Dispatches from Central America: Ethnobotany of the Maya diet

Published on October 11, 2017 by Dr. Jonathan Ferrier

One of the most complete diets in the course of human evolution is the Maya diet. Maize, beans, and squash are indigenous to the same lands that the Maya settled. These dietary staples remind me of fall harvest, celebrations of thanks, and our ancestors. Diets, important as they are, come with caveats that drive evolution, innovation, and shapes societies.

The Maya realized early on that too much “corn” came with maize; translation: “bad movements”. The Maya described this in their Popul Vuh and we now know that the name maize comes from experiencing niacin deficiency, and likely experienced when the Maya moved inland to places without fish. Instead, the Maya selected shorter, antioxidant rich colourful local grasses called “Teosinte” – the precursors to corn. Stalks of primitive corn, the Maya carb source, were too, used as bean poles. Beans, another local Maya plant, provided a reliable source of protein and protected the crop from infection by shielding the maize stalks. 

Beans also quite remarkably and naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen makes plants green. That means beans fertilize themselves from the air and provide themselves a composting layer of soil nutrients. Good news for Maya agriculture, set on some extremely porous rainforests soils. Elon Musk will be packing bean crops for Mars –guaranteed.

 Traditionally, squashes, pumpkins and gourds were dispersed along the rows of maize and beans. These spreading vines provided ground cover to keep the soil moist and active. These gourd family members provide additional carbs, but they are also valuable sources of medicine. Pumpkin seeds for example are excellent for promoting urinary function, graceful ageing, mental health; and carving into insanely spooky masterpieces for Halloween. Pumpkin seeds contain minerals including magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, the oils, are a source of protein, and even provide traditional bowls, vessels, and medicine jars – courtesy of their family.

With maize, beans, and gourds you can imagine holding a bowl of stewed beans, garnished with roasted pumpkin seeds and digestive herbs, dipping in with your colourful maize tortilla. The Maya say, “We have tortilla, we have life”, and that’s because the Maya would soak their maize kernels in alkaline water for their human dietary requirement of calcium. This could be limewater (milk of lime) or solutions of wood ash lye or sea shells.

Every diet has a caveat. Africa and Eurasia locales had dairy with livestock domesticated for milk and calcium: cattle, buffalo, sheep, goat and camels. You can predict that many indigenous peoples of Central and South America were once highly lactose intolerant since they did not have dairy, nor lactose. This is likely diminishing by virtue of multicultural societies.

We should be thankful and respect these natural sources and their nature. Imagine if you lost it all. That’s why you can see an Incan Highlander perched mountainside, giving thanks with a coca leaf, pressed between their thumbs, raised in the air- a true blessing from Mother Nature and the Incan source of dietary calcium. That’s why Quiche Maya Don Jose told me he thanks his garden and his mother’s knowledge. Since times of war the garden sustained their community with food and medicine.

Of course, food insecurity scares people in natural disasters with hurricanes destroying crops, or oil polluting our rivers and oceans, taking these natural gifts. But we can all contribute to the solution- how can we help spread awareness for humanitarian crises? Support clean water initiatives, and nutritious foods for youngsters in school? Do you have a garden or carry livestock? Do you live and work in the city and buy supplements or enriched foods? Do you visit nature and lay tobacco? No matter, these are the nutritional webs our lives are built upon and it’s all about our health and well-being.