Maya civilization thrived thousands of years ago in present-day Central America. Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 BCE, and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula of present-day Mexico beginning around 700 CE.

Throughout the film Quest for the Lost Maya, a team of anthropologists discovers the Maya may have been in the Yucatan as far back as 500 BCE. This new evidence indicates the Maya of this region had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.

In this segment from Quest for the Lost Maya, archaeologist Stephanie Simms analyzes teeth from a human burial found at an ancient Mayan site.

Scientific analysis of teeth can yield valuable data about what life was like for residents of the "Stairway Estate." The 1,200-year-old plaque contains traces of food, evidence of the Mayan diet. Analysis of the plaque reveals the Mayan diet was rich and diverse, and included many more plant-based foods than originally predicted. Some of these fruits and vegetables include squash, beans, tree fruit, and chili peppers. Evidence suggests ancient Mayans were skilled cooks who used a wide variety of foods and spices.

The segment also looks at indicators that some of the Maya living at this site may have been the first middle class of the Americas. Many people have a misconception that life for ancient Maya peasants was rough and poor, but this new evidence shows some Maya lived a very comfortable and prosperous existence.

  1. How can the scientists tell what kinds of food the ancient Mayans at this site ate? What were some of these foods?

    • Answer

      Scientists use chemical analysis of food particles found on the teeth of Mayan remains to determine the person's diet. They discovered the ancient Mayans at this site ate a large range of plant-based food, such as squash, beans, tree fruit, and chili peppers.

  2. What does the diet of the Mayans here indicate about their social status?

    • Answer

      The large variety of plant-based nutrients indicates that the people who lived here had extensive farming operations in the valley below.

  3. What sort of dental modifications were found among the remains at the ancient Mayan burial site? Why would the Mayans have wanted to modify their teeth?

    • Answer

      There were some teeth filings as well as inlays of jade, greenstone, or pyrite. Such ornamentation was considered to be cosmetically beautiful, and was a sign of a person’s wealth.

  4. What were other signs of wealth in these communities?

    • Answer

      Scientists found stone buildings that probably housed skilled workers.

  5. What does all this evidence point toward in relation to their society?

    • Answer

      This evidence indicates that theirs was probably the first society with a middle class in the Americas.


to study in detail.


very old.


person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.


person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.


complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.


foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.


data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.


people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

middle class

people and culture characterized by incomes between the working class and the wealthy.

thin material made of bacteria, mucus, and food particles that forms on the surfaces of teeth.

financially successful.