More than mere food – the Maya’s gift of Maize

Last week we posted a disturbing scenario centred on Maya concerns over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) corn into Belize. It was great that the piece generated such interest and comments, and we’ll keep following the story.

However, when one person said, “I was surprised to hear that corn was so important to the Maya. I thought it was a North American thing…” I thought that was a bit like saying, “I was surprised to hear that oxygen was so important to people…”

But then you realise how little most of us know about this amazing food that is consumed all over the world in so many ways, or that, yes, it is one more thing we can thank the Maya for.

So before moving on, let’s put corn into some context.

Many people would be surprised to hear that maize actually travelled north and south from present day Mexico and Central America before spreading like a culinary wildfire around the world.

The Olmec and Maya are widely accepted as having cultivated tiny teosinte grain through selective breeding to, over centuries, become the corn of today. It was a very long, winding and still little understood road from domestication to Doritos.

There are several theories about the origin of corn, and whether it is a direct domestication of teosinte grain, which is native to south-eastern Mexico, or a hybrid of teosinte and a now extinct wild maize variety.

Whatever its origin, the cultivation of the corn we enjoy today probably began some 7,500 – 12,000 years ago, most likely in the Mexican highlands between Oaxaca and Jalisco, where the oldest known remains of maize were found. For example, stone milling tools with traces if maize were found in 8,700 year old layers of sediment in the Balsas River Valley, the widely accepted home of maize.

The earliest remains of corn, radiocarbon dated to around 6,700 years ago were found at the now famous Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca valley, while the oldest ears, dating back to 2750 BC were discovered in caves near Tehuacan, Puebla, Mexico. Somewhere along the line a leap was made from teosinte grain to corn, as archaeologists and anthropologists began finding traces of corn-starch rather than just remnants of grain on cooking implements.

[pullquote]The first Europeans to land in the Americas were looking for a different kind of gold, but what they brought back in the form of maize has had more value and a more far reaching and longer lasting effect on history than any material riches they could have dreamed of.[/pullquote]Things began heating up, corn-wise, about 1100 BC, when we begin seeing diversity and various strains emerging.

Maize clearly was a huge hit and began to spread quickly throughout Mesoamerica from about 1500 BC, with various tribes and cultures adapting, cultivating, preparing and serving it in different ways.

This is a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship – corn allowed humans to develop culture and trade, and humans further developed corn, ensuring its survival and spread. Think of a more sophisticated version of brightly coloured fruit attracting birds that spread the seeds far and wide – the fruit provides sustenance, the birds provide a vehicle for the fruit to spread and thrive.

The question of just how these early Olmec and Maya cultivators transformed the tiny teosinte grain, which has no kernels or any noticeable relationship to corn, is a matter of lively debate. Suffice to say they did, and humankind made a massive leap forward.

Small wonder that indigenous people throughout the Americas revere maize to the degree they do, as the role it played in the formation of all those cultures cannot be overstated.

Soon after the birth of Christ, maize cultivation spread rapidly throughout Mexico, then to the south and up into the north American continent before making its way throughout what is now the US and Canada. Native Americans went from hunter gatherers to hunter farmers and now had the time to develop their fascinating, rich cultures.

The first Europeans to land in the Americas were looking for a different kind of gold, but what they brought back in the form of maize has had more value and a more far reaching and longer lasting effect on history than any material riches they could have dreamed of.

By the late 1600s and early 1700s corn, which can grow in a wide range of climates and conditions, was taking off in Europe, both as food for humans and as animal feed.

So when Italians enjoy polenta, Peruvians drink chicha, Indians enjoy soak up curries with makki di rotti, Americans start the day with corn flakes, Brazilians savour canjica for dessert, the whole world pops popcorn, snacks on nachos, Fritos and corn dogs, soaks up beans with cornbread or just enjoys sweet corn on the cob, they should all take a moment to thank those resourceful Maya who helped kick-start corn as we know and love it.

Now that your appetite is whetted, stay tuned for next week when we go into more detail about the secular and sacred relationship between the Maya and maize. It’s a beautiful story, and we hope you’ll come away with an appreciation of why corn is looked upon as much more than just food. You’ll also understand why the preservation of the maize so carefully developed by their ancestors and grown in their villages, just as it has been for thousands of years, is of such importance.

The ancient Maya are one of humankind’s great civilisations, and the very foundation of their rich legacy of science, mathematics, astronomy and art is built on maize. Here at Chaa Creek, we hope that the huge 2012 Maya celebrations in Belize will help the rest of the world appreciate this incredible culture and the many gifts the Maya have given us.

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