Cultural uses of maize

Maize was the staple food of most of the pre-Columbian North American, Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean cultures. In addition to growing well in these climates, maize was easily stored, could be eaten in a number of ways (e.g. wholes or used as a flour) and had many other uses (e.g. baskets, fuel, etc.) making it an indispensable part of life. One of the early Mesoamerican civilizations was the Mayans, a civilization that had its peak from around 2000 BC to 900 AD but still continues today. Maize was so important to the ancient Mayans that it even had spiritual and religious significance. Indeed, according to Mayan legends, humans were created from maize (after two unsuccessful attempts to create humans out of mud or wood). In addition to the creation story, many of the Mayan legends revolve around maize, and images of maize have been found on archeological artifacts, murals, and hieroglyphs of these early civilizations. Key Mayan gods include the Tonsured Maize God and the Foliated Maize God. The Tonsured God’s head is shaven to represent a maize cob, with a small crest of hair to represent the tassel. The Foliated Maize God, on the other hand, symbolizes a still young, tender and green maize ear.

Native Americans, even today, grind maize into flour for cornbread, tortillas, and other uses using a mortar and pestle or a metate (a stone with a depression in the middle), and mano (a handheld stone used for pounding). They also use all parts of the plant: the husk can be used for mats, baskets, mattress stuffing, and dolls; the cobs are burned for fuel.

Early Americans often planted maize, squash and beans together, a system called the “Three Sisters.” Together these foods constitute a nutritionally complete diet, and when grown together (sometimes called “companion planting”) the three crops also benefit each other. The squash acts as a ground cover, preventing weeds and retaining moisture in the soil. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, and the beans add nitrogen to the soil.

Similar systems are still used today, both in the Americas and around the world.