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‘You are what you eat’: a look at diets from Latin America

His research in bone chemistry studies began in 1990 as the archaeometry manager at Harvard University. Currently an archeologist and professor at USF, he has compiled research for bone chemistry studies in Florida, Mesoamerica, Patagonia, Europe, South and East Asia.

Robert Tykot, who has researched in Latin America for 12 years, presented a lecture Thursday on “The Ancient Diet and its Role in the Rise and Fall of the Maya,” as part of Latin American and Caribbean Studies spring lecture series.

His discussion focused on bone chemistry studies in Latin America. Tykot studied what people ate by examining bone composition. This means what you eat is shown in your bones.

“You are what you eat. What you are eating right now will end up chemically becoming incorporated into your tissues: hair, skin, flesh and bone,” Tykot said.

“If you … took a sample of the first centimeter of the base of your scalp, that is going to represent the hair which has grown in the last month or so and, therefore, will be affected by your diet in the last month,” Tykot said. “Whereas the sample from the end of your hair, depending on how long your hair is, might represent your diet still from one month, but that month, however, was many years ago.”

Presently, diets would be consistent with a person’s varied choices of food at the grocery store. However, Tykot said in ancient times, people living in Latin America ate what was available to them in their surrounding terrain.

“People are saying that maize(corn) was actually there (in Mexico) as early as 5000 B.C. Well, the information that we have from researching the bones would indicate that it was possible that it was there, but they weren’t eating it in any kind of significant extent until 1000 or 1500 B.C,” Tykot said.

Corn, which is believed to have been originally domesticated in the highlands of Mexico, is one of the most important staple crops in the world, Tykot said. Archeological research on the bones of ancient Mexicans has shown that corn was a big part of their diets.

Dependence on corn for a main source of nutrition has been found to lead to various medical problems, said Tykot. People who depended on corn as children developed arrested tooth growth, meaning their teeth did not grow in smoothly. Also, the stone powder used to grind the corn caused excessive wear of the teeth because the powder became mixed in with the corn meal that was eaten.

Tykot said in his research he examines what plants and animals were made of and determines what the people at the time were eating. Bone and tooth specimens are main contributors in determining clues about ancient peoples at different times in their lives.

“One of the things that we can do is we can take very tiny samples in the tooth so that we can actually track short-term diets during the formation of the tooth,” Tykot said.

Tykot said since our teeth are formed as children, they show what we ate in our younger years, while bones show what we ate later in life because they are added to throughout adult life.

As a researcher, Tykot also looks at the nitrogen and carbon percentages in the bone specimens. Carbon-3 (C3) refers to plants that were shrubs and temperate grasses such as bushes and trees, while carbon-4 (C4) refers to subtropical grasses and corn.

Diets varied among ancient people depending on class status, location and food availability.

“High status people, on average, ended up with more maize in their diet than low status,” Tykot said.

Tykot said the higher percentage of upper class people eating more corn was most likely due to them eating animals, such as the wild llama, which ate maize. There is also evidence that upper class Mexicans had a kind of beer made from liquefied corn.

The diets of the ancient peoples of Latin America also depended on the type of land on which they lived, said Tykot. He said living on highlands, lowlands or by water was a factor. Coastal people’s diets consisted of seafood and some inland food. Inland people ate animals such as the ancestors of the llama and various plants

Ancient Mexicans’ diets changed from season to season depending on what was available to eat. Tykot said in one season, corn might be the main source of substance then in the next mainly other plants or animals.

The preclassical Mayan diets consisted mainly of corn, deer and dogs.

“Protein might have been in short supply later on in Mayan times as they basically destroyed the habitats where the deer and the other wild animals might have lived,” said Tykot.

The large population of Mayans was supported by their use of irrigation during the preclassical period. However, as time progressed, the Mayans had a harder time finding protein because the large cities didn’t provide a habitat for wild animals, such as the white-tailed deer. Solutions to these problems included the loose-herding of deer and domestication of dogs for eating.

The fall of the Maya occurred during the post classical era. Bone studies show they were almost completely dependent on corn because they had a high concentration of carbon-4 in their bones. Tykot said the weakening of the Mayan government and head of authority were main contributors in the demise of the people because they had no one to lead them in farming and agriculture.