By analysing ancient animal bones, researchers from the University of Florida (UF) have gained a better understanding of how the working class lived during the Mayan civilisation. Ashley Sharpe, a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, says that not enough is known about the average people of the time: "When you think about the Romans and the Greeks, we know a lot about all of the different social classes − from the Caesars down to the commoners − but although there were tens of thousands of middle-class and lower-income Maya in big cities, we still don't know much about the everyday lives of most people."

Researchers analysed 22,000 animal remains from the Florida Museum for clues on how the working class lived. They revealed a far more complex political and economic system than previously thought.

"We looked at how the Maya acquired and distributed animal resources in order to learn more about the economy and how the royal, elite and lower classes interacted," Sharpe continued. "It turns out, the Maya states and classes were not all homogenous. They had complicated systems in place for trade relations, distribution of food and access to species, which varied among the cities and social classes, much like they do today."

Along with the study's co-author, Kitty Emery, Florida Museum associate curator of environmental archaeology, Sharpe traced the movement of animals and their resources from the trade partners from whence they stemmed, all the way through to Aguateca and the capitals of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. Similarly, the duo tracked the flow of resources between the rich and poor in the capital cities to the poorer surrounding villages, according to the paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

"The Maya used animals for things like hides, tools, jewellery and musical instruments, but they were also vitally important as emblems of status, royalty and the symbolic world of the gods, and thus often were prime resources jealously guarded by the rich and powerful," Emery said. Their study yielded surprising results, she continued: "We had expected that the elites would have the highest diversity but that was not the case. The elites ate animals that were considered delicacies, sort of the way people in our own upper class eat things like caviar, but the rest of us think it's kind of gross."

Sharpe added: "These [working class] people didn't have pack animals like in the Old World where they had horses and donkeys to carry goods. They were literally carrying things on their backs from the sea. They did have rivers to help with transportation, but not a lot of rivers, and on land they also had the jungle to contend with."

More than half of the skeletons unearthed at Yaxhilan were of deer, which tells the authors that the locals relied on nearby forests to feast, including the deer that fed on their crops. There was also evidence the Maya may have regulated hunting and fishing. "This is the first time we're seeing this sort of evidence for what the middle and lower classes were doing," Sharpe said.