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The Maya and Maize: Nourishment In Varied Forms

17 Sep

The Maya and Maize: Nourishment In Varied Forms

One of the cornerstones of the diet favored by the ancient cultures of Central America was maize, or, as it’s more commonly known, corn. In fact, some of the earliest indications of the practice of agriculture have been discovered at Mayan excavation sites, leading archaeologists to believe that ancient Mesoamericans, like the Maya and Aztec, were among the first peoples to perfect and make widespread use of farming and irrigation techniques. Scientists have furthermore unearthed evidence that corn and corn seed was used for agriculture at times predating even the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec civilizations, its use stretching back to the 5,000 BC or even before. The act of carving out farming plots from the dense jungle habitats surrounding their encampments was one of the signature developments that allowed both Maya and Aztec cultures to flourish. From archaeological evidence, we know that the two cultures planted and consumed corn with different kinds of beans and tubers, or manioc, and added wild game to their dishes to round out their nutritional intake and maintain an acceptable level of protein. Strangely, though, little information is available on the beverage preferences of these early cultures. The size and complexity of Maya and Aztec cities makes it unlikely that simply collecting rainwater could have provided a sufficient amount of liquid to sustain such sizable populations. Maize as a Food and Beverage A little known fact is that the Maya used corn and beans not just as a foodstuff, but also as a refreshing drink. Both of these plants were used by the Maya to make beverages – think of a sweetened cream of corn, a slightly milky and sugary drink, as a the Maya were well-known for their sweet teeth. Chocolate for the Crown Evidence that the Maya royalty and elite class enjoyed chocolate as a delicacy is abundant; in fact, the Maya were the first to make chocolate into a drink to serve their ruling class. It’s safe to assume that the methods those early Mayan cooks stumbled upon to perfect their hot chocolate could also have been applied to making a more delicious bean or corn elixir for the common folk as well. Befriending the Bee Although cocoa beans flourished the territory controlled by the Maya, sugar was something of a rarity, a problem which didn’t lessen the Maya desire for sweet foods. In order to turn that corn & bean mush into a sweet treat, they had to obtain sugar in the form of honey – and to do that meant inventing the now widely-practiced art of beekeeping, yet another ‘first’ to add to the list of accolades and accomplishments for this fascinating culture. To begin the process by which honey could be used to sweeten Mayan food and drink, cooks would first have to boil the maze or beans that would be used for the base of the drink. Boiling killed bacteria, and the next step, straining the mix and mashing it into a fine paste, removed the possibility that leaves, bugs, or other contaminants like raw seeds would make it through into the final product. The resulting material would be boiled again in a fresh pot of water to thin it, and the beekeeper’s honey gradually added, while the boiling liquid was stirred to ensure the honey distributed equally. As honey was a common ingredient used in Maya cooking, one might be tempted to consider what kind of confection first introduced them to the wonders of sweetening all sorts of foodstuffs. Was it a pot of prepared sweet tea with some maize accidentally boiled into the mix? Whatever it was, the cultivation of both bees and corn stand as tributes to the unparalleled ingenuity of the Maya. Two thousand years before the first Egyptian bowed down before the Sun-god, Mesoamericans were toiling away on their maize farms, building the seeds of one of history’s greatest and most mysterious empires. Onejungle Adventure Travel is a tour operator with a special focus on adventure vacations in the Mayan Yucatan: Mexico, Guatemala and belize. See to find out more or go to Mexico Adventures for more information.

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