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  Maya Agriculture

 Euchlæna luxurians, or Teosinte, Originally from Guatemala, The maize Grand ParentGuatemala and its neighboring areas, are the habitat of the Euchlæna luxurians, the wild grass, hybridized with Tripsacum spp from which, the Maize Zea Luxurians, found only in Guatemala and Nicaragua (formerly Zea Guatemala) is derived. It is named "Teosinte" a name that came with the first Guatemalan accession and seems not to have been used in ancient Mexico, the Zea Mays is the variety developed by cultivation. Zea mays ssp. huehuetenangensis is the only teosinte polen, with the same size of the modern Maize. No teosinte has been found in the Caribbean watershed of lowland Mesoamerica, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Yucatan Peninsula. Irene Holst et al,PNAS | November 6, 2007 | vol. 104 | no. 45 | 17608-17613

Immature ears of Zea diploperennis, with few mature grain cases, one of which is cracked open to expose the grain

Zea mays  parviglumis
var huehuetenangensis plants.
(All photos by Hugh Iltis and J.F. Doebley) 

Teosinte and  primitive maize 

Maya agriculture was the foundation of civilization. Populations in densely forested regions, such as El Petén, "The cradle of the Maya civilization",  in Guatemala, often rely on slash-and-burn agriculture. At first glance, this might seem like the approach the Maya used, but NASA archeologist Tom Sever doesn’t think so. “In slash-and-burn agriculture, people clear the land to plant corn, for instance,” he said. “They get 100 percent productivity the first year, 60 percent the next year, and something less than that Cacao Pods (Pochas) in the treeafterwards. So in three to five years, the land is basically useless, and they have to move on.” In a sparsely populated region, slash-and-burn agriculture might work, but Mesoamerica around 800 A.D. was one of the most densely populated areas in the pre-industrial world. The simple “Slash and burn wouldn’t have enabled a population to grow to that size,” he said. Sever believes the Maya took a different approach to farming: effective water management. “The biggest threat we face doing fieldwork in this region is dying of thirst,” Sever explained.

Even the rainforest experiences an annual dry season; the trees hang on by tapping groundwater. “The Maya couldn’t use groundwater because it was 500 feet below them, and they had no technology to reach it, so they depended on rainwater.” In the Petén region Sever studies, rainwater accumulates in swamplands, known as bajos, that cover about 40 percent of the landscape. Today, that rainwater evaporates before anyone can use it effectively, but excavations and satellite images have revealed networks of canals among the Cibales or bajos, (the breadbasket of the Maya world), (left picture: Bajo in blue, dry land in green, and higher elevations in orange), apparently dug during the time of the Maya. Sever, suspects that the Maya used the canals to redirect and reuse the rainwater. This labor-intensive agriculture, which probably kept farmers working diligently all day, would have barely outpaced demand.

Bajos were fundamental for the development of the Maya Culture
Bajo near
Landsat, denoting canals and ancient farming activity
Mirador Basin Bajos and Cannals signaled, Satellite Photo
Used as water source for agriculture
Wetland near

If the Maya farmed the bajos, however, they took advantage of an additional 40 percent of the landscape, which would have made a significant contribution to food production. Before its collapse, the Mayan empire stretched out from its center in Guatemala’s Petén region across the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. Pollen samples collected from columns of soil that archeologists have excavated across the region provide evidence of widespread deforestation approximately 1,200 years ago, when weed pollen almost completely replaced tree pollen. The clearing of rainforest led to heightened erosion and evaporation; the evidence of the erosion appears in thick layers of sediment washed into lakes. This also disrupted the intensive agricultural system, that they have been using during 2000  years. (NASA -DAAC Study, Michon Scott).


CHAAC Rain and Agriculture god

There has been considerable discussion devoted to the question of the alignment of Mesoamerican sites. In general the focus has been upon the relationship of architectural features to celestial phenomena which were important for calendrical reasons, probably related to agriculture. Nowhere in the world was so much energy invested in domesticating plants and the tremendous variety in our own diet. Maize (Ixim), beans (B'u'ul), squashes (Lek), chili peppers (Ik'), cotton (So'ol'), sweet potato (Kamot), and various kinds of fruit trees were cultivated, the Maya stored their crops in above-ground cribs of wood, but also in fine underground places which might well be the chultún so common in Classic sites. It is not certain that the lowlands Maya ate (waj) tortillas (Waj -flat cakes), but other ways of preparing maize are mentioned in the early sources. These include (ul) or atol, a corn-meal gruel which was taken with chili pepper as the first meal of the day; (Sakha')  or posol, a mixture of water and sour-dough carried in gourds to the fields for sustenance during the day; and the well-known tamal, usually mixed with meat, chili and Chaya (Chay) a high protein herb also known as Mayan spinach, native to Guatemala. The peasant cuisine (we know little of that among the elite class) was largely confined to such simple foods as to stews compounded from meat and vegetables, to which were added squash seeds and peppers, as findings in the garbage pits in the back of the homes shows.

 Guatemala is the habitat of the Euchlæna luxurians, the wild grass from which, in the opinion of XIX century botanists, the maize (Zea Mais), was developed by cultivation. The Maize, (Mainly the Nal-Tel variety), was prepared by boiling or soaking it in lime water and then draining it in a gourd colander. While it was still wet, it was ground on a metate--a small stone table--with a mano, a cylindrical hand-stone. The resulting paste was most commonly mixed with water to make atol or (ul), a thin gruel, or formed into cakes, the still familiar tortillas, which were roasted on a flat pottery griddle and eaten with beans or chili. On special occasions chocolate was mixed with ground maize and spiced with chaya, chili and meat and wrap in Maxán  leaves to boil them (Tamales). Beans (b'u'ul) and squash were often planted in the same hole with the maize or the rows between. There were numerous varieties of squash and pumpkin, and two varieties of beans, a red one and a black one.

The Maya cultivated cacao in forest gardens in which every tree had a function. As a result, the trees that provided shade for the cacao also provided thatching and building material, fodder, oilseeds, wood, medicines, fruit and allspice. Careful management of the shade ensures that the cultivated cacao doesn't grow too quickly and thrives in a healthy and controlled environment that closely replicates the natural wild environment of the cacao tree.

Maxan leaves used to wrap the tamal, this wrap is covered by Plantain leaves
Maxán leaves
Used to ground corn and other seeds
Metate (K´ab tun) and Mano (K´ab ka)
Palace scene with foods used in Todays Guatemala
Petén Late Classic Vase, Note the Chocolate pot
and the Tamales below covered  by Tomato and Chili sauce (Chirmol)

Since the archaic period a little kind of maize was being grown near the margins of the lake Petenxil, a good 1,000 years before the first pottery-using farmers are known for the region, a slowly increasing number of grinding tools relating to the processing of seeds and other vegetable materials, and gradually expanding and perhaps seasonal dependence upon marine resources. Investigations at lake Puerto Arturo, in the Mirador Basin, pollen records that include the mid Holocene show decreasing forest  from ca. 4000-2000 B.C. (Leyden 2002). Without concurrent evidence of agriculture, it has been difficult to isolate a cause for this decrease. Maize pollen at ~2650 B.C. in the Puerto Arturo core suggests that forest clearance by early agriculturalists was responsible. Although populations must have been relatively small at this time, their land use practices had a clear impact on the environment. At least four more phases of increased disturbance alternating with periods of ecological recovery occurred during the following 2500 years. Changes in the local landscape correspond to the onset of sedentary village life. The pollen evidence shows an abrupt rise in grasses and weeds around 1450 B.C., concurrent with an accelerated decline in forest. Similarly, the first large pulse of erosion occurred around 1400 B.C. Disturbance/recovery phases occur approximately every 500 years during the period of prehistoric settlement. The final recovery phase began ~1000 AD (David Wahl, 2005).

 Maize cobs are found in the
Pacific Lowlands  sites beginning about 1700 BC, but these are small and not very productive ears...carbon pathway analysis of human skeletal material has shown that maize was not very important in the diet of these Early Preclassic villagers...it is confirmed that they might have been relying on Yucca, manioc or cassava, and ancient root crop of the New World tropics, rather than maize,  the evidence for this comes from Cerén in El Salvador."

 Both wild and domestic turkeys were known, the
larger mammals, such as deer and peccary, were hunted with the bow-and-arrow in drives (though in Classic times the Halab' (a long range bow), and darts must have been the principal weapon), aided by packs of dogs. Birds like the wild turkey, partridge, wild pigeon, quail, and wild duck were take with pellets shot from blow guns, and the rivers and coast line provided fish, sea shells, crab and shrimp. A variety of snares and deadfalls were shown in the Madrid Codex, especially a trap for armadillo.

Early Maya archaeologists had assumed that ancient Maya agriculture entailed little more than swidden cultivation. It turned out that they cultivated their fields as a community, planting seeds in holes made with a pointed wood stick in raised fields  not only on river beds, but also in swamps and bajos (wetlands), they were clearly important Late Preclassic strategies that converted alleged “wastelands” into highly productive wetlands. Over the last few decades we have learned that the ancient Maya practiced strategies as diverse as terracing, drained fields, raised fields, canals, continuous cultivation involving crop rotation and household gardens, arboriculture, the use of the rapid growing white leadtree,  Leucaena Leucocephala as forage, firewood and fertilizer, as well as  other nitrogen sources, have been documented,  all geared to the conditions of specific locales.

Several colors are found in Guatemala, the black or purple tortillas are the ones with best flavor
Maya Corn
Several kinds in Guatemala  this are Diente de Perro (Dog Teeth)  
Chili Peppers
Several kinds, The Corona and Tronador are the best

The Incense burners were found in Royal Tombs, Nebaj and Tiquisate, produced the finest Classic Incense burbers

Guatemala Pacific lowlands Maize god whistle

Although an earlier generation of scholars linked the origins of sociopolitical complexity to maize agriculture, it is clear that many millennia and considerable increase in cob length and kernel size had to take place before sociopolitical complexity arose in the Maya area. Because corn is known to comprise as much as 75% of the modern Maya diet, earlier scholars also imagined that corn might have constituted 75% of the ancient Maya diet.

New evidence, however, indicates that lower maize percentages characterized the ancient Maya diet, particularly during the Preclassic era when human population density was lower and wild animals more plentiful. It also appears that even within the same village, maize consumption could vary. Not surprisingly, our new data show that Middle Preclassic Maya villages had a mixed economy—cultivated plants (e.g., corn, beans, and squash), wild plants (including tubers and roots), wild animals (e.g., turtles, armadillo, white-tailed and brocket deer, peccary, agouti, and marine and freshwater fish), and at least two domesticated animals (the dog and turkey). The source of honey was the native bee named Xunan-kab, (Melipona beecheii), a stingless species, thus they also practiced the apiculture.

Interesting studies near El Mirador in Puerto Arturo Lake, Petén, Guatemala, Shows with a chronologic control, based in radiocarbon determinations. A long history of human activity in the Mirador Basin is indicated by 3600 years of watershed disturbance, from ~2700 B.C. to ~A.D. 900. This period coincides with a relatively dry climate in the southern Maya lowlands. Pollen shows an abrupt increase in anthropogenic disturbance in the Early Preclassic (~1450 B.C.), coincident with archaeological evidence of early settlement. (David Wahl, 2005. FAMSI)

CHAC giant Stucco Mask in Tikal

The Petén Lowlands consist primarily of upland tropical rainforests, interrupted by patches of savanna and seasonal swamplands named bajos. (40%)

Mirador Basin Bajos and Canals signaled, Satellite Photo

These three physiographic zones vary in drainage, slope, soil and vegetation. Much of the area lacks perennial fresh surface water, the most notable exceptions being the La Pasión and Usumacinta river drainages in the west, the Three Rivers (Holmul-Mopán-Poxte) region in the east, and the central Petén Lakes region. Monsoon-type rains inundate the area from May through December and provide the majority of fresh water. Annual rainfall averages between 1000 and 3000 millimeters and varies regionally, with the higher percentages falling in the south. Seasonal drought often occurs between January and April. Soil quality also varies regionally, the high potential of the soils in the Southern Pacific lowlands for intensive agriculture, however, soil quality is usually poor in humid tropic regions. Slope variation, ranging from rolling hills to steep escarpments, combined with deforestation and heavy rain makes erosion a major problem in the lowlands. Despite limitation set by soils, water, and slope, the Maya area was able to sustain large populations. Agricultural methods identified in the Maya lowlands include milpa, swidden, terracing,  raised field agriculture, and arboriculture (cultivation of tree crops), such as The Ixim té, Ujuxte or Breadnut tree, Cacao, Zapodilla, Papaya, Guava (Patah) and Avocado. They also collect Chewing gum from the Chicozapote tree and rubber from the hevea tree, which they used for balls for their Ball Game, and to make water proof clothes and shoes, tropical fruits and medicinal plants, Dams have been documented in several sites, the largest in the Maya area is in Río Azul.

Apis Melipora nestSome Cacao mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia),  honey from the Stingless beeAh Mucan Cab, bee god, esden codex named Xunan-Cab (Apis Melipona) (The natural polinizator of the vanilla orchid). The Mayans Apicultures  raised them in special hives made out of logs, gourds, clay pots, and other simple containers. Honey from these bees has lower sugar content than honey from the European honeybee, but the Melipona honey is considered better tasting. The Maya so honored honey and honey wine, they had festivals dedicated to the god of honey, Ah Mucan Cab. Chocolate was also mixed with a variety of flowers, and sometimes it was thickened with (ul) or atol, a corn gruel, and peanut butter. There were numerous variations, including a red variety made by adding annatto dye (achiote).

Maize tree in a Maya vase rollout
El Naranjo Vase, with a Ixim´che´ or Breadnut tree

Nebaj in Quiche produced fine pottery, Jade carvings and Incense burners
Nebaj Vase, showing a
Cacao tree

The Ramón is found in Petén and is being cultivated again
Ixim´che´, Breadnut tree  (Ramón) 

Breadnut seeds


Besides Corn and beans, they cultivated mandioc, jícama, sweet potatoes (Ipomea batata), guavas, and tomatoes also the Maya  are the sources of such familiar foods and seasonings as vanilla beans, chili peppers and chocolate. Most of the secondary food crops of the Central area were fruits such as the papaya, hog plums, nance plums, guavas (pasah) and the avocado pear. (See Guatemala's Fruit Trees photo gallery)

Although house platforms are not found within any of the vegetation zones that mark bajos,  there was occupation on almost every area of slightly higher land where patches of high forest occur as "islands" within bajos. The Mayanist call these areas of occupation "bajo communities" . The bajos could have served as sunken fields for agriculture, as they retained enough moisture for a third corn crop to be raised in addition to the two that are normal.

Multi-cropping, the practice of planting and harvesting a plot of land multiple times per year, was practiced on the terraces, first documented in Nakbé and El Mirador, in Northern Petén, terracing permits the cultivation of land normally not suited for agriculture, and damns such the one in Río Azul, provided water all the seasons. Without this and other intensive agricultural practices, this area could not have sustained the high population densities estimated for the Maya Lowlands during the Pre Classic and Classic periods.

The Tikal example is very educative, with a population in the Early Classic, estimated around 200,000  (1,600 inhabitants per Km2.), they need an Intensive Agricultural system. Agricultural and storage studies (in chultunes) undertaken in Tikal have demonstrated the continuous use of the Ixim´te´ or Maize Tree (breadnut, Ramón, or Brosimium alicastrum), which was used to prepare tortillas, sweet pastries or a thick porridge. Its dietary importance has been proven, as it has a high protein and caloric content. It was also easy to preserve for long periods of time, stored in chultunes, where it didn’t mold as it has only a 6.5% water content. Corn and beans tend to mold much faster than breadnut, due to their higher content of water. Breadnut was a widely accepted product, as well as maize, beans, pumpkin, chili, sweet potato, yucca, jícama and various medicinal and edible plants. These were widely consumed, suggesting that the environment at Tikal was not as hostile as once thought and that other agricultural products must have been cultivated in the region too. In today's Uaxactún, there is a recent project in order to export Breadnut flour, that has a flavor similar to the chocolate, and is helping to protect the forest.

The daily dietary supplements to their staple of maize, beans and breadnut included
animal meat, fish, sea products, root crops and local fruits. This diverse diet, together with products cultivated through both the extensive and intensive agricultural systems, enriched the subsistence of the Tikal population.



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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:35 -0500
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