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Maize: food from the Gods?

In a 1982 exhibition, the Mexican National Museum of Culture claimed that maize was “not domesticated, but created”. Indeed, maize is accepted as Man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering. So much so, that it is even said to be a gift from the gods.

Philip Coppens


Great civilisations need a great asset. Ancient Egypt had the Nile. The Mayans had maize, or corn as others call it. Maize is accepted as Man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering. It nevertheless remains a largely enigmatic crop. Despite decades of research, there is no known wild ancestor; there is no known way to evolve a non-shattering variant; it is known that maize does not have a method to propagate itself – and thus relies on humans to survive as a species. Indeed, the human race – and definitely in the pre-Columbian New World – has entered into a powerful symbiosis with this cereal that has fed – and continues to feed – us.

At DNA level, all major cereals – rice, wheat, barley and maize – are very much alike. But maize is and acts differently from the rest. Left unattended, the other cereals will propagate themselves; maize will not. The reason for this is that maize kernels are located inside a tough husk, and hence it requires humans to sow maize – it cannot reproduce on its own. This is, of course, a major evolutionary disadvantage, but as maize has been created by Mankind, we have always guaranteed that the species does not die out – far from it.
No wild ancestor of maize has ever been found, despite decades of research. Maize’s closest relative is a mountain grass called teosinte, which looks nothing like maize. It is neither a practical food source. Most grasses develop grain near the top of the stem, which, when mature, will let the seed “shatter”, and the grains will fall to the ground, from which new grasses will grow. It guarantees the survival of the species, but is ill-suited for human agriculture. In wild wheat and barley, a single-gene mutation has blocked such shattering, which meant that these cereals became more easily harvestable for humans.
Teosinte shatters too and there is no known non-shattering variant. Furthermore, at least sixteen genes control teosinte and maize shattering, resulting in a complex problem for those trying to figure out how a non-shattering variation of maize might have occurred naturally – by accident – or how our distant ancestors figured out how to create such a feat; scientists continue to have no idea.

Pennsylvania geneticist Nina V. Federoff states that “to get corn out of teosinte is so – you couldn’t get a grant to do that now, because it would sound so crazy. Somebody who did that today would get a Nobel Prize! If their lab didn’t get shut down by Greenpeace.” Indeed, maize is, in origin, genetically modified food, which is at the centre of much controversy today. Still, our ancestors seem to not only have had no such social opposition, but more importantly, were able to pull this stunt off.
In July 2008, the date when maize might have been genetically engineered – i.e. created – was put even further back, to 10,000 years ago. The debate on the origins of maize had been transformed as scientists are now using new genetic and microbotanical techniques to distinguish domesticated maize from its wild relatives as well as to identify ancient sites of maize agriculture. These new analyses suggested that maize may have been domesticated in Mexico as early as 10,000 years ago.
Dr. John Jones and his colleagues, Mary Pohl, and Kevin Pope, evaluated multiple lines of evidence, including paleobotanical remains such as pollen, phytoliths, and starch grains, as well as genetic analyses, to reconstruct the early history of maize agriculture. Jones and his co-workers analyzed the sediments from San Andrés, in the state of Tabasco on the Mexican Gulf Coast. Analysis of area sediments revealed phytoliths of domesticated varieties of maize as well as those of agricultural weeds. These data, along with evidence of burning, suggested that agriculturalists were active in that part of the Yucatan Peninsula around 7,000 years ago.

Archaeological remains of early maize ears, found at Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley, date back ca. 3450 BC, with the oldest ears from caves near Tehuacán, Puebla, dating to ca. 2750 BC. In the 1960s, Richard S. MacNeish found more than 20,000 whole or partial maize cobs in five caves in the Tehuacán Valley. The natural refuse he was investigating was an archaeological treasure, which became used in the debate between Harvard botanist Paul C. Mangelsdorf and Stanford geneticist George Beadle. In the late 1930s, both had proposed theories on the origins of maize, with Beadle arguing that maize was a direct descendent from teosinte. Beadle’s camp is largely seen as the most widely followed, but as usual, popularity should not be equated with scientific validity.
Mangelsdorf’s rejection of Beadle’s theory was harsh, stating that teosinte played no role in the origins of maize at all, and argued it originated from a mixture of now extinct wild maize and wild grasses of the genus Tripsacum. Mangelsdorf worked with MacNeish and used his archaeological discovery to cement his theory in the minds of his peers, largely killing the teosinte theory.
However, in 1970, the teosinte theory was taken up again by Wisconsin botanist Hugh Iltis. But… in 1997, Duke biologist Mary W. Eubanks resurrected Mangelsdorf’s theory, but with a twist, arguing that maize had been created by repeatedly crossing zeo diploperennis, a rare maize relative, and another cousin species, Eastern gamagrass. As proof for this latest of theories, she announced the creation of a Zea diploperennis-gamagrass hybrid in the laboratory, which displayed the characteristics of ancient maize. But because the combination of these two plants is not “normal”, Eubanks argued that the mixture of both plants occurred by coincidence. The alternative would be that someone, millennia before Christ, was a far better genetic engineer than any currently working in the hundreds of scientific laboratories on the planet.

Yale archaeologist Michael D. Coe has labelled maize the key to the understanding of Mesoamerican civilisation: “Where it flourished, so did high culture.” Coe’s research has led him to the conclusion that the harvest of maize became an economical asset between 2000 and 1500 BC. Little change occurred in ear form until ca. 1100 BC, when great changes appeared in ears, as found in those Mexican caves. Maize diversity rapidly increased; as it was introduced to new cultures, new uses were developed and new varieties selected to better serve in those preparations.
In Mexico alone, more than fifty races have been identified. As a rule, domesticated plants are less genetically diverse than wild species, but maize is one of the few farm species that is more diverse than most wild plants. Of these fifty variations, at least thirty are native to Oaxaca, according to Flavio Aragón Cuevas, a maize researcher at the Oaxaca office of the National Institute for Forestry, Agriculture and Fisheries Research.

It is at around 1500 BC that the first evidence of large-scale land clearing for milpas appears, and with it appeared the Olmecs. Indian farmers grow maize in a milpa, a “maize field”, which, unlike modern farming methods, is not always recently cleared. Farmers plant a dozen crops together, including maize, avocados, melon, tomatoes, sweet potato, and varieties of squash and beans. Some of these plants lack nutrients which others have in abundance, resulting in a powerful, self-sustaining symbiosis between all plants grown in the milpa. The milpa is therefore seen by some as one of the most successful human inventions – alongside maize.

A traditional milpa

There are places in Mesoamerica that have been continuously cultivated for 4000 years and are still productive. The milpa is the only system that permits that kind of long-term use. Hugo Perales notes that amongst the Tzotzil of San Juan Chamula, 85 percent of the farmers planted the same maize landraces as their fathers, varieties that have been passed on and maintained for generations.
Alas, the milpa cannot be applied on an industrial scale, but it is clear that it comes with none of the deficits industrial farming has.

Riding on the maize revolution, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Olmec art has a central place for this crop, with ears of maize springing from the skulls of supernatural beings. The king’s clothes often included a headdress with an ear of maize emblazoned on the front. Later, the Mayans too would hold maize centrally important. In Mayan hieroglyphics, the ear of maize became equivalent with the highest royal title, ahaw. In the Popul Vuh, the Maya creation story, humans were created from maize. And, indeed, for those who have seen in the Popol Vuh evidence of extra-terrestrial intervention, and who are equally aware that the invention of maize was a tremendous display of genetic engineering, these people have argued that maize has been created by extra-terrestrial beings.
Maize was definitely seen as a gift from the gods. One version of the creation myth states that when the Medicine Rite was first created by the good spirits, each of them contributed something that would help the humans overcome the evil spirits. After all the spirits had made their contributions, Grandmother (Earth) came forward and spoke to Hare: “Look at my breast, grandson.” Then, unexpectedly, there grew from one of Grandmother’s breasts a plant that no-one had ever seen before. It grew immediately from her nipple into a full stalk with ripe ears of corn ready to eat. “This, grandson,” said Earth, “is maize. The two-legged walkers may eat its corn forevermore.” As sexual as the story may be, it also has a practical usage: when the corn is white and milky in the centre, it is time to harvest the crop.
Other myths are trying to incorporate the diversity of maize, and thus read how the Mother of Maize changed her dove appearance to a human one. At one point, she identified her five daughters to a young man; the daughters symbolise the five maize sacred colours: white, red, yellow, spotted and blue.

So, in the beginning was the word, and the word was maize. Among the Maya of Guatemala, the maize deity is still worshipped today, and today, it is variously a male and female deity, whereas in origin, it seems to have been specifically linked with female deities.
The question is whether science and myth agree or disagree over the place of birth of this new species. Science believes that Oaxaco was the centre of the cereal’s emanation. According to the Popol Vuh, Paxil was the name of the place where maize originated. Paxil is part of Tamoanchan, the mythical homeland of the Mayans, which is also where the “Mother of Maize” is said to reside. Evidence to its whereabouts are scant, but descriptions of Tamoanchan appearing in the Florentine Codex indicate that at least the Postclassic Nahuas thought that it was located in the humid lowlands region of the Gulf Coast of Mexico, inhabited by the Huastec Maya people. That, of course, is also the area that we today associate most intimately with the Olmecs.

So, at present, myth and scientific theories seem to be at odds. What about its origins? The myths state that in ancient times there was no maize, and that humans ate the roots of a plant called txetxina (mother Maize), a plant with a very large root and a single stalk. “It was then that the ancients realised that the excrement of the mountain cat (wech) contained maize.” This would argue for Mary W. Eubanks’ conclusion, that the actual discovery of maize was a coincidence, which humans chanced upon, rather than the end result of a series of genetic manipulations.
A more elaborate rendition of this account goes that “In those distant times, it is said that animals could speak. This was why the people of the region asked the mountain cat where he went to feed, and they asked him to show them this place. The mountain cat told them that someone should go with him to see the place where he fed. So the ancients sent the louse to travel on the back of the mountain cat to see where his mount went; but the louse fell off on the way and never reached the place where the maize grew. They immediately sent the flea, again on the back of the mountain cat; but the flea also fell off though it managed to jump back on and cling to the cat’s back to reach the place that was sought. Thus, when the flea returned, he was able to tell the ancients the place where the maize grew. From then on, people stopped eating the root of txetxina.”

But the Mayan creation myths go further than merely pointing out where and how they chanced upon maize, and explain it in a far richer context. In practice, maize and Man lived in a form of symbiosis, and though it might appear that the gods showed Man where this plant was living, in mythology, and in the symbolism of the Ixquic’s children and their origin, maize is seen as the material from which the first humans were actually created. After all, Tamoanchan was the residence of the gods, and the place of birth not only of maize, but also of Mankind. And what came first, Man or Maize, is a matter of some mythological debate.

The Mayan creation myths have other episodes involving maize. Ixquic was made pregnant by the skull of Hun Hunahpu, which hung from the calabash tree. Hun Hunahpu is often seen as a manifestation of the god of maize. Since she was repudiated by her father Cuchumaquic, the Lord of Xibalbá, she went to find the mother of Hun Hunahpu, Ixmucané. When she arrived and announced herself, her grandmother told her to go and bring food for those who needed to be fed: “go and harvest a large net of maize and come back at once”, she said. Ixquic went to the maize field, but there was only one stalk of maize, one stalk with its single ear of grain. The girl’s heart was filled with anguish and hence she invoked the guardians of the crops, imploring them to help: “Ixtoc, Ixanil, Ixcacau, you who cook the maize.” Then she took the tuft of red hairs of the maize, without cutting the cob, and she placed them in the net as if they were corncobs. The net filled itself completely. The animals of the field took the maize to the house.
“Where did you get all this maize from?” asked Ixmucané. “You must have finished our maize field off.” She herself then went to the maize field and saw that there was still the single stalk of maize with its cob. “This is the proof that you are my daughter-in-law,” she said. And Ixquic had proven her state as a deity to Ixmucané.

Maize also placed a central role in the story of Hun Hunahpu itself. He descended into the underworld realm of Xibalba, to confront the twin lords of death. After a number of trials, the maize god was defeated and sacrificed and the underworld lords took his head and placed it in the branches of a dead tree. The instant the head touched the tree, it miraculously came to life with abundant foliage and fruits that resembled the god’s skull.
It is clear that there are several parallels here: like the maize god, the dead seed of maize is planted beneath the earth in the underworld. With time, the grain of maize germinates and sprouts new life from its dry, bony husk. Ancient art often depicts the maize god rising out of a cleft in the earth with his arms outstretched, a symbol of his rebirth from death as a maize plant. In the central panel from the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque, the World Tree appears as a fruitful stalk of maize, each ear bearing the head of the maize god.

These and other myths involving maize show that it was primarily the role of women who conserved maize. Indeed, the introduction of maize into society also came with a new social responsibility: to make sure that the crops would never fail. For once a society had made this unique – and vital – bond with the crop, any disaster befalling the crop, would mean disaster would befall society.
One of the most repeated stories, told in many villages of Guatemala and Mexico, talks about the participation of ants in the appropriation of maize by man, which is what happens during a famine. We also find other stories, which suggest that our ancestors realised the danger of relying on one crop, and made alternative arrangements, in case of disaster. This back-up crop was a plant known as “donkey’s or mule’s helmet”, a plant the people of Guatemala and Mexico knew could be found in the mountains, where their ancestors went to gather it. They used it to make tortillas or drinks to compensate for shortages of maize.

In Central America, the cultivation of maize also lies at the foundation of the calendar, divided into a rain and a dry season. The year is divided into ritual periods of sowing and harvesting of 260 days respectively, with 100 surplus days. The first phase starts on February 14. It is the period of the preparation of the land, in which there are 73 distinct days for the burning of the fields and the tilling of the earth and 67 for the sowing, the sprouting and the growing of the stalks (140 days). The second phase (starting in July) of 120 days, corresponds to the flowering and maturation of the maize. In November, the end of the ritual year is marked and signals the start of both the harvest and the sowing season, as well as the hundred day break, in which other crops are grown.
This calendar varies according to the altitude and the climate of the region among other circumstances, but, of course, it is also clear that the 260 days calendar of the Mayans that is currently so in vogue, finds it origins in the cultivation of maize. Is it any wonder that of all regions, specifically some regions of Oaxaca, where maize is thought to have originated from, this calendar is still in use there?

The sanctified, yet precarious relationship Man had with maize was also apparent in a number of rituals and observances. Gonzalez Pacheco, for example, gave a detailed description of the beliefs and religious behaviour of the Maya-Kekchi culture in the Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. He pointed out that maize had been the staple food of this people for thousands of years, with clear periods of abundance and scarcity. As a result, a series of rites developed which reflected the various stages of the maize production cycle and their relation to human survival.
For example, during the sowing, sexual abstinence was observed by the owners of the maize fields. The time of sowing was related to the moon, but was also accompanied by a ritual meal of maize cooked without lime. Then, and at other times, prayers were said for the soul of the maize. When tender maize shoots sprouted, the new maize was blessed. When the first food from the harvest was prepared, the ritual atoll – a maize-flour drink – was consumed and a rite was there to augment the strength required to feed on the grain.

For a modern mind, the Mayan methodology of working with maize, and how it became to dominate life far beyond a means of food, becoming the backbone of their religion, folklore and calendar, is excessive. The modern mind will want to strip it all down to basics, to the bare bones of an accidental discovery of maize, and how this coincidence created the Olmec and Maya civilisations.
But it is clear that reality is not that simple. The Mayans, for one, were not simple folk. Their attitude towards maize was clearly scientific: they genetically modified – diversified – it themselves, and worked out the milpa as the optimal means of food production. These are practical, hard scientific facts of history. But for that same Mayan mind, coincidences did not exist, and hence the “coincidence” that somehow maize was created by accident, was unacceptable to it; for the Mayans, maize was a gift from the gods, placed on earth for Mankind to find. And once they found it, they cultivated it, and through it, thanked and worshipped the gods for feeding them, and allowing them to grow and excel. The Mayan mind believed – or realised – that not only had the gods given them maize, the gods would continually need to be thanked for guaranteeing the success of the yearly crops. In the end, the symbiosis between Man and maize was a contract between us and the gods.