City Back to Life: Plant Foodways as Social Fields at the La Blanca Site (900-500 BCE), Pacific Coast of Guatemala


The emergence of an incipient city represents not only a moment in time, but also the beginnings of a social experiment. Aggregated living introduced new challenges such as the need to feed more mouths than ever before. Yet studying responses to these challenges becomes difficult in the case of early cities as excavations of these contexts do not provide adequate temporal and/or spatial resolution to assess change over time. This dissertation examines subsistence strategies at the archaeological site of La Blanca (900-500 BCE), a Middle Preclassic period incipient city on the Pacific coast of Guatemala with a long history of household excavations. I analyze macrobotanical and microbotanical plant remains from La Blanca to assess both the types of foods used to feed inhabitants and the distribution of intra-site food processing activities across time and space. The analysis of plant remains can provide unique insights into social differentiation in comparison to other commonly used indices, such as the distribution of prestige goods. I rely on Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical construct of social fields to disentangle the study of economic ranking based on prestige goods from economic activities pursued by households. Rather than grouping households by elite or commoner status first and then comparing plant remains second, I look to the plant data first to assess their own non-binary insights into social relations. My research uses Exploratory Data Analysis to investigate spatial and temporal patterning. I integrate a wide variety of techniques including paleoethnobotanical methods (macrobotanical, starch granule, and phytolith analysis), spatial statistics, and Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates to conduct intra-site and inter-site comparisons of plant data from the La Blanca site. My results present novel perspectives on subsistence planning in early cities and long-term changes in the regional subsistence practices of Pacific Mexico and Guatemala during the Preclassic period. Spatial statistics reveal that domestic contexts at La Blanca are clustered, identifying five neighborhoods and one additional area with a more complex use history. Comparisons of botanical remains from these six locales indicate that their uses changed over time. Moreover, temporal comparisons illustrate that diversification played a key role in meeting subsistence needs during the Conchas D subphase, the most populous period of the early city’s occupation. Inter-site comparisons with other Early and Middle Preclassic sites on the Pacific Coast indicate that, contrary to expectations, maize intensification predated the initial urbanization of the region. La Blanca also represents the highest taxonomic diversity of the sequence, revealing that diversification is more characteristic of early urbanism on the Pacific Coast than previously considered. Analysis of plant use as a social field does not provide strong evidence of differences in household subsistence strategies by economic ranking, but instead highlights key differences by spatial cluster that are more indicative of early efforts at city planning.

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