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When Christopher Columbus landed in America he wasn't in search of a new world; he was looking for a shorter trade route to transport spices from the Far East to Europe. However he found something far more valuable: corn.

Texy by Juan José Morales / Illustrations by Carlos Porras and Roberto Franco

The great civilizations of Mesoamerica —the Maya, Aztec, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Olmec, and others— could not have existed without corn. Called maiz in Spanish, corn was basic in their diet and their more revered crop.

    Corn as staple and symbol played a major role in all aspects of Maya life. It made an appearance in everything from religion to mythology. Simply put, they lived by and for corn. Having a higher yield than wheat, rice, sorghum, barley, rye or any other New World grain, corn not only fed the masses that produced it, it fed the non-laboring elite (the nobility, priests, warrior class, scribes, artists and public officials who administrated the kingdom and created its culture).

    Having fed themselves and their rulers, the working population had time for road maintenance and pyramid building. Indeed, their work was so splendid that much of it is still standing; palaces, temples and ceremonial roads that, in their day, were far grander than anything built by their contemporaries anywhere.

    The Maya considered corn a gift from the gods and cultivating it was a sacred duty. It was so highly esteemed that jade, the most sacred of stones, was used to symbolize it (its green color reminiscent of tender green corn). In fact, according to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, humankind itself was made of corn —the gods had tried other materials and failed.


Corn is still the basis of the Maya diet; in many communities, it represents 50% to 70% of the daily food intake. This suggests a monotony of fare that is simply not the case.

    Maya cooks are extremely resourceful when it comes to corn and the menu is varied and delicious. In addition to the omnipresent tortilla, there are more than 400 different recipes calling for corn.

    Corn has some protein, but is basically a source of carbohydrate, which supplies us with energy. When combined with beans (protein, iron and other minerals), squash (the seeds made into a paste provide a foodstuff as nutritious as cheese) and chile peppers (all the essential vitamins) you have just about everything the human body needs for good health. Now add fresh fruits and maybe some animal protein (pork, chicken and fish are the preferred meats) and you have a rich, multi-faceted diet.

    Another little-known benefit of corn is calcium. Corn is soaked in lye, or quick lime before grinding. This softens the kernels while allowing them to absorb the calcium put there by the lye. Calcium is essential to strong bones and the rarity of rickets throughout Maya land is no coincidence.

    Corn is widely used in home remedies and is a popular cure-all for hepatitis, hypertension, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, kidney problems, gallstones, rheumatism, warts, tumors and many other ailments. It is used in the form of cataplasms, tonics, salves and plasters. Infusions of corn silk —the long silky filaments that grow at the tip of the corncob— are an excellent diuretic.

    The Maya cultivate corn today just as they did thousands of years ago, using the "slash and burn" agricultural technique. Once they have selected the plot to be planted, they use their machete to remove low growth vegetation. Then they cut down the large trees, leaving the sacred cottonwood, along with a few other trees, which are valuable for their wood or fruit. These two steps are the "slash." Once the dead vegetation has dried, it is burned. Finally, the newly-cleared field is planted. All this must be done according to a very precise seasonal calendar, and during the dry season, just before the rains come. If the farmer or the village shaman miscalculate the dates, the land cannot be prepared and the harvest may be lost for lack of rain.

    Contrary to what many people believe, Maya cornfields are not just plantings of corn with the odd beanstalk. Some 20 to 30 different kinds of plants can be found there, among them bushes, vines and trees. A single field may yield watermelon, cantaloupe, macal, tomatoes, jicama, sweet potatoes and of course, squash. A family's orchard, which often seems extension of the house, also produces an abundance of foodstuffs from trees, bushes and plants which are cultivated in nursery-type set-ups.


The name maize, or maiz as it is known throughout the Spanish speaking world, comes from mahis, a word belonging to the Taino people of Cuba, and through whom the Europeans had their first contact with the grain. In Maya, corncobs are called naal, and the grain is known as x-im or xiim.

    The myths of different indigenous groups concur that corn was originally hidden under a mountain or an enormous rock and only the ants could reach the grains to eat them. But after learning of the grain's existence from —depending on the version— foxes, rats, mountain cats, coyotes, crows, parrots, lice, magpies or other animals, man asked for the gods' help and, after various attempts, the gods were able to remove the precious food from under the ground and made it available to all mankind. In the Chilam Balam de Chumayel, a book of sacred stories, the author of this feat was Chaac, god of thunder and rain, and in all variations of the myth, the woodpecker appears to aide the gods, and ever since, the woodpecker's head has been red because of the wound he received from a fragment of rock. According to these legends, in the beginning, all corn was white, but a lightening bolt which one of the gods hurled upon the rock to break it burned, smoked or singed some of the grains. That is why there are now black, yellow and red varieties of the grain. In addition, the Popol Vuh tells us that from a mixture of white and yellow grains the current human race was formed.

    After the Conquest (16th century), the influence of the Catholic religion was felt in the ancient tales of the origins of corn, so there are even some accounts that along with beans, potatoes and other food plants, corn was dropped off the back of Christ during the crucifixion.

    The tremendous religious importance of corn has not been lost; the grain still forms an integral part of many Maya ceremonies. In some areas of Guatemala, for example, a somewhat modified ceremony is still practiced in which the umbilical cord of a newborn child is severed over a corn cob which has been painted many colors, the cut to be made with a brand new obsidian knife which is to be used for this one occasion and then thrown into a river.

    The blood-splattered corn is then smoked and during planting season the grains are removed and carefully planted in the child's name. The product of these seeds is harvested and planted again and again. Part of the crop is used as a religious offering and the rest is used to feed the child until he is grown and able to plant his own field. In this way, every new member of the society not only eats by the sweat of his brow, but from his blood as well.


A similar ritual was first described by Friar Bartolome de las Casas and persists today among the Tzotzil tribe of the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In this ceremony only a part of the first crop was used to make a hot corn gruel for the child, while the rest was put aside until he was old enough to plant his field himself.

    According to J. Eric Thompson, one of the first explorers of the Mundo Maya, the grains splattered with the blood from the umbilical cord were planted by the father in the presence of all the family in a small corn field called "the child's blood". Later, in a type of communion, the family would solemnly consume the crop from that field.

    Other beliefs reflect the great power and value conferred upon corn. Among the Tzeltal people, another ethnic group from Chiapas, if a child is left alone, corncobs are placed on either side of him for protection.

    To waste corn is considered a grave offense, which can bring serious consequences. The Tzotzil say that if women do not pick up the grains they drop when grinding their corn, they will cause a black famine to fall upon their people.

    Children are plagued by what is known as the "red famine" if they play with their tortilla and do not eat it. According to the Lacandon Maya, also of Chiapas, sinners are turned into dogs or mules, condemned to work without rest...and among these are those who waste food.

    Failing to plant corn brings about dire consequences. The Mam of Chiapas have stories about talking corncobs that jump out at unwary travelers threatening to abandon them (the specter of starvation) if they continue to plant coffee instead of corn. Double cobs are symbols of fertility and are either offered on the family altar or their grains are planted in special rituals. In Guatemala, the largest cob of the harvest is tied to a rocket and fired into the air. If it reaches a great height, it is a sign that the next harvest will be an abundant one. In Belize, the owner of the corn field must personally pick the last few ears in a special ritual designed for him to find the spirit of the corn, and then he must anoint the corn with the blood of a chicken. These cobs are mixed in with the seed for the next planting to guarantee the spirit will remain in his field.


As is to be expected, there was a god of corn among the ancient Maya. In general, anthropologists concur that this god was Yum K'aax, who was depicted as a young man with long, silky tresses —symbolizing the long filaments or 'hair' on the cobs— and a beautiful face with classic Maya profile, who wore a headdress made of a corn stalk surrounded by leaves. In their hieroglyphic writing system, the head of the god was depicted by the number "8", over which he is the lord, and the sign which indicates his name, Kan, is also the eighth day, or corn day, just as our Monday is the day dedicated to the goddess of the moon or Friday to the German goddess Frig.

    However, there are certain doubts or contrary opinions about Yum K'aax being the original corn god since records from the colonial period indicate other names by which he was known —Kauil, Ah Uaxac Yol Kauil, and Itzam Na Kauil. Uil means sustenance and Kaa is the root word which means "excess" or "abundance." However, it may be that the god of corn was characterized as a passive and defenseless creature, victim of all kinds of attacks by birds, insects or rodents, one whose survival depended on the help of the god of rain in the form of timely rainfall. But man was also Corn's ally, with his rituals and offerings to attract rain, weeding out the plants that robbed Corn of space and nutrients, scaring off predators and, above all, giving life to the god by planting him. In gratitude for all man's care, Corn fed him.

    This mythical concept depicts a biological reality. Of all known plants, corn is the only one, which depends on man to such a degree that it cannot even reproduce without him. The grains and seeds are firmly attached to the cob, tightly wrapped by the thick husks which, even when the cob ripens and falls to the ground, make it impossible for the seeds to free themselves and germinate into new plants. That is why modern forms of corn cannot exist in the wild. Geneticists continue working to obtain higher yielding, pest and climate-resistant strains. They are also trying for more nutritious varieties with higher amino acids content and strains with shorter growth cycles able to produce two crops a year. The work goes on, and the story of corn is really just beginning.

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