Maize was one of the most important things in the Maya culture, and not only regarding diet. Here, we will see other roles of maize in Maya civilization.
The base of food and agriculture
The ancient Maya people were mainly farmers. They depended on agriculture for their subsistence, which is why the weather (change of season, time of rain, etc.) was very important. Accordingly, the Maya calendar was created for the adequate planning of different farming tasks of maize lands.
Maize was the most important crop in Maya agriculture for many reasons: it grew well in the climate, it was easily stored, it could be eaten in a number of ways (e.g. whole or used as a type of flour), and had many other uses (e.g. for baskets, fuel, etc.), making it an indispensable part of life.
The maize harvest was enough to feed the whole population of farmers and generate a surplus to support the government and elite (i.e. religious people, warriors, writers, public workers, and artists).
The Maya closely linked the agricultural cycle to astronomy and religion, which is why the Maya religion was conceived around crops and the deities who governed their growth.
Religion and mythology
Maize was so important to the ancient Mayans that it even had spiritual and religious significance. According to Maya mythology, human beings were created from maize: white corn was used for the bones, yellow corn for the muscles, black corn for the eyes and hair, and red corn for the blood.
One of the most important Maya deities was the 'Young Maize God'. Typically portrayed with a head in the form of an ear of maize, he appeared in Maya mythology as the creator god. Descending to the underworld, he reappeared with the world tree, which held the center of the earth and fixed the four cardinal directions. One of the names of the Maya maize god was Yum K'aax ('Master of the Fields in Harvest'), and another, at Palenque, was Hun-Nale-Ye ('One Revealed Sprouting').
Yum K‘aax was a passive and defenseless deity, a victim of attacks from all kind of birds, insects, and rodents, and whose survival depended on rain. On the mortal side, human being was an ally of maize.
Maize was also used in popular medicines against hepatitis, hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems, tumors, rheumatism, and other diseases. It was applied like as a poultice or ointment.
In addition, images of maize have been found on archeological artifacts, murals, and hieroglyphs of these early civilizations. It is also a very important symbol present in many Guatemalan textiles.
Preparation of meals
Maize is prepared by boiling it in water with lime and later drained. At this point, the maize is wet and crushed with a millstone to get a mix that can be cooked and prepared in different ways. For example, this mix can be made into a dough for baking on a flat-stone (metate) to make tortillas.
Besides the traditional “tortillas”, they had more than 400 ways of using maize. They would normally prepare it with frijoles, squash, meat, vegetables, or fruit, which resulted in a nutritious meal.
Nowadays, maize still continues being a crucial part of the Maya diet. So much so, that many times it represents more than 60% of daily food intake.
For the reasons given above and others, maize is not just food in this region; it's also part of the ancestral tradition and hugely important in the beliefs of their culture.
Written by Ester Álvaro