Ritual exchange and the fourth obligation: ancient Maya food offering and the flexible materiality of ritual


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Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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Employing Mauss's notion of the fourth obligation, giving to the gods, this article develops a formulation of ritual exchange to examine the interactive nature of ritual practice. As a modality of interaction, ritual exchange is contingent upon enduring normative beliefs, such as perceived obligations to spiritual entities, and the social positions of ritual practitioners. Consequently, ritual exchange evinces not only the material and immaterial nature of sacred beliefs but also the potential flexibility and fungibility of social interaction. By considering a relatively under-utilized form of data to study past ritual, archaeobotanical remains, we employ this perspective to explore the ancient Maya practice of offering foods in several caves in western Belize. These data exhibit complex configurations of commonality and variability, suggesting the potential flexibility and latent fungibility of ritual exchange.

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