Ancient Mesoamerica: Maize (Corn)

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, they found that the indigenous people of the continent, generally called American Indians, had a highly developed agricultural system. While American Indians raised a great many different crops, one of the important plants was maize (Zea mays), often called corn in American English. In addition to maize, American Indians had also domesticated numerous other plants, including beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, cotton, and others.

With regard to the importance of maize in the Americas, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, write:

“Maize was and is the very basis of settled life in Mexico and, in fact, throughout the regions of the New World civilized in Pre-Columbian times.”

The archaeological record shows that corn was originally domesticated in Mexico and then diffused north into the eastern portion of what is now the United States and into the American Southwest. It also diffused south into South America.

In general, the process of plant domestication was neither random nor sudden. Early hunters and gatherers had to have an intimate knowledge of ecology. They understood the seasonal cycle of plants and for thousands of years had deliberately  altered the environment through processes such as burning to enhance the plants they found most useful. With regard to the process of domestication, Emily McClung de Tapia, in an essay on the origins of food production in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:

“The origin of agriculture represents the culmination of a number of interrelated processes, socioeconomic as well as biological and ecological. For instance, some plants such as maize or certain species of beans underwent mutations, altering their genetic composition and rendering them more amenable for harvesting, subsequent storage, and, finally, human consumption.”

A domesticated plant is one which has become genetically altered through human intervention so that it has become dependent on human actions for its continued reproduction. It should be pointed out that humans also cultivate and care for plants which have not become domesticated. In the process of domestication, humans deliberately select for favorable mutations and genetic change.

The search for the origins of maize involves three basic questions: (1) what was the ancestral plant for maize; (2) when was it first domesticated; and (3) where was it domesticated. In general, the search for the origins of maize has focused on Mexico in the period after 7000 BCE. Initially, archaeologists hypothesized that a wild grass known as teosinte (Zea mexicana) was the progenitor of maize (Zea mays) and recent findings from molecular biology support this hypothesis.

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of maize comes from the site of San Andrés on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco. At this site, evidence of maize in the form of phytoliths (tiny silicon particles contained in plants) dates to 4800 BCE. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“There are no known wild species of Zea native to coastal Tabasco, so these plants were introduced to the region, almost certainly by humans. At the same level the archaeologists found evidence of large-scale forest clearance of the type associated with maize cultivation in this area.”

In the highlands of Oaxaca, archaeologists found a maize cob in Guilá Naquitz cave which was dated to 4300 BCE.

The best-known evidence for the early domestication of maize comes from the Tehuacan Valley in Puebla. Originally, the cobs from caves in this valley were dated to about 5000 BCE, but more recent re-dating of the material suggests a date of only 3500 BCE.

The cobs found in both the Oaxaca and Tehuacan sites show that maize had already gone through significant evolution from teosinte. The data from these sites do not provide definitive answers to the questions about when and where maize was first domesticated. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz summarize the data this way:

“We have some way to go before we answer these questions, but the most important general fact remains: many thousands of years before Christ, the Indians of Mesoamerica had brought a very primitive, wild form of maize under their control.”

The development of agriculture had ramifications for social organization. While archaeologists used to talk about an agricultural revolution (called the Neolithic Revolution in Europe) which seem to imply rapid sociocultural change, the archaeological data today suggests a rather slow evolution. Gradually, the domesticated plants, such as maize in the Americas, became more important and with this came villages with permanent structures, storage facilities, and greater use of pottery. Looking at the archaeological data from Tehuacan, Emily McClung de Tapia writes:

“The transition to increased dependence upon cultivated food plants goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the region’s population together with increases in the duration of occupation of campsites.”

Ancient Mesoamerica: The King of El Zotz

About 350 CE, the Maya city of El Zotz was founded in what is now Guatemala. The Maya name for the city is Pa’Chan which is translated as “Split Sky” or as “Citadel Sky.” The designation “El Zotz” comes from the many bats living in the caves on the site: zotz is the Maya term for bats.  

El Zotz is located about 20 miles (12 kilometers) from the major Maya center of Tikal and about 16 miles (26 kilometers) from Uaxactun. The emblem glyph for El Zotz associates it with the Maya city of Yaxchilan in Chiapas, Mexico and may indicate that the Yaxchilan royal dynasty originated in El Zotz.

The hieroglyphic texts associated with El Zotz suggest that the site was founded by the enemies of Tikal who wanted to exploit a period of weakness in this important Maya city. El Zotz was strategically located between two rival Maya kingdoms: Tikal and the alliance of El Perú and Calakmul. There is a possibility that El Zotz was established as an outpost for the El Perú/Calakmul alliance.

There are two major ceremonial sites at El Zotz: one at the central core of the city and one on the western edge. The western ceremonial center has been designated as El Diablo (The Devil). The pyramid at El Diablo rises 623 feet (160 meters) above the valley floor. The solid platform base of the pyramid is 76 feet by 85 feet (23 meters by 26 meters) and above this are two or three narrower terraces with a temple on top. The sides of the pyramid are very steep. When the site was occupied by the Maya, this pyramid, painted a saturated red, would have announced the presence of an important center. During the rising and setting sun, a time when the painted pyramid was brightest, it would have been visible for about 15 miles.

Archaeological excavations at El Diablo carried out in 2008 revealed stucco masks along the façade of the structure representing the various guises of the Maya sun god. The façade identified the structure as the Temple of the Night Sun. The shape of the building and its polychrome decoration are similar to the Rosalila Temple of Copán.

For the Maya, the sun was closely associated with kingship and symbols of the sun were often associated with the names of kings and their dynasties. The word for “day” is the same as the word for “sun” and the sun symbols on the Temple of the Night Sun suggest that it might be associated with the beginning of a royal dynasty.

A smaller building stands in from of the great temple. When archaeologists sank a test pit into the floor of the chamber of this building, they uncovered blood-red ceramic bowls which were filled with small packets of fingers and teeth. In one bowl the archaeologists found the remains of a partially burned baby. When archaeologists probed the floor of the chamber, they found a sealed chamber beneath the floor. Because this chamber had been sealed so tightly that air and water could not enter, the organic materials-wood, painted stucco, cord, textiles-within it had been well preserved.

The sealed chamber proved to be a royal tomb measuring about 12 feet (4 meters) by 4 feet (1.2 meters) by 6 feet (2 meters) high. In addition to the remains of an adult male, the tomb was filled with ceramics, textiles, and other ritual offerings. Also found in the tomb were the remains of six children (four of whom were infants) who appeared to have been killed in a ritual sacrifice and then placed as offerings in the tomb.

Human remains provide archaeologists with important clues about life in the past. The bones of the man in the tomb show that he was in his 50s when he died. His joints were arthritic and probably caused him some pain. Jewels had been embedded in his teeth, a sign of high rank.

For burial, the body had been dressed in the costume of a ritual dancer. This included an elaborate headdress (placed by his head) and small bells of shell with dog canine clappers which had been arranged around his waist and legs. Interpreting the symbolism of burial clothing is always problematic for archaeologists. On one hand, the costume could be an indication that he had been a ritual dancer in life. On the other hand, the costume could have been intended to help him in the next life and not be related to his past life.

The man was also laid out with an obsidian blade in his hand. While this may have been a sacrificial knife, analysis of the traces of red on the blade ruled out blood. This suggests that it may not have been actually used in sacrifices. A mirror buried with him may provide some additional clues about him: the glyphs on the back of the mirror can be translated as either “Red [missing] Turtle” or as “Great [missing] Turtle.”

So who was this man? The elaborate burial goods and the jeweled teeth suggest that he had a high rank. The proximity of his tomb to the Temple of the Night Sun, however, have led archaeologist to hypothesize that he was the founding ruler of El Zotz. They also suggest that the Temple of the Night Sun had been constructed to venerate this dead ruler. Once the burial rituals had been completed, the tomb had been sealed, a platform constructed above it, and a roofed sanctuary over it. Archaeologists found traces of burning in the sanctuary suggesting that rituals had been frequently performed at this site. A doorway through the sanctuary leads to the Temple of the Night Sun which may have been built to venerate the founding ruler. The El Diablo Pyramid was later built over the top of the temple.

It was a common practice in the Maya world to build new structures over existing structures. For archaeologists this means that digging down through existing structures often reveals earlier structures. In 2012 archaeologists began the task of uncovering and understanding the Temple of the Night Sun.  They found that the Maya builders had packed it in earth and small rocks in an attempt to preserve the earlier structure before constructing the pyramid.

Archaeologists found a frieze that wrapped around the structure. About 14 masks are included in the frieze. These masks depict a number of celestial entities including the sun. For the Maya these masks were living beings.

The Maya sun god, K’inich Ajaw, has been identified in three of the masks. Each of these masks represents the sun god at a different time of day. They are placed along the frieze relative to the time of day when the sun would have illuminated them. In the morning, the rising sun is associated with the Caribbean waters to the east. At about noon, the sun would illuminate a fearsome, blood-drinking creature and then in the evening a jaguar. In general the images in the frieze seem to represent the sun’s passage through the sky.

With regard to the importance of the stuccos, archaeologist Stephen Houston says:…

“The stuccos provide unprecedented insight into how the Maya conceived of the heavens, how they thought of the sun, and how the sun itself would have been grafted onto the identity of kings and the dynasties that would follow them.”

El Zotz continued to exist for only a few generations after the death of its founding ruler.