Maya Were Likely Taught to Grow Corn by Southern Migrants
A team of archaeologists and genetic scientists have just announced the results of a groundbreaking study of DNA obtained from ancient “migrant” skeletons found in Belize. What they discovered helped them trace the evolution of the complex genetic and cultural heritage of the Maya, who built a great empire that spanned one-third of southern Mexico and Central America in the first millennium AD. The study also shows specific evidence for the migration of corn cultivation from South America, which these migrants from the south apparently brought with them.
In their article in the journal Nature: Communications , the researchers explained how their genetic tests revealed the existence of a previously unknown group of migrants in Central America, who arrived in Maya lands in large numbers starting approximately 5,600 years ago. Based on changes in diet that occurred in the what is now the Belize region following their arrival, the scientists believe the Maya people’s maize cultivation culture was introduced by these migrants, who apparently brought knowledge of corn cultivation with them on their long northward journey from somewhere in South America.
The impact of these newcomers cannot be overstated. They were “the first pioneers, who essentially planted the seeds of Maya civilization,” Maya archaeologist and study co-author Jaime Awe, a native of Belize, told Science , “Without corn, there would have been no Mayans.”
Maya creation myths claim that the gods actually created humans out of corn. While this may not be literally true, it does have some figurative accuracy, since corn was the staple of the Maya diet and provided a significant proportion of their caloric intake as their empire rose to dominance.
Extent of the Mayan and Chibchan languages (a), and palaeobotanical records showing early horticulture sites where present-day populations have the same genome-wide data from the Belize skeletons analyzed in this study. ( Nature: Communications )
Maya Corn Cultivation’s Surprising South American Roots
Researchers have long known that hunter-gatherers co-existed in ancient Mesoamerica alongside farmers who brought crops like maize (corn), manioc, and chiles to Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize from elsewhere. But the relationship of the two groups to the ancestors of the Maya had remained a mystery. In hot and humid climates skeletal remains quickly break down and disappear in the soil, making it hard to obtain ancient DNA samples suitable for analysis.
But a large quantity of skeletal remains recovered from two rock shelters in a rainforest in the Bladen Nature Reserve in southwestern Belize changed the picture. Since 2014 archaeologists have unearthed more than 85 skeletons from shallow graves in the dirt beneath these rock shelters , including some that were unusually well-preserved for a tropical climate.
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The genetic experts involved in the new study were able to obtain acceptable DNA samples from the preserved inner ear bones of 20 individuals who were buried in the rock shelters. These intact genetic samples represent the oldest human DNA ever recovered from a tropical rainforest site.
Radiocarbon testing showed these ancient Mesoamericans had lived between 9,600 and 1,000 years ago. What was most notable is that around 5,600 years ago, the researchers discovered a significant change occurred in the genetic makeup of the people living in the region.
While the oldest burials had DNA that resembled that of hunter-gatherers known to have migrated from North to South America many thousands of years ago, the DNA from younger bones came from people more closely related to Chibchan language speakers. The Chibchan culture was indigenous to South America, in particular to its northernmost regions.
“It’s clearly a major movement into the Maya region of people related to Chibchan speakers,” said Harvard University geneticist and study co-author David Reich. This migration had not been suspected or detected before, but only came to light as a result of the new genetic study.
This movement changed Maya genetics forever. The researchers compared the ancient genetic data to that obtained from living Maya people and found that more than half of modern Maya DNA came from the Chibchan migrants. Only 20-25 percent came from the original hunter-gatherer settlers in the region, and the rest from ancestors of people currently living in the Mexican highlands.
Corn cultivation changed everything in Central America and present-day USA for Native Americans, and it is interesting that the seeds of maize culture came from South America to Belize nearly 5,500 years ago. ( FLAAR Mesoamerica )
A Diet Based on Corn Signals a Transformed Culture
It seems a south-to-north migration that started around 3,600 BC had a profound impact on the people who lived on Maya lands. This impact was genetic, but even more importantly these new immigrants apparently brought new agricultural practices and knowledge to the region. This sparked a change in diet that saw the ancestors of the Maya come to be far more reliant on maize (corn) than they ever had been before.
Two archaeologists who participated in the new genetic research project, Keith Prufer from the University of New Mexico and Douglas Kennett from the University of California-Santa Barbara, had already published a study in 2020 that revealed fascinating facts about the evolution of the diet of the people buried in the rock shelters.
Their analysis of carbon isotopes in the teeth of these individuals allowed them to determine what types of foods they’d eaten. The archaeologists found that the ancient hunter-gatherers had only relied on corn to provide for about 10 percent of their calorie needs. Between 5,600 and 4,000 years ago, however, that percentage started to gradually rise, and by the end of that period corn comprised about 50 percent of the local population’s diet.
The researchers involved in the latest study believe Chibchan-speaking migrants are responsible for the change. Their hypothesis is that the newcomers brought intensive farming techniques to Maya lands, along with highly nutritious varieties of corn that made the move to maize cultivation more viable and practical.
The shift to maize growing in southern Mexico and northern Central America took place over hundreds of years. The plant was already familiar in southwest Mexico 9,000 years ago, but the type of maize domesticated there was lower in nutritional value than the later varieties. This presumably discouraged a greater commitment to growing it.
By 6,500 years ago, farmers in Peru and Bolivia had domesticated the more appetizing versions of maize that would later show up further north. This means it took a bit less than 1,000 years for the secrets of how to cultivate this crop to arrive in Maya territory.
There is some additional evidence from another field that helps establish the connection between the migration of Chibchan speakers from the south and the rise of corn as a staple crop in the north. According to University of North Carolina linguist and study co-author David Mora-Martin, one early Maya language actually uses the Chibchan word for maize to describe the crop.
A composite of the Maya "Young Corn Deity," from the 8th century AD, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ( The Met )
Corn Cultivation: A Gift from the Gods
Historical precedence supports the possibility suggested by this groundbreaking genetic and cultural research project. In Europe it was also migrants, this time from the Middle East, who introduced new and better farming methodologies to the region, transforming European agricultural development in the process.
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Some constructive ideas about farming and agricultural in the Americas could have passed from neighbor to neighbor and to other neighbors after that, spreading slowly but surely in this manner. But if knowledge about corn growing was spread by migrants, its impact in Maya territory would have been more sudden and dramatic. Perhaps a sudden and dramatic hypothesis is needed to explain why the Maya people came to view maize as one of their greatest gifts from the gods .
Top image: Archaeologists working at the southwestern Belize rock shelter site where the “migrant” skeletons were found, providing new evidence that Maya corn cultivation culture began about 5,500 years ago as a new idea from somewhere in South America.Source: Erin E. Ray / Science
By Nathan Falde