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Sat May 23, 2020, 01:02 AM

Corn connects many generations of Maya

18 May 2020

That corn was highly important in the Maya culture is something that Genner Llanes Ortiz, himself a Maya from the Mexican province of Yucatan, has always known, right from his childhood. But just how important the role of corn is in the collective memory of his people, is one of the subjects of his research.

Llanes Ortizís fasciation for the role of corn in Maya culture started around ten years ago. As an anthropologist at the Faculty of Archaeology in Leiden, he noticed how many corn festivals there were in Mexico and that the Maya tradition of praying for the cornfields had grown into mass prayers at these festivals, even when the festivals were held in city centres. He is so fascinated by the topic that it is now the subject of a widescale research project heis working on. By studying the Maya's relationship to corn in the past and the present, he hopes to gain insight into how the Mayas handle their cultural heritage, how they pass on their culture and what it means for them in the present day.

Corn has a rich tradition in the cuisine of Latin America. The number of dishes using corn - even in Mexico alone - is immense. And there is an enormous variety of types of corn - around 60. They all originate from that one plant, teosinte, a Mexican type of grass from which the Maya cultivated corn 8,000 to 14,000 years ago. Biologists have already reconstructed how they turned this weed into an edible plant, but how corn then spread among all the indigenous peoples in South and North America is still a mystery.

Llanes is fascinated by it, and by the social memories that the Maya people share about the cultivation of corn. For the Maya, corn is more than a food product, it is sacred. According to the Maya creation story, they were actually created from corn: fashioned from cornflour. And corn still plays an important religious and spiritual role in the lives of Maya people.

Archaeologists have mainly concerned themselves with the classical Maya heritage. The history of the native peoples received little attention, partly because so few records were kept. 'But the fact that there's no written history doesn't mean that nothing was passed on. That did happen, in the form of drawings, plays and images.'

Culture destroyed
Llanes is quick to add that the Maya do have a written history. They used hieroglyphs to record their religious stories, history and astronomy insights in images and in books. However, the books were systematically destroyed by the colonisers during the inquisition. 'Colonisation marginalised the memories of the Maya. Much of their culture was destroyed, and that has had an impact on how their history has been handed down. Things didn't get much better after the colonisation period either. But, with my research on corn, I want to delve into the collective memories, which may help to restore these memories.í


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