Exhibits on the Plaza

Organic garden

Around 2500 B.C. the Maya started cultivating corn (maize) and abandoned a nomadic way of life to settle in villages surrounded by cornfields. With the domestication of corn and the harnessing of rainwater for irrigation, all the elements were in place to support a growing Maya population. Maya farmers terraced the slopes of the volcanic mountains, cut back the heavy forests, constructed raised fields in the swampy lowlands, and conserved water in reservoirs in the Yucatán Peninsula. Irrigation canals supplied water that was carried into the fields in clay vessels. The Maya fertilized the fields with sediment and aquatic plants collected from the canals. This created a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18416

Maya farmers cleared the jungles using a slash and burn method and grew their major crops during the rainy season from May to October. In the southern lowlands and on highland slopes along the edge of the Pacific ocean, milpas, or cornfields, were farmed for a few years, then left fallow for 4 to 7 years; in the northern lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula, where soil is thin, fields were abandoned for 15 to 20 years. Contemporary Maya continue to farm their land as their ancestors have done for centuries past.

So central a role did corn play in the Maya economy that it was considered sacred and treated like a deity. The Maize God is a principal deity in Maya religion. Each stage in the farming cycle was preceded by religious ritual. Corn continues to be the cornerstone of Maya culture. It provides sustenance and brings spiritual significance to daily life.

Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18417 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18418 ORIGIN OF CORN

Tiny corn cobs, the size of a dime, were unearthed by archaeologists working in a cave in the Tehuacan Valley, Mexico. Dating to 7000 years ago, these cobs are the earliest evidence of wild corn in the New World. Research has shown that this early form of corn is genetically linked to the domesticated variety grown by the Classic Maya.

By 4000 years ago, several varieties of corn existed. Corn agriculture gradually spread north to central Canada and south to the Andean mountains in South America, allowing the transformation of hunting and gathering societies into farming communities. Corn became a staple food and major trade commodity. With increased trade came wealth and the growth of cities into large urban-states, like those of the Classic Maya civilization.

Although their principal crop was corn, farmers also cultivated beans, squash, and fruit trees. Black beans and red beans contributed protein to the Maya diet. Numerous varieties of squash and pumpkin were grown. The breadnut tree was planted near settlements; its leaves provided fodder for animals, the outer layer of the fruit was sweet to eat, and the seeds could be eaten as a vegetable or dried and ground into flour.

Besides these main crops, the Maya grew a variety of vegetables including tomatoes and chili peppers, and fruits such as avocados, papaya, bananas, and guava. Beans from cacao trees were the source of a drink favoured by the ruling classes, called xocoatl, or chocolate. Oregano, vanilla, and coriander were among the plants raised for seasoning and flavouring. Plants like amaranth, sunflowers, or panic grass were cultivated for their edible seeds, but others were for ornamental purposes (e.g. dahlias). Each Maya house had its own garden to serve kitchen needs. The Maya also kept bees for honey, produced cotton that was spun and woven into cloth, and mined salt, a highly lucrative commodity.

Tobacco was grown for many uses. It was smoked for pleasure and, when powdered, mixed with lime, and chewed, it served a function similar to snuff. It was used as an all-purpose remedy for a wide range of maladies; a tobacco gourd was worn as a badge of office by female practitioners of medicine and by midwives. Tobacco was burned as an offering to the gods. It was believed to have magical powers and was used in divination, to induce trances, or as a talisman to ward off evil. Agave and cacao were other sources of stimulants.

These crops continue to be raised by modern Maya living in Mesoamerica.

from left to right:
(top row) squash, squash, pumpkin, dipper gourd, Chiapas tomatoes, sunflowers,
(bottom row) amaranthus caudatus, amaranthus, tobacco, agave, amaranthus, tithonia
Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18419 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18420 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18421 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18422
Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18423 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18424 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18425 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18426 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18427 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18428