The following is from the Aug. 21, 2007, edition of The Los Angeles Times

Harvested Maya manioc field saved in ash 1,400 years

Preserved in volcanic ash, the discovery in El Salvador is called
the earliest direct evidence of manioc cultivation in the Americas.

By Thomas H. Maugh II

Colorado researchers have found the earliest direct evidence of manioc cultivation in the Americas, the remains of a 1,400-year-old field in El Salvador that was buried by volcanic ash shortly after the crop was harvested.

Manioc, also known as cassava, produces the highest yield of food energy of any cultivated crop, and its widespread use by the Maya could help explain how they sustained high population densities, said archeologist Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado, who made the discovery in the village of Ceren.

"We have always suspected strongly that people did cultivate manioc, but we have never had direct evidence of it," said archeologist David Freidel of Southern Methodist University, who was not involved in the research. "It's not going to be surprising to [people in] the field, but it is very gratifying that we have evidence substantiating it."

Ceren, about 15 miles west of San Salvador, has been called the American Pompeii. A village of about 200 people, Ceren was buried by the eruption of a volcano now known as Laguna Caldera in AD 590 that covered the village with as much as 17 feet of ash, preserving houses and their contents in remarkable detail. . .

The tuber can be cooked much like a potato, or made into puddings and other foods that are high in sugars. The leaves are high in protein. The plant is widely cultivated in the Americas today.

But finding evidence that the Maya farmed it has been frustrating, Freidel said. The most direct evidence before now has been the discovery of obsidian tools that might have been used for scraping the tubers, he said.

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