Open Context


Household Zooarchaeology of Colonial Lamanai

Taxonomic, isotopic, taphonomic, and chronometric data from Lamanai, Belize, dating from the Terminal Postclassic to Early Spanish Colonial

Project Abstract


This project investigates the responses of indigenous political economy to colonialism in the Maya/Spanish borderlands. More specifically, it examines the extent of change or persistence in animal-related socio-political and economic activities by residents of different social status and political authority at the Maya site of Lamanai, Belize. Taxonomic, skeletal, isotopic, taphonomic, and chronometric data were used to compare animal use patterns among households at Lamanai. The animal remains were recovered from the households of one possible elite leader, two non-leader elites, and four non-elite community members. These were occupied from the Terminal Postclassic (AD 1450–1544) to Early Colonial (AD 1544–1700).

The analysis of the degree of change in Lamanai’s political economy was dependent on accurately identifying the strata associated with the Postclassic and Colonial periods. During excavations, most deposits were only assigned to a single “transitional” contact period rather than to either Terminal Postclassic or Early Colonial because of minimal stratigraphy, lack of apparent differences in architectural and artifactual types between the two periods, and a near dearth of European artifacts. In this study, I used taphonomic, refitting, artifactual evidence, and AMS dating to separate the stratigraphic levels more accurately from one another and refine their temporal attribution to the Postclassic or Colonial periods.

Differences in the access to and control over animal resources and related activities were identified by comparing taxonomic, skeletal, and isotopic data among contexts (ruling elite, non-ruling elite, and non-elite) and periods (Postclassic vs. Colonial). Together, these data indicated that the Lamaneros intensified their use of mass-captured (e.g., fish, turles) and garden-hunted (e.g., deer, peccary, armadillo) animals, marrow cracking, and turkey husbandry after Spanish contact. Although one pig may have been raised locally or regionally, European domesticated animals were rarely used at Lamanai. The Lamaneros also continued to participate in indigenous exchange networks, but access to non-local animal products (e.g., deer, marine fauna) was probably unreliable during colonial times. These changes in animal resource exploitation reproduced practices already in place during the Postclassic, a strategy that likely provided economic stability.

During this time, the Lamanai elite enjoyed access to a higher diversity of fauna and animal parts than non-elite households, and possibly controlled marine shell crafting. Several non-elite households were possibly butchers and fishmongers who provisioned the elite in valued animal resources. The elite’s control over the use and distribution of certain animal resources within the community likely allowed them to maintain and reaffirm their position during a time of great instability. In sum, the zooarchaeological, taphonomic, and isotopic data suggest that the Maya residents of Colonial Lamanai both transformed and maintained their relations of production and distribution of animal resources, with a moderate impact of Spanish colonialism on the pursuit of these activities.

Methodological Notes:

The faunal remains were recovered in an elite residential complex (Structures N11-3, N11-18, and N11-27) by the Maya Archaeometallurgy Project in 2001–2005. Excavations of the four non-elite domestic households (Structures N11-28, N11-29, and N12-4, and Feature N25-E50) were conducted by Darcy Wiewall in 2004. Arianne Boileau identified the Lamanai faunal material in the Lamanai Archaeology Project (LAP) laboratory facility in Belize during the summers of 2015 and 2016, and at the Florida Museum of Natural History from 2016 to 2020. Each identified specimen was assigned an identification number formed of the lot number given during excavation and a number from 1 to x in ascending order (e.g., LA-lot number-X, or LA2966-001).

Data recorded for every faunal specimen include taxon, skeletal element, element side, element portion and completeness, length (in mm), and weight (in grams). When possible, the estimated age and sex of the specimen were noted. Surface modifications were also observed and include surface preservation, an estimate of preserved surface, presence of natural modifications, burning, gnawing, butchery marks, and other artifact modifications. All remains were observed with a magnifying glass (10X) under a low-angle light to facilitate the identification of surface modifications. Specimens displaying cut marks, percussion marks, gnawing marks, or any other characteristic of interest were photographed with a Nikon D3200, using an 18–55 mm VR lens or a 40-mm DX macro lens. Taxonomic abundances were quantified using the Number of Identified Specimens (NISP) and Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI), while the Minimum Number of Elements (MNE) and, when possible, the Number of Distinct Elements (NDE) were used to quantify skeletal elements. An extensive refitting program was also undertaken to identify intra- and inter-level refits.

This study sampled 14 unburned mammal bone samples for AMS radiocarbon dating at the University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Lab. Dates were calibrated with OxCal v4.4.4 using the IntCal20 Northern Hemisphere curve. Bone and tooth specimens were also sampled for carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotope analysis, and tooth samples were used for strontium and lead isotope assessments. All samples for isotope analysis were prepared in the Bone Chemistry Laboratory, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, under the supervision of Dr. John Krigbaum. Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen ratios were measured using a Finnigan-MAT 252 isotope ratio mass spectrometer by Dr. Jason Curtis in the Light Stable Isotope Mass Spec Lab, Department of Geological Sciences, UF. Strontium and lead extraction and isolation were performed in the Department of Geological Sciences clean laboratories supervised by Dr. George Kamenov. A Nu-Plasma multiple-collector inductively-coupled-plasma mass spectrometer (MC-ICP-MS) was used for measuring strontium and lead isotope ratios. Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy was also used to evaluate potential diagenetic changes to bone apatite. FTIR spectroscopy was performed at the Research Service Centers, Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, UF, under the supervision of Dr. Gary Scheiffele.

Potential Applications of the Data:

The zooarchaeological, taphonomic, and isotopic data from this project can be used by scholars investigating indigenous political economy, regional and macroregional exchange networks, animal husbandry, bone and shell crafting, resource intensification, impact of Spanish colonialism on indigenous communities, and human-environment interactions.


The data were collected and analyzed by Arianne Boileau for her dissertation research, which was supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Award (No. 2001676), Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research (No. G201603152038355), James C. Waggoner Jr. Grants-in-Aid, Tinker Travel Grant, CLAS Dissertation Fellowship, Dienje Kenyon Memorial Fellowship, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellowship, Fonds de recherche du Québec Société et culture Doctoral Research Scholarship, and travel funding by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida’s Department of Anthropology.

Current Disposition of the Physical Collection:

Collections on loan to the Florida Museum of Natural History Environmental Archaeology Program by the Belize Institute of Archaeology, National Institute of Culture and History.

Related Publications:

Boileau, Arianne (2021) Identifying Household-Level Political Economy on the Maya/Spanish Frontier: A Zooarchaeological Perspective from Lamanai, Belize. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Boileau, Arianne (2019) El uso de la tafonomía arqueozoológica para examinar la estratigrafía de la época postclásica-colonial en Lamanai, Belice. Cuadernos del Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano 7(2). Series Especiales:34–42.

Graham, Elizabeth (2011) Maya Christians and their churches in sixteenth-century Belize. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Graham, Elizabeth, David M. Pendergast, and Grant D. Jones (1989) On the Fringes of Conquest: Maya-Spanish in Contact Colonial Belize. Science 246:1254–1259.

Morin, Eugène, Cédric Beauval, Arianne Boileau, Elspeth Ready, and Véronique Laroulandie (2019) The Number of Distinct Elements: Extending a Landmark-based Counting Unit to Other Taxa. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 24:773–784. DOI:10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.01.007.

Morin, Eugène, Elspeth Ready, Arianne Boileau, Cédric Beauval, and Marie-Pierre Coumont (2017) Problems of Identification and Quantification in Archaeozoological Analysis, Part II: Presentation of an Alternative Counting Method. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 24(3):938–973. DOI:10.1007/s10816-016-9301-3.

Pendergast, David M. (1986) Stability through Change: Lamanai, Belize, from the Ninth to the Seventeenth Century. In Late Lowland Maya Civilization: Classic to Postclassic, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and E. Wyllys Andrews V, pp. 223–249. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM.

Pendergast, David M. (1991) The Southern Maya Lowlands Contact Experience: The View from Lamanai, Belize. In The Spanish Borderlands in Pan-American Perspective, edited by David Hurst Thomas, pp. 336–354. Columbian Consequences 3. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Pendergast, David M. (1993) Worlds in Collision: The Maya/Spanish Encounter in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Belize. Proceedings of the British Academy 81:105–143.

Simmons, Scott E. (2005) Investigations in the Church Zone: Maya Archaeometallurgy at Spanish Colonial Lamanai, Belize. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 2:231–239.

Wiewall, Darcy L. (2009) Identifying the Impact of the Spanish Colonial Regime on Maya Household Production at Lamanai, Belize. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California Riverside, Riverside, CA.

Annotations (1)

Property or Relation Value(s)
Editorial Note

Open Context editors work with data contributors to annotate datasets to shared vocabularies, ontologies, and other standards using 'Linked Open Data' (LOD) methods.

The annotations presented above approximate some of the meaning in this contributed data record to concepts defined in shared standards. These annotations are provided to help make datasets easier to understand and use with other datasets.

Suggested Citation

Arianne Boileau. "Household Zooarchaeology of Colonial Lamanai". (2022) Arianne Boileau (Ed.) . Released: 2022-09-11. Open Context. <> DOI:

Editorial Status

Managing editor reviewed

Mapping Data

Copyright License

Public Domain Mark 1.0

While this content is in the public domain, please appropriately cite the contributors and Open Context