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Mexicolore contributor Neil Meldrum


We are delighted to present here a carefully researched article by Neil Meldrum on the story of maize (corn) in Mexico. Neil is a retired lawyer who has always had a profound interest in pre-Columbian Mexico. Maize is just one of the many foods that today we take for granted that originated in Mexico. The story goes back literally thousands of years...

Pic 1: A healthy maize crop
Pic 1: A healthy maize crop (Click on image to enlarge)

The inhabitants of Pre-Columbian America are responsible for about forty per cent of the world’s modern food produce. Of this forty per cent, by far the largest contributor is maize. Maize is now one of the three main cereal crops, along with wheat and rice, produced and consumed in the world. Maize is indigenous to, and was domesticated in, ancient Mexico. A very primitive form of maize was probably first grown in the Tehuacan Valley in Central Mexico around 5000 BC. This early maize would not have been recognisable to us today as maize. It had tiny cobs and very few kernels per cob, but over the millennium and with a great deal of care and attention, cobs became much bigger and the number of kernels per cob increased dramatically and became increasingly nutritious.

Pic 2: Exhibition on the story of corn, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City
Pic 2: Exhibition on the story of corn, Museum of Popular Culture, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

However, despite the domestication of maize, settled agricultural village communities did not really develop in Mexico until about 2000-1500 BC. In other formative societies around the world, evidence suggests that villages appeared very shortly after the domestication of cereal crops. Why the delay in Mexico? As yet this has not really been answered by archaeology. A possible reason is that maize itself took much longer to evolve to a crop which could actually support a settled community. As a consequence people remained dependant on gathering food and hunting for a longer period. The evidence for this is that the maize that was produced at the time of the Conquest, and for some considerable time prior to that, could not be grown without human assistance, and had no obvious wild ancestors.

Pic 3: There are now very many different varieties of maize in existence
Pic 3: There are now very many different varieties of maize in existence (Click on image to enlarge)

Many different varieties of maize were developed in ancient Mexico to the extent that it is reckoned that at the time of the Conquest some thirty-six different varieties were grown and eaten in Mexico. But its evolution with human assistance has produced such hybrids that it has proved very difficult to identify a clear ancestor for maize. However it is now established that maize was developed from a form of wild grass known as teosinte, although to look at there is now very little similarity between modern maize and this wild grass.
Civilisation evolved in Mexico when the nomadic peoples who first domesticated maize were able to grow sufficient maize that they no longer needed to gather food or hunt. They became permanent villagers, and the characteristics of civilised life developed.

Pic 4: Ancient teosinte compared to modern corn
Pic 4: Ancient teosinte compared to modern corn (Click on image to enlarge)

As farming methods improved, surplus maize was produced and other foods became more plentiful. Not everyone had to farm. Some people became craftsmen, others administrators, priests and soldiers. Villages grew into towns, and towns grew into cities, with temples for the priests and palaces for the rulers. Writing proliferated, art became more sophisticated. Kings and armies became more powerful, cities became states. Although this process occurred in other parts of the world, it occurred in Mexico quite independently, and it would not have occurred had it not been for maize.

Pic 5: Modern Teosinte
Pic 5: Modern Teosinte (Click on image to enlarge)

All the peoples of ancient Mexico were aware that they owed their existence, and the existence of their various cultures, to maize. In their eyes the domestication of maize was tantamount to the creation of the world. Maize was not just food, not even the major source of sustenance, to the peoples of ancient Mexico maize was the very essence of life. Many plants were farmed and eaten, for example various types of beans and squashes, chillies and peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, even the pulp from the maguey cactus, but maize was always the staple. It was the giver of life, it was the
fundamental element of every ancient Mexican culture. Why did maize have such significance?

Pic 6: An Aztec altar with maize decoration, probably used for sacrifice
Pic 6: An Aztec altar with maize decoration, probably used for sacrifice (Click on image to enlarge)

Unlike the Old World where a wide variety of cereal crops were farmed, Meso-America only had one, maize. Other foodstuffs were grown in Mexico as mentioned before, but the only cereal crop that was cultivated was maize. Maize was always and everywhere in ancient Mexico the fundamental source of sustenance. Animal domestication never had a significant role in Mexican food production, the simple reason was that there were no large animals, like sheep, cattle, pigs, or horses. There was a type of dog that was domesticated and eaten, but never on a large scale. Consequently hunting was not a feature as it was in Medieval Europe, or in the ancient Old World. People in Mexico were more or less wholly reliant on what they grew, and what they grew was, predominantly, maize.

Pic 7: Tlaloc, god of rain
Pic 7: Tlaloc, god of rain (Click on image to enlarge)

For maize to grow, as with any other plant, sunshine and a good supply of water were imperative. Sunshine was abundant, but there were no great river systems in Central Mexico. All the Old World early civilizations developed along rivers, but this was not the case in Mexico. As a consequence Mexican civilization was overwhelmingly dependant on rainfall, both for its water supply and to ensure a good maize harvest, but rainfall in Mexico can be very unpredictable indeed. Tlaloc was the Aztec god of water and storms, along with the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, he controlled all the forms of water but he also controlled the lack of water, and he could be extremely temperamental.
As rainfall was the only source of water in Mexico, and without water maize could not grow, it was essential that the people did everything in their power to ensure that the rain fell, and that when it fell it was properly stored. Only then could they be assured of a good maize crop. It is considered that a fundamental reason why ancient Mexican civilisation generally was so obsessed with religion and religious practices was in an endeavour to ensure that the sun kept shining and sufficient rainfall was procured to guarantee an abundant maize harvest.

Pic 8: The 5 Suns or World Eras at the centre of the Aztec Sunstone: illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 8: The 5 Suns or World Eras at the centre of the Aztec Sunstone: illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Ancient Mexican society generally had a fatalistic outlook because ancient Mexican society was so utterly dependant on those forces of nature which were beyond its control. This fatalism became an integral part of ancient Mexican religion. For Mexican civilization to survive, the gods had to be placated. People would ensure the survival of the gods, by feeding the gods, who in return would ensure the survival of the people by guaranteeing rainfall, sunshine and hence a good maize crop, but this arrangement had huge and to the European mind gruesome consequences.
Maize was vital to the very existence of ancient Mexican societies, it had enormous mythical implications. It played a central role in the creation myths of all Meso-American peoples. To the Aztecs time was divided into five ages or suns. The Aztecs lived in the fifth age. Each of the first four ages had its own sun and beings, but none proved successful, and the gods brought each age and their respective suns to an unfortunate end through storms, volcanic eruptions, and floods.

Pic 9: Quetzalcóatl (left) nurses a corn plant that symbolises the ‘axis mundi’ or centre of the world
Pic 9: Quetzalcóatl (left) nurses a corn plant that symbolises the ‘axis mundi’ or centre of the world (Click on image to enlarge)

At the end of the fourth age the gods expelled the fourth sun from the sky and the fifth age began when the gods created people. This was before the appearance of the fifth sun. The gods were far more pleased with this creation than the beings who had been created in the previous ages. Having created people, the gods then wondered what the people should eat. One day, very shortly after the creation of people, Quetzalcoatl, one of the chief gods, saw a red ant carrying a kernel of maize. He turned himself into a black ant, and followed the red ant helping him to carry the kernel of maize. They took the kernel to a place called Tamoanchan, where the other gods chewed it. They liked it and thought that this would be the ideal food for the newly created people. They placed it on the lips of the people. The people ate it, and the gods saw that the people would be sustained by maize and survive.

Pic 10: Tonatiuh, god of the sun
Pic 10: Tonatiuh, god of the sun (Click on image to enlarge)

It was only then that the fifth sun appeared. The fifth sun was known as Tonatiuh, one of the most powerful gods of the Aztec pantheon. Maize was and remained integral to the continued existence of the Aztecs in this fifth age. Maize defined this fifth age. The gods had created people and maize was the gift that the gods had given to the people. The people owed a huge debt to the gods because the gods had given them life, and the means of sustaining life ie maize. In return the people must ensure the continued existence of the gods so that the gods could fulfil their obligation of providing rain and sunshine and consequently maize. The gods helped Tonatiuh, the sun, every night on his journey through the underworld, so that the sun shone once again in the morning, to ripen the maize. To enable Tonatiuh to keep shining and to assist the other gods in helping Tonatiuh in his nightly battles, Tonatiuh and the other gods needed constant feeding.

Pic 11: Aztec human sacrifice
Pic 11: Aztec human sacrifice (Click on image to enlarge)

Mexican civilisation’s addiction to human sacrifice can be explained in these terms. To ensure that Tonatiuh the sun would keep shining and to ensure a supply of rain so that the maize could grow, and life could continue, Tonatiuh and the gods had to be fed. What better way to feed the gods than to give to them the most precious bodily fluid essential for all human life, blood. In doing so the gods could survive, and in turn procure the rain and the sunshine that was essential for the maize to grow, and for life to continue. The gods had to ensure a good maize crop, for human life to continue, but could only do so with a supply of blood. Without maize people could not exist, if people did not exist the gods could not be nourished, if the gods were not nourished the fifth age would come to an end. To the Aztec maize was integral to the continuation of civilisation.

Pic 12: Xilonen, goddess of young corn
Pic 12: Xilonen, goddess of young corn (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec pantheon was all encompassing and is very complicated to understand. Apparently different gods had many different functions, it appears that there was much fusion between the multitude of gods, and that although specific traits were allocated to specific gods, these traits were by no means exclusive to any one god. The Aztec god of maize had various forms. As with many Aztec gods, the maize god had a male and a female identity, and also different manifestations. Xilonen was the virgin goddess of young maize, the name means tender ears of maize. She was beautiful like the slender cob and the long and silky maize tassles.

Pic 13: Centeotl, god of mature maize
Pic 13: Centeotl, god of mature maize (Click on image to enlarge)

As the maize matured Xilonen morphed into the male god Centeotl. He represented the mature maize, the swollen and hardened cob which was ready for harvesting. Centeotl means something like ‘the dried ear of the Maize God’. He was the son of Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of fertility and childbirth and the husband of Xochiquetzal another Aztec goddess of fertility. Centeotl as the god of mature maize was surrounded by images of fertility both animal and vegetable. A third Aztec maize god and also a god of nourishment was the female Chicomecoatl. She may have represented the maize seed which was essential for planting for next year.

Pic 14: Preparing tortillas
Pic 14: Preparing tortillas (Click on image to enlarge)

To the Aztecs, the planting, maturing and harvesting of maize was synonymous to birth, maturity and death. The Aztecs believed that on death the deceased’s soul would accompany the sun. The seeds were planted ie birth, the corn matured as did a person. At harvest the corn was picked and consumed, or kept as seed corn for the next year’s planting. Such harvesting could equate to death, where the individual ceased to exist as did the corn, but the individual went on to a new life as did the seed corn.
But for all the drama that surrounded the mythology of maize, the practicalities of eating the stuff were paramount. Its preparation was quite a complex procedure. The maize kernels had to be stripped from the cobs and dried. The dried kernels were then soaked in a mixture of water and ground limestone, a process known as nixtamalization (after the Nahuatl word for lime soaked maize, nixtamal). This process softened the maize making it much easier to eat. It also fortified the maize by adding proteins and vitamins, making the maize much more nutritious, although it did nothing for people’s teeth! Once nixtamalized the maize kernels were kneaded into a dough. Only then was the maize ready for cooking and eating.

Pic 15: An image of the centre of Tenochtitlan as it may have looked with its many vegetable gardens
Pic 15: An image of the centre of Tenochtitlan as it may have looked with its many vegetable gardens (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs probably heated the maize dough on big griddles (much as is done today in Mexico) and produced tortillas. More commonly it would have been eaten as a simple gruel, to which beans and various peppers may have been added, and even bits of meat if they were lucky. Although this would have been the main diet of the vast majority of the Aztec people, it was not so bad. They had many types of seasonings, peppers and other vegetables available to them. The variety of tastes and textures which could be produced would have meant that eating may not have been that boring. Of course the nobility would have had a much greater choice of things to eat. Meat, fish from the canals and a vast selection of fruits and vegetable, but even for the nobility maize was the staple and the foundation of every meal.

Pic 16: Working the Chinampas fields in Aztec times
Pic 16: Working the Chinampas fields in Aztec times (Click on image to enlarge)

By the sixteenth century the population of Tenochtitlan may have been over 200,000 people, much larger than any contemporary city in Europe and on par with the cities of China and the Middle East at the same time. Further it is estimated that the total population of the whole of the Valley of Mexico, that is the area immediately surrounding Lake Texcoco, may have been in the region of one million. How was sufficient maize produced to feed this population in the absence of any large rivers or irrigation works? The answer is chinampas. Chinampas were developed by earlier Mexican civilisations, there is evidence of chinampas agriculture in most ancient Mexican cultures including the Maya, but the Aztecs developed the system to perfection. The reason, because they lived on an island in the middle of the very shallow Lake Texcoco. This island was essentially a marsh and ideal for chinampas agriculture.

Pic 17: A model of chinampas farming in Aztec times
Pic 17: A model of chinampas farming in Aztec times (Click on image to enlarge)

Chinampas were created by digging the mud from the bottom of the lake and slowly building up fields. By piling the mud up to form fields, deep canals were created dissecting the fields. The chinampa was continually renewed by piling up mud from the lake bottom, thus each chinampa field got larger and larger, but never lost its fertility. To protect these fields from erosion piles were driven along the edges to prevent the mud from falling back into the canals. Once these fields were formed trees would be planted to further strengthen and consolidate the system. This produced deep and easily navigable canals between the chinampas fields, which provided effective avenues for canoe traffic. As these canals grew, they in turn provided another source of food, fish.

Pic 18: A chinampa field today
Pic 18: A chinampa field today (Click on image to enlarge)

In a good year, this chinampas system could produce three or even four harvests a year. It was this form of intensive farming, coupled, of course, with the brilliant productivity of the maize plant that enabled the Aztecs to support such a huge population in the Valley of Mexico. However it is clear that in the latter stages of the Aztec Empire many more types of food were becoming available, and it is not inconceivable that had the Conquest not occurred when it did, ancient Mexico’s great reliance on maize may have started to subside somewhat. What effect this would have had on Mexican culture is anyone’s guess, but the Conquest did occur when it did, and maize has retained its pre-eminence and its supernatural qualities in Mexican civilisation.

Picture sources:-
• All pictures supplied by Neil Meldrum, with the exception of:-
• Pix 2, 5, 8, 9 & 17: from Mexicolore archives
• Pic 13: from Wikipedia.

emoticon Well, don’t you agree this has been a truly AMAIZING story?
That’s a really CORNY joke...

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