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Remembering the Future: How Ancient Maya Agronomists Changed the Modern World

Remembering the Future: How Ancient Maya Agronomists Changed the Modern World

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The Maya were the longest-lived civilization in history. Their history lasted for 3,500 years and traced parallel time lines with other ancient civilizations. They began their civilization in 2500 BC in parallel with the ancient Sumerians and it terminated in 900 AD, during the reign of Emperor Charlemagne, but their histories did not converge because the Maya and other world civilizations did not realize that each other existed. The Maya were the phantoms of history.

Experts of Agronomy

They developed advanced sciences in astronomy, mathematics and one of the five original written languages in the world. They constructed grand high-rise cities replete with otherworldly art and architecture. But, their greatest science was agronomy. They were the greatest agronomists in world history. They developed cultivars that nourished the Maya people, enabling their rapid growth into a society of profound thinkers.

For more than 8000 years Maya agronomists created cultivars or plant varieties of unequaled quality by combining science with selective plant breeding. The goal was to develop cultivars that enhanced the lifestyle of their populace.

After the discovery of America, Spanish explorers encountered Maya cultivars and they adopted these, disseminating them across the world. The adoption of the unique cultivars by peoples in Afro-Eurasia altered history.

Maya Crops in Demand Around the Globe

In the 16th century, Maya cultivars were espoused by cultures across the globe. By 1530, tomatoes were growing in Italy; maize was an African crop by 1590; papayas were grown in Asia by 1530, tobacco in 1520 (and even turkeys in England by 1520). In 1550, Europeans introduced cassava and the peanut to tropical Southeast Asia and West Africa.

This exchange of cultivars, animals, and ideas become known as the Columbian Exchange. Scholars believe that the ecological transformation set off by the Columbian Exchange was one of the events that established the modern world.

New World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Maize 2. Tomato 3. Potato 4. Vanilla 5. Pará rubber tree 6. Cacao 7. Tobacco

New World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Maize 2. Tomato 3. Potato 4. Vanilla 5. Pará rubber tree 6. Cacao 7. Tobacco. (Public Domain)

The greatest lasting impact of the Columbian Exchange lies in the introduction of Maya cultivars to the rest of the world. World changing Maya cultivars include:

  • tobacco
  • cotton
  • turkeys
  • maize
  • sweet potatoes
  • tomatoes
  • peanuts
  • cassava
  • cacao
  • chicle
  • henequen
  • sunflower seeds
  • papaya
  • vanilla
  • chili peppers
  • beans
  • squash

These cultivars have made important changes to the food security of the entire world. As well, the introductions of new crops from the New World have had a dramatic impact on demographics.

Changing the World with Food

Maya cultivars affected politics, laws, customs, technology and financial empires. They have spurred armed revolutions, initiated rebellions, altered political boundaries, inspired industrial, technical and scientific revolutions, started college systems, promoted deadly habits, sparked sporting empires and changed cultural speech, music and lifestyles.

An overview that some Maya cultivars had in changing world history is truly amazing. Following are some of the important world changes resulting from cultivars invented by an ancient civilization:

The Chili pepper has become the world’s most popular spice. Maya chilies made changes in the tastes of food around the world. What would Indian or Thai food be without chilies?

A collection of spicy chili peppers

A collection of spicy chili peppers (Takeaway/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chocolate is a popular sweet world-wide and gifting chocolate has made this heathen cultivar into the favorite of Christian Holidays.

Maya cotton is the world’s favorite fiber and has altered history; Initiating the Industrial revolution, starting the American Civil War and increased slavery. It inspired the land-grant college system (the sale of federally controlled land to fund educational institutions), turning the USA into a technological superpower. Cotton clothes 90 percent of the world’s population.

Maize is the world’s favorite grain and feeds billions of people each day. Maize effected significant changes in history including the food tastes of the world, the creation of a whiskey with both a pedigree and a gangster reputation and started NASCAR.

Maize in many diverse colors.

Maize in many diverse colors. (Public Domain)

The peanut played a key role in electing America’s 39th president. It is a favorite in candies and PBJ sandwiches.  Peanuts is history’s most popular comic strip.

Attempts to grow the  pineapple in Europe resulted in the invention of technology for greenhouse systems that led to glass high-rise buildings in modern cities.

Tobacco, the world’s favorite narcotic, has killed more people that all the wars and plagues in history. Tobacco accounts for the demise of 100 million people in the 20th century.

The tomato is the world’s favorite fruit. The delicious red fruit has a pedigree in Italy and in America was considered poisonous in until the 19th century.

A ripe, red tomato

A ripe, red tomato (Jeekc/CC BY 2.0)

Vanilla is the world’s favorite flavor. A member of the orchid family, vanilla flavoring is popular all over and created the legendary ‘nana pudding’ – a vanilla flavored custard in the southern United States.

Trade Brought Cultivars to the World, Creating Booms

In the  Columbian Exchange, Europe gained new sources of food and fiber. This great exchange between the New World and the Old World altered the history of our planet forever. Change included the great dying of Native Americans, the re-peopling of the western hemisphere by European immigrants, the worldwide improvement in food security, and significant historical changes.

The list of cultivars involved in the Great Exchange compares the totals of Afro-Eurasian cultivars with American cultivars but does not specify the contributions from specific areas. A break-out list presents an interesting overview of which areas contributed the most cultivars to the world.

The revised list of Afro-Eurasian contributions includes 16 indigenous plants from Asia, 11 from the Middle East, five from Africa, and only eight from Europe. Contributions of American cultivars listed in the Exchange include a total of 29 Maya cultivars, eight from North America and five from South America. An analysis indicates that the Maya contributed a superior selection of nutritious cultivars to the world when compared with the Old-World specimens.

Old World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Citrus; 2. Apple; 3. Banana; 4. Mango; 5. Onion; 6. Coffee; 7. Wheat; 8. Rice

Old World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Citrus; 2. Apple; 3. Banana; 4. Mango; 5. Onion; 6. Coffee; 7. Wheat; 8. Rice (Public Domain)

Maya cultivars have combined to change how the world is nourished. The world population is currently over 7,000,000,000 and Maya Cultivars currently feed 60 percent of the world’s population. Cassava alone feeds 500,000,000 people daily!

17th c. painting of Cassava plant and tuber

17th c. painting of Cassava plant and tuber (Public Domain)

The introduction of Maya cultivars induced a surge in world population. In the year 1500, the world population stood at 425 million. By 1600 it was at 545 million, reaching 610 million in 1700.

Thereafter, due to enhanced nutrition from Maya cultivars, population increased at a faster rate. By 1750 the population stood at 720 million; reaching one billion in 1810 and 1930 it was at two billion. The three-billion mark was passed in 1960, in 1980 it passed four billion, in 1990 the five billion mark was passed. In 2000 population passed six billion and 2010 saw the world at 7 billion population.

When Food is More Precious than Gold

The precious metals exploited by the Spanish conquistadors has long been considered the most valuable treasures taken from the New World. There were 5,640,000,000 ounces of silver and 43,000,000 ounces of gold of exploited during the conquest. Using modern-day prices of gold and silver, (with silver at $24.08 USD per ounce and gold prices $1200 USD per ounce), the total equals $187,000,000,000 U.S. dollars. Calculating the financial value of one year’s production of major Maya cultivars equals a total of $580,800,000,000 U.S. dollars. Therefore, the current worth of Maya cultivars per year is over three times the total value of all the precious metal taken from the New World!

The importance of Maya agronomic sciences has not been investigated and scholars have largely overlooked the impact that Maya cultivars have had on the history and the food security of the world. 

The philosophy of the Classic Maya was based on the thesis:  “Remember the future to anticipate the past”. That philosophy is valid in the 21st century. When considering the earth’s future, it is important to remember the Maya philosophy and recall that the Maya civilization collapsed when they over-stripped their land and became vulnerable to environmental change. Maya cultivars are still changing the world.

Author, lecturer, award-winning structural engineer, and Archaeo-engineer James O’Kon has explored and researched Maya technology for forty years. He has combined his talents as a forensic engineer with archaeological field survey evidence to uncover the veil over the lost technology of the Maya. James is author of Corn, Cotton and Chocolate: The Lost Secrets of Maya

Top Image: Stucco head of the Maya maize god, 550-850 AD. (Walters Art Museum/Public Domain), Maize (Public Domain) and Cultivation of maize in an illustration from the 16th c. Florentine Codex (CC BY 3.0); Deriv.

By James O'Kon


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Pete Wagner's picture

Some theorize that Thoth (sometimes associated with Hermes) of ancient Egypt, their god of wisdom and such, took a contingent to South America, which may have been in immediate aftermath of the destruction of Atlantis (Richat Structure, Mauritania) which had turned northern Africa, Levant, etc. into an inhospitable dessert, probably also causing the Ice Age (circa 120k years ago).  That adds up, timewise, allowing an upstart culture thousands of years to try to recreate what they had in Africa, before the destruction, and many milenia prior to the migrant invasion of the dark-haired Asiatics via the Bering land bridge.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

A very impressive list! And most of these foods are really delicious. I mean... chocolate... Is there anything more delicious?! @addictive!

James O Kon's picture

James O’Kon

James O’Kon, P.E. has pursued a lifelong passion for Maya archaeology and has combined his unique professional engineering experience with the search for lost Maya technology. He has applied his engineering talents to explore and investigate Maya sites located deep... Read More

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