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III. The origin of maize and its cultivation

3.1 The origin of the word maize

The origin of the word maize has taken researchers along different paths, reaching as far as remote areas such as China and Tibet. However, it is generally accepted that the word has its origin in Araguaco and the name was brought back to the Old World by Christopher Columbus who heard it for the first time in the Caribbean islands. Based on this common name, Linnaeus included the name as species epithet in the botanical classification Zea (Z. mays L.).

The word used in all the Maya languages is "ixim". Similarly, in various native languages of Guatemala, reference is made to certain terms related to maize, such as "Gumarkaaj" (place of the canes), "Kanil" (name of a day in the calendar) which derives from the word "kan" meaning yellow, "Aj" (another name of a day) which refers to clote or tender maize.

3.2 How maize reached Guatemala according to the Mayas

Among the Maya peoples of Guatemala the maize deity is still worshipped today. In Huehuetenango, this figure can be male, as in the case of Santiago Chimaltenango, where it has the name of Padre Paxil3 , or female, as in Colotenango, where it is called K'txu (Our Mother in Mam) or Paxil4 . Paxil is the name of the place where maize originated according to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the K'ich's, where according to one of the versions of the origins of maize from the Mam oral tradition of the municipalities of Ixtahuacán and Colotenango, the grain was brought from there by animals, and that is where the "Mother of Maize" resides5 .

The oral tradition tells that in ancient times there was no maize, and that in those times human beings ate the roots of a plant called txetxina (mother Maize); a plant with a very large root and a single stalk. It is also said that... "It was then that the ancients realised that the excrement of the mountain cat (wech) contained maize".

This tale, like many others from the popular wisdom, recounts the apparent linking of the origin of maize with other pre-existent species in the region, as does the following fable. 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. They also say that in Libertad here is always an abundance of this grain6 .The above quotation from the Popol Vuh is another demonstration of the fact that maize was a central element in Maya life and culture.

"Here then is the beginning of how man was made and what was sought out for the nourishment of the flesh of man. The Progenitors, the Creators and Formators, who are called Tepeu and Gucumatz thus declared: "The time has come for the dawn, for the work to be finished and for those who must sustain and nourish us to appear, the enlightened sons, the civilised vassals: let man appear, humanity, on the face of the earth". Thus spake they.

They met, arrived and held a council in the dark and in the night; then they searched and discussed, and here they reflected and thought. In this way their decisions came clearly to light and they discovered what was to enter the flesh of man.

Soon, the sun, the moon and the stars appeared over the Creators and Formators. From Paxil and Cayalá, as they are called, came the yellow corncobs and the white corncobs. These are the names of the animals which brought the food: Yac (the mountain cat), Itiú (the coyote), Quel (a parrot, commonly referred to as chocoyo) and Hoh (the raven). These four animals brought them the news of the yellow corncobs and of the white corncobs, they told them that they were in Paxil and showed them the way to Paxil.

And this was how they found food and that is what entered the flesh of created man, of formed man: it was their blood, from it the blood of man was made. This is how maize entered (in the formation of man) through the work of the Progenitors.

And this is the way they became filled with joy, because they had discovered a beautiful land, full of delights, with an abundance of yellow and white corncobs as well as pataxte and cocoa, innumerable zapotes, anonnas, jocotes, nances, matasanos and honey. There was an abundance of food in that land called Paxil and Cayalá.

There were foods of all kinds, small foods, large foods, small plants and large plants. The animals showed the way. And by grinding the yellow and white corncobs, Ixmucané made new drinks, and these provided strength, girth and they created the muscles and the vigour of man. This was done by the Progenitors, Tepeu and Gucumatz, as they are known.

In continuation they entered into discussions about the creation and formation of our first mother and father. Out of yellow maize and white maize, flesh was made; the arms and legs of man were made of maize dough. Only maize dough went into the flesh of our parents, the four human beings who were created.

Passage from the Popol Vuh

3.3 Women and maize in the oral tradition

In contrast with what is found in texts and images, women have an important role in the oral tradition of the Maya peoples, which can be seen in the different legends and folk tales. One example is the description of the meeting of Ixmucané, the grandmother, with Ixcuic, the mother of Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué.

In this story we have a glimpse of the cosmology (cosmovisión) of the peoples of Central America, and the existence of various female deities linked to nature, agriculture and in this particular case, the growing of maize. In addition, there great symbolism in the reference to Ixcuic's children and their origin (Hun-Hunahpú) in relation to maize, seen as the material from which the first humans were created. This denotes the linking between the symbols of human life and maize in the Maya culture, as was noted by López-Austin (1994). Similarly, in this story the manipulation of cultivated maize by women is stated when, from the "red tufts" placed in the net, Ixquic obtained maize cobs. Current ethnography confirms this fact, the women look after the maize seed from which the crop reproduces and thus guarantee its conservation.

Another story which links women to the reproduction of maize is the Pipil tale which tells of the origin of white maize: "Thousands of years ago, according to the story, the Lord of the Pipil had a beautiful daughter with large eyes and white, sparkling teeth. She liked to admire the woods and to bathe in the river pools. One day, she was playing in the water and she heard a voice inviting her to meet a tall lad. Following the instructions, she reached a cave which she entered. Inside there was a very handsome man, the Lord of the Bats. The young woman stayed to live with him and they had a child who had the nose of his father and the large eyes as well as the white teeth of his mother. Among her people, at that time, there was a famine. A plague of rats ate the heart of the maize used for seed. When she heard of the misfortunes that had befallen her people, the young daughter of the Lord of the Pipil decided to return to her village. Her father received her bitterly, accusing her of having caused this evil. Go back to your village, said the Lord of the Bats. Let the men work the land and, when the right season comes, pull out your teeth and sow them! This was done, and when the maize fields bore fruit, the grains of the maize were as white and sparkling as the teeth of the young woman. Since then, the Pipil have white maize as a gift from the gods, in memory of the girl who sowed her teeth to save her descendents".

As can be appreciated from this story, the Pipil oral tradition also recognises the role of women in the conservation of maize. "Had it not been for the intervention of the Lord of the Pipil's daughter, maize would not have been able to reproduce, because the seeds had been finished by the rodents". This awareness of the conservation of the genetic resource and at the same time, of the possibility of famines, appears frequently in the traditional legends about maize. One of the most repeated stories, told in many villages of Guatemala and Mexico, is the one concerning the participation of zompopos (ants) in the appropriation of maize by man, which is what happens during a famine. We also find the story of St. Pedro Necta, in which hunger is satiated, after recurrent shortages of maize, by means of the consumption of a plant known as "donkey's or mule's helmet". The participants in this study who were asked about their knowledge of this plant said that they knew of its existence through their parents. They identified it as a plant that was found in the mountains, where their ancestors went to gather it from the ground. They used it to make tortillas or drinks to compensate for shortages of maize.

Ixquic was made pregnant by the skull of Hun-Hunahpú which hung from the calabash tree. Since she was repudiated by her father Cuchumaquic, the Lord of Xibalbá, she went to find the mother of Hun-Hunahpú. This was Ixmucané. I am your daughter-in-law, said Ixquic. But the grandmother did not accept her without conditions. Go and bring the food for those who need to be fed - she ordered - "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. So she invoked the guardian of the crops, the Chahal of food supplies. She also implored the help of the goddesses linked to the cult of maize: "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 went to the maize field and saw that there was the single stalk of maize with its cob. This is the proof that you are my daughter-in-law, she said. Those whom you bear are also wise, she concluded.

3.4 Maize in the cosmic vision of Central America

In "Tamaoanchan and Tlalocán"7 the cosmology is defined as a structured collection of ideological systems which emanate from different fields of activity and which return to them, explaining principles, techniques and values. It follows that, since the cosmic vision builds up through all the daily practices, the logic of these practices is translated to the cosmic vision, impregnating it. The general principles of the tradition, by being repeated over time as normative models, become archetypes. The archetype is formed by these practices being reiterated over thousands of years, forming a nucleus of perception and action in the face of the universe.

In Central America, the cultivation of maize lies at the centre of the cosmic vision, since the time when it became the basic source of sustenance for these civilisations. This shared cosmology confers unity to a wide variety of peoples which enables the cosmic vision to turn into vehicles of cohesion. Thus, the cosmic vision was important for all segments of society.

The Tzotzil people, for example, divide the year into a season for rains and a season for droughts8 . To these are added a drought, or dry season, called canicula (in Guatemala, in July and August). Two religious feasts are linked to this division (May 3, the feast of the Holy Cross, and November 1-2, the feast of the Dead); since May to November is the rainy season and November to May, the dry season. The cultivation of maize, which guides this division, provides more than ten subdivisions in the general classification. The year is divided into ritual periods of sowing and harvesting of 160 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.

The important moments of this Totzil agricultural calendar are the following:

Among the Tzotzil9 , earth and rain represent living entities with which a relationship of respect and gratification must be established throughout the hills, the caves and the springs by means of the agricultural rites. The earth referred to as Yahwal Balamil has double influences in caves and in springs; as such, this entity (earth) has a right over all the fruits of the earth and so over maize. This is why the farmer feels respect and dependency in relation to it and communicates with it in his native tongue. Similarly, maize, mountains, animals and the waters represent other entities. Natural phenomena like lightning and rain are also considered to be living phenomena, and as such to be in communication with each other.

These beliefs are shared by other Maya cultures still present in Central America. Pacheco (1985), for example, gives a detailed description of the beliefs and religious behaviour of the Maya-Kekchi culture in the Department of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. This author points out that maize has 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 reflect the various stages of the maize production cycle and their relation to human survival.

3.5 The origin of maize and the role of Huehuetenango in its evolution

The studies carried out at the beginning of the century by Vavilov and others (Bukasov, 1981; Vavilov, 1997) showed that the genetic diversity of cultivated plants is concentrated in certain regions of the world, which they called "centres of origin and diversity". Central America is one of the seven regions initially identified by Vavilov. Among the outstanding original crops of this region is maize, given the genetic diversity present in the area as well as the presence of wild species and subspecies related to maize, an outstanding on of which is teosinte.

The discovery of teosinte at the end of the last century attracted the attention of botanists in their attempts to establish the origins of maize. In 1939, Beadle demonstrated reliably that maize and teosinte could be freely crossed and that the hybrids obtained were completely fertile. This suggested to him that the two taxa were conspecific and that they had only recently diverged. Other scientists developed different opinions on the origin of maize. All these considerations omitted teosintle as a participant in the evolution of maize and proposed that it originated from a hypothetical "wild maize" (Mangelsdorf, 1974). This author based his theory on the fact that the maize cob and the teosintle cob are hugely different, which made it impossible over such a short period (about 10,000 years) for such evolutionary changes to have taken place. However, most of the scientific evidence and historical references relating to maize support the hypothesis that teosintle was an ancestor of maize.

These considerations are important if one realises that in Guatemala there are two species of teosintle currently classified as Zea mays subsp. huehuetenangensis10 and Zea luxurians11 distributed in the Department of Huehutenango and the east of Guatemala respectively. This is why Guatemala is identified as one of the possible centres of the origin of maize in Central America.

The first detailed studies of the diversity of maize in Guatemala were carried out in 195712 , in which reference is made to factors that explain the evolution of maize, including the following:

In Guatemala, 13 landraces and 12 local cultivars of maize have been identified, of which seven landraces and four sub races are present in the Department of Huehuetenango, which indicates the importance of the area for the genetic diversity of maize. Already some years ago (1945), McBryde had made a sample collection of maize in Guatemala, the genetic material of which was analysed and it was discovered, on the basis of the nodes present in the chromosomes of material collected in an area in the Department of Huehuetenango, that these contained "almost all the node positions known in chromosomes of all the races of maize in the world". They certified the presence of a great number of a different types of maize in a very restricted area. In this study, the authors claim that western Guatemala is where the majority of the maize types grown in Central America, North America, the low lands of South America, North America and the West Indies actually originated13 .

The presence of Zea mays subsp. huehuetenangensis in the Department of Huehuetenango has come to be considered the most important elements in the generation of variability in maize. It was noted that there was genetic introgression between teosintle and the maize types grown in the neighbouring area14 and the indigenous population recognised that hybridisation did occur. In 1937, various hybrid ears similar to teosintle were found; and then15 , in 1955, 45 F1 and 3 F2 maize-teosinte hybrids were found in the vicinity of the Noyoya and San Antonio Huixtla villages.

Doebly et al. (1987) made a comparative analysis of isoenzymatic variations present in maize and teosinte using 13 enzymatic systems that codify 21 loci. This work included 56 teosinte populations represented in the geographic area of its distribution and 99 populations of maize distributed over Mexico and Guatemala16 . On the basis of the results, it was possible to observe that the Guatemalan teosinte distributed over the Department of Huehuetenango (Zea mays subsp. huehuetenangensis) is the one that least resembles cultivated maize materials, whereas the teosinte of eastern Guatemala (Zea luxurians) bears a greater resemblance to the MexicanZ. perennis and Z. diploperennis.

Certain effects of the teosinte introgression in maize that can be observed are an increase in the number of nodes in the chromosomes, increased resistance to certain plant diseases and pests, and a growing tolerance to excessive heat and humidity. Moreover, Reeves (1950) demonstrated that the introgression improved the adaptation of the genetic materials to tropical and subtropical conditions. This was demonstrated when it was seen that the races described by Wellhausen et al. (1957) adapted to conditions of lower altitudes above sea-level, where heat and humidity levels are higher, there are more nodes in the chromosomes (a characteristic which comes from teosintle), whereas the landraces present at higher altitudes have fewer nodes in their chromosomes.

On the other hand, it was generally assumed that cultivated maize (Z. mays subsp. mays) was more related to the teosintles of Mexican origin, especially with the taxon Z. mays subsp. parviglumis var. Central Balsas which comes from the central part of Mexico. More recent studies based on morphological aspects, biochemical markers and molecular markers show clearly that the theory that maize originated from teosinte is now more generally accepted. It is therefore now being suggested that maize is in fact a domesticated form of annual Mexican teosintle Z. mays subsp. parviglumis.

However, if as some authors maintain, maize was introduced in Guatemala, evidence seems to indicate a very early introduction (at least some 4000 years ago17 ). Time and the skill of the indigenous populations were sufficient to ensure the generation of the great morphological diversity present in this country.

3.6 Maize culture and the other agricultural activities

Due to the characteristics of the soil, the topography and the climate, the Department of Huehuetenango is mainly a forested area. However there is a considerable amount of agricultural activity which includes a wide variety of crops that depend on the eco-physical nature of the area. In the lands at low or medium altitudes with a warm and temperate climate, the crops are coffee, sugar-cane, tobacco, chillipeppers, groundnuts, cassava, annatto, tropical fruits; whereas at higher altitudes with colder climates, the crops are barley, wheat, potatoes, alfalfa, beans and leafy green vegetables and fruits. Maize is grown at all altitudes.

Maize is grown mainly with traditional technologies, since the use of improved varieties is scarce. Given the population growth in the region and the need to increase the food supply, maize farming has spread to areas that are not appropriate for agriculture due to the soil quality and steepness of the slope. As a staple food in the region, maize is the most cultivated crop (Table 1).

Data provided by a more detailed study carried out by FONOPAZ indicate that maize is grown on 94% of the lands in the region, followed by beans (85%), coffee (49%), wheat (33%), fruit trees (22%).

3 Wagley, 1957.

4 Valladares, 1957.

5 Valladares, 1957.

6 Valladares, 1957.

7 López-Austin, 1994.

8 López-Austin, 1994.

9 López-Austin, 1994.

10 (Iltis & Doebley) Doebley.

11 (Durieu & Ascerson) Bird.

12 Wellhausen et al.

13 Mangelsdorf Cameron, 1942.

14 Kempton and Popenoe, 1937.

15 Randolph, 1955.

16 Studies on the DNA of the chloroplast (Doebley, 1987) and mitocondrial DNA (Weissinger et al., 1983).

17 McClung de Tapia, 1992; McNeish, 1992.

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