Sunday, September 29, 2013

Maya Influence

Consider the “Maya Influence” on the world after 1492 for just a moment.
Take a look at: 10 Maya foods that changed the world's eating habits,” for example. Christine Delsol writes, “Lost among the laurels heaped upon the Maya, though, is credit for their agricultural wizardry. When the conquering Spanish started carrying Maya food staples back to Europe and to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, it changed the world's eating habits. We're not talking about the Yucatán's deliciously exotic lime-and-achiote concoctions but food you buy every day in Safeway's produce aisles…”

The ten foods listed are Avacados, Papaya, Squash, Chocolate, Vanilla, Corn, Chiles, Tomatoes, Black Beans and Sweet Potatoes.

So back up for just a moment and consider just the Maya influence on the “western half of the world,” as we’ve been taught to think of it – and maybe it extends farther than the above map suggests. “Ancient Maya cuisine, reads the Wikipedia entry of the same title, “was varied and extensive. Many different types of resources were consumed, including maritime, flora, and faunal material, and food was obtained or produced through a host of strategies, such as hunting, foraging, and large-scale agricultural production. Plant domestication focused on several core foods, the most important of which was maize.
The two most common maize races of the Maya highlands are Olotón (Left) and Comiteco (Right).
Much of the Maya food supply was grown in forest gardens, known as pet kot.[1] The system takes its name from the low wall of stones (pet meaning "circular" and kot "wall of loose stones") that characteristically surrounds the gardens.

The Maya adopted a number of adaptive techniques that, if necessary, allowed for the clear-cutting of land and re-infused the soil with nutrients. Among these was slash-and-burn, or wideness, agriculture, a technique that cleared and temporarily fertilized the area. For example, the introduction of ash into the soil raises the soil’s pH, which in turn raises the content of a variety of nutrients, especially phosphorus, for a short period of time of around two years. However, the soil will not remain suitable for planting for as many as ten years. This technique, common throughout the Maya area, is still practiced today in the Maya region. Complementing wideness techniques were crop rotation and mil pafarming, employed to maintain soil viability and increase the variety of crops.”

Maybe you were thinking of somewhere in what’s now called North America as you read the words “forest gardens,” or “low stone walls” described as “circular walls of loose stones.”

Three Sisters as featured on the reverse of the 2009 Native American U.S. dollar coin

Wiki goes on to say, “Maya diet focused on four domesticated crops (staple foods): maize, squash, beans (typically Phaseolus vulgaris) and chili peppers. The first three cultivars are commonly referred to in North America as the "Three Sisters" and, when incorporated in a diet, complement one another in providing necessary nutrients.[2] Among the three, maize was the central component of the diet of the ancient Maya, and figured prominently in Maya mythology and ideology.
Maize? Isn’t that Corn? Maybe you were thinking you could say that was also the central component of the diet of the Ancient People who were leaving all those arrowheads and stuff around your neighborhood. I know they were in mine.
At Native Tech,Tara Prindle writes about Maize in New England:
“As the lifeways of mobile hunting and gathering were often transformed into sedentary agricultural customs, very slowly the cultivation of maize, along with beans and squash, was introduced into the southwestern and southeastern parts of North America. The practice of maize agriculture did not reach southern New England until about a thousand years ago.

A Penobscot man described the transformation of maize for the shorter growing season of northern New England. Maize was observed to grow in a series of segments, like other members of the grass family, which took approximately one phase of the moon to form, with approximately seven segments in all, from which ears were produced only at the joints of the segments. Native Americans of northern New England gradually encouraged the formation of ears at the lower joints of the stalk by planting kernels from these ears. Eventually, as ears were regularly produced at the lower joints of the cornstalk, the crop was adapted to the shorter growing season of the north and matured within three months of planting.

Native Americans of New England planted corn in household gardens and in more extensive fields adjacent to their villages. Fields were often cleared by controlled burning which enriched not only the soil but the plant and animal communities as well. Slash and burn agriculture also helped create an open forest environment, free of underbrush, which made plant collecting and hunting easier.” {From:}

"Forest Gardens," agricultural fields, "stone walls" and something simply referred to as "slash and burn."
And don't forget about Maize, where it came from and where it went... 

Amazing Maize: The Science, History and Culture of Corn 
When: Sept. 24-March 24, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 2013 
Price: Free with museum admission. 

It takes 25 corn plants per person per day to support the American way of life. This 10,000-year global genetic journey explores the relationship between people and corn, arguably the most productive domesticated plant and the greatest plant breeding achievement of all time. Visitors will be a-maized at the scientific, economic and cultural significance and impact of corn on daily life, past and present. 

For more info, visit
Amazing Maize delivers a WOW experience from the entryway's eye-popping 7-foot tall sculpture of corn products on through six sections taking us across 10,000 years of evolution from wild plant in Mesoamerica to today's genetically modified fields.
You can walk through and get the high points, or you can allow yourself to become thoroughly engaged with interactives, including some of the 4,200 corn-based products currently available, American Indian tribal relationships with corn featuring a larger-than-life replica of the Mayan corn god, scientific findings and technological advancements highlighted by a chance to climb aboard a tractor and manage thousands of acres of corn fields.
Built to feel like you're on a farm, there's a delightful brightness in the delivery of information that makes you feel like you're in a conversation. We start with "did you know it takes 25 corn plants per person per day to support the American way of life - from sweeteners to plastics, fuels to textiles, [M&Ms to baby powder], corn is a part of every life for nearly all of us."
Journeying through 5,000 square feet of space we find out why and how corn has remained the mainstay of human and animal life from its isolated beginnings in the heart of Mexico to its current penetrating appearance worldwide and out into space.
Amazement lurks around every corner - try pounding corn into meal the old way, meet up with a razorback hog and figure out why corn whiskey was an easier way to ship corn down the Ohio River. Make connections between moonshine and the Indy 500; corn, overpopulation and African slave trade; and corn and the discovery of vitamins. My ideal visit is to spend a day, with a lunch break at the Ayer's dining room savoring their corn-ingredient foods.


  1. One of the things that strikes me about the radiocarbon dates we have from most of the stone structures in the Northeast that have been dated is that their ages fall around 1000 A.D. or later. This is just around the time that maize horticulture was introduced to the region, presumably from locations to the south and west of here. Tying oneself to the corn requires certain adaptations, which may include the low stone walls and to demarcate fields and also the astronomical monuments to fix the planting season.

    But none of these things need to have come directly from the Maya! There is a well-documented trail of gradual diffusion from Mesoamerica into the American Southwest and Southeast, and then from there into the middle Mississippi Valley and up the Atlantic coast. The Mesoamericans (including the Olmec predecessors to the Maya, and the unnamed predecessors to the Olmec) had maize for 4,000 years before it got here!

  2. I'll repeat/paraphrase PWAX and my friend Jan Brown in saying, "We should be open minded to the possibilities." I'm not saying it was a direct influence, but the crop and the technology did diffuse into North America/Turtle Island - where even more landraces were developed...