Brosimum Alicastrum, The Ancient Maya Breadnut Tree

Did the Maya Build Forests of Breadnut Trees?

Brosimum alicastrum, ripe fruit opened showing the nut
Brosimum alicastrum, ripe fruit opened showing the nut. Janhendrix CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0, Wikimedia

The breadnut tree (Brosimum alicastrum) is an important species of tree that grows in the wet and dry tropical forests of Mexico and Central America, as well as in the Caribbean Islands. Also known as the ramón tree, asli, or Cha Kook in the Mayan language, the breadnut tree usually grows in regions that are between 1,000–6,500 feet (300–2,000 meters) above sea level. The fruits have a small, elongated shape, similar to apricots, although they are not particularly sweet. The seeds are edible nuts that can be ground and used in porridge or for flour. The modern Maya societies consume the fruit, cut timber for firewood, and leaves for animal fodder.

Key Takeaways: Breadnut Tree

  • The breadnut tree, Brosiumum alicastrum and known as the ramón tree in Maya societies, likely had a role for the ancient Maya as well. 
  • Historically, the tree is used for fruit, wood for fuel, and brush for animal fodder. 
  • Its use in prehistory has been debated, but evidence suggests that it is underrepresented in archaeological sites because of its basic nature.

The Breadnut Tree and the Maya

The breadnut tree is one of the dominant species of plants in the tropical Maya forest. Not only its density very high around ancient ruined cities, particularly in the Guatemalan Petén, but it can reach a height of around 130 ft (40 m), producing abundant yields and with several harvests possible in one year. For this reason, it is often still planted by modern Maya near their homes.

The widespread presence of this tree near ancient Maya cities has been explained variously as:

  1. The trees could be the result of a human-manicured or even deliberately-managed tree farming (agro-forestry). If so, it is likely that the Maya first simply avoiding cutting the trees down, and then eventually replanted breadnut trees near their habitations so that now they propagate more easily
  2. It is also possible that the breadnut tree simply grows well in the limestone soils and rubble fill near ancient Maya cities, and the residents took advantage of that
  3. The presence could also be the result of small animals such as bats, squirrels, and birds which eat the fruits and seeds and facilitate their dispersion in the forest

The Breadnut Tree and Maya Archaeology

The role of the breadnut tree and its importance in the ancient Maya diet has been at the center of many debates. In the 1970s and 80s, archaeologist Dennis E. Puleston (son of the famous environmentalist Dennis Puleston), whose unfortunate and untimely death prevented him from further developing his research on breadnut and other Mayan subsistence studies, was the first to hypothesize the importance of this plant as a staple crop for the ancient Maya.

During his research at the site of Tikal in Guatemala, Puleston recorded a particularly high concentration of this tree around the house mounds compared to other species of trees. This element, along with the fact that the breadfruit seeds are particularly nutritious and high in proteins, suggested to Puleston that the ancient inhabitants of Tikal, and by extension of other Maya cities in the forest, relied on this plant as much as or perhaps even more than on maize.

But Was Puleston Right?

Brosimum alicastrum (ramon, breadnut) nuts being dried in the sun
Brosimum alicastrum (ramon, breadnut) nuts being dried in the sun. Congobongo1041

Furthermore, in later studies, Puleston demonstrated that its fruit can be stored for many months, for example in subterranean chambers called chultuns, in a climate where fruit usually rots rapidly. However, more recent research has significantly decreased the role and importance of breadnut in the ancient Maya diet, defining it instead as an emergency food source in case of famine, and linking its unusual abundance near ancient Maya ruins to environmental factors more than human intervention.

One reason breadnut's prehistoric importance was downplayed by scholars was that the archaeological evidence for its presence was limited. Experimental studies by French archaeologist Lydie Dussol and colleagues have discovered that wood from B. alicastrum is more susceptible to breakdown during the combustion process, and is likely therefore under-represented in the collections.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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