Economic Botany

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 101–118 | Cite as

Diseases of maize in the wet lowland tropics and the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization

  • James L. Brewbaker


The Classic Maya civilization was centered in lowlands of the Petén in northern Guatemala, and collapsed mysteriously in the ninth century AD. Abandoned were rich agricultural lands carved without metal tools out of a tropical rain forest, lands that had been farmed with increasing intensity for six to sixteen centuries. The Maya evidently resettled in highlands to the south or in less productive dry lowlands to the north. No reoccupation occurred of the Petén farms, homes or ceremonial centers until their discovery in the past two centuries.

Sustained crop failure of maize (Zen mavs L.) due to an epidemic of the planthopper-borne virus, maize mosaic virus (MMV), is proposed as a primary contributing cause of the collapse. Major diseases and pests of maize in the tropics are assessed for their relative significance in and near the Petén vs. the highlands, and the viruses are highlighted.

Maize mosaic virus is a devastating virus disease transmitted by the corn planthopper,Peregrinus maidis, an insect restricted to tropic lowlands. Maize and teosinte are its only definitively known hosts. Thus the disease has been serious only where maize is grown more-or-less continuously through the year in wet or irrigated tropics (e.g., Caribbean Islands, Venezuela, Hawaii, Tanzania, Australia). It is reported here for southern Mexico and the Petén of Guatemala. Resistance in maize occurs only in one known form, the gene Mv. that confers a high level resistance but not immunity. Resistance data are presented for 63 of the 67 races of maize thought to have evolved in the Northern Hemisphere. The Mv gene is shown to occur in all seven of the races of maize evolved in the Caribbean, but in none of the primitive Mexican or Central American races.

It is proposed that maize mosaic virus originated in northern South America at or about the time maize was brought into the Caribbean by the Arawak around the time of Christ. The sympatric origin or selection in maize of the Mv resistance mutant in this region is assumed to have led to its incorporation in all seven Caribbean maize races. It is conjectured that viruliferous leafhoppers were blown from the Caribbean into the Petén around the eighth century allowing the disease to become epidemic in susceptible maize races such as Nal-Tel and Tepecintle, grown by the Petén Maya. Sustained failure of maize production due to MMV would have characterized areas of intensive maize cultivation, particularly where it was year-round. The disease would have been less severe in areas with a long dry season, as to the north of Yucatán and it would not have occurred in the highland areas to the south and west, areas to which surviving Maya presumably migrated.


Maize Economic Botany Downy Mildew Maize Dwarf Mosaic Virus False Smut 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Literature Cited

  1. Anon. 1977. Leucaena, promising forage and tree crop for the tropics. Natl. Acad. Sci., Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  2. Benson, E. P. 1967. The Maya world. T. Y. Crowell Co., New York.Google Scholar
  3. Brewbaker, J. L. 1974. Continuous genetic conversions and breeding of corn in a neutral environment. Proc. 29th Ann. corn and sorghum conf., Am. Seed Trade Assoc, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  4. —. 1979. Resistance to maize mosaic virus.In Virus and virus-like diseases of maize and sorghum in the United States. OARDC, Wooster, Ohio. (In press.)Google Scholar
  5. — & F. Aquilizan. 1965. Genetics of resistance in maize to a mosaic-stripe virus transmitted byPeregrinus maidis. Crop Science 5: 412–415.Google Scholar
  6. — & E. M. Hutton. 1979. Leucaena—versatile tropical tree legume.In G. A. Ritchie (ed.). New agricultural crops. A.A.A.S., Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.Google Scholar
  7. — & S. K. Kim. 1979. Inheritance of husk numbers and ear insect damage in maize. Crop Sci. 19: 32–36.Google Scholar
  8. Briton-Jones, H. R. 1933. Stripe disease of corn in Trinidad. Trop. Agric. 10: 119–122.Google Scholar
  9. Brown, W. L. 1960. Races of maize in the West Indies. Public. 792, Natl. Acad. Sci., Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  10. Buddenhagen, L. 1977. Resistance and vulnerability of tropical crops in relation to their evolution and breeding. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 287: 309–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bullard, W. R., Jr. 1962. Settlement patterns and social structure in the Southern Maya lowlands during the Classic period.In J. A. Graham (ed.). Ancient Mesoamerica—selected readings. Peek Public, Palo Alto, California.Google Scholar
  12. Coe, M. D. 1965. The jaguar’s children: Preclassic Central Mexico. Museum Primitive Art, N.Y.Google Scholar
  13. —. 1966. The Maya. Praeger Pubi., N.Y.Google Scholar
  14. Coe, W. R. 1957. Environmental limitations on Maya culture: a reexamination. Amer. Anthrop. 59: 328–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cowgill, U. M. 1962. An agricultural study of the Southern Maya lowlands. Amer. Anthrop. 64: 273–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Culbert, T. P. 1973. A prologue to Classic Maya culture and the problem of its collapse.In T. P. Culbert (ed.). The Classic Maya collapse. U. New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
  17. Culbert, T. P. , M. L. Spencer & P. C. Magers. 1975. Slash-and-burn agriculture in the Maya lowlands. Unpublished ms. International Congress of Americanists, Paris.Google Scholar
  18. Frederiksen, R. A. &. B. L. Renfro. 1977. Global status of maize downy mildew. Ann. Rev. Phytopath. 15: 249–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Galinat, W. C. 1971. The origin of maize. Ann. Rev. Genetics 5: 447–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Harrison, P. D. & B. L. Turner II (eds.). 1978. Pre-hispanic Maya agriculture. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
  21. Herold, R. 1972. Maize mosaic virus. CMI/AAB Description of Plant Viruses #94.Google Scholar
  22. Herold, F., G. H. Berghold & J. Weibel. 1960. Isolation and electron microscope demonstration of a virus infecting corn. Virology 12: 335–347.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kim, S. K. & J. L. Brewbaker. 1976. Effects ofPuccinia sorghi rust on yield and several agronomie traits of maize in Hawaii. Crop Sci. 16: 874–877.Google Scholar
  24. Kunkel, L. O. 1927. The corn mosaic of Hawaii distinct from sugar cane mosaic. Phytopath. 17: 41.Google Scholar
  25. Lundell, C. L. 1937. The vegetation of Petén. Carnegie Inst., Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  26. Malaguti, G. 1963. El enanismo rayado del maiz en Venezuela. Agronomia Tropical (Venez.) 12: 175–193.Google Scholar
  27. Mangelsdorf, P. C. 1974. Corn: its origin, evolution and improvement. Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.Google Scholar
  28. Matheny, R. T. 1976. Maya lowland hydraulic systems. Science 193: 639–649.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Meggers, B. J. 1954. Environmental limitations on the development of cultures. Amer. Anthrop. 56: 801–824.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Namba, R. & S. Y. Higa. 1971. Host plant studies of the corn planthopper,Peregrinus maidis (Ashmead) in Hawaii. Proc. Hawaii Ent. Soc. 21: 105–108.Google Scholar
  31. Olson, G. W. 1978. Effects of activities of the ancient Maya upon some of the soils in Central America. Unpublished ms., 11th Congr. International. Soc. of Soil Sci., Edmonton, Canada.Google Scholar
  32. Ortega, A. 1974. Maize diseases and insects.In Worldwide maize improvement in the 70’s and the role for CIMMYT. Proc. of Symposium, CIMMYT, El Batán, Mexico.Google Scholar
  33. Painter, R. H. 1955. Insects on corn and teosinte in Guatemala. J. Econ. Ent. 48: 36–42.Google Scholar
  34. Puleston, D. E. 1971. An experimental approach to the function of Classic Maya chultuns. Amer. Antiquity 36: 322–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. — & O. S. Puleston. 1971. An ecological approach to the origins of Maya civilization. Archaeology 24: 330–337.Google Scholar
  36. Renfro, B. L. & A. J. Ullstrup. 1976. A comparison of maize diseases in temperate and in tropical environments. Pest Articles and News Summaries 22: 491–498.Google Scholar
  37. Ricketson, O. G., Jr. & E. B. Ricketson. 1937. Uaxactún, Guatemala; Group E, 1926–1931. Part I: The excavations. Part II: The artifacts. Publ. 477, Carnegie Inst., Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  38. Rouse, I. 1948. Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 4, Bull. 143. Bur. Amer. Ethnology, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  39. — & L. Allaire. 1978. Caribbean.In C. W. Meighan & R. E. Taylor (eds.). Chronologies in New World archaeology. Seminar Press, New York.Google Scholar
  40. Ruthenberg, H. 1971. Farming systems in the tropics.In Shifting cultivation systems. Clarendon Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  41. Sanders, W. T. 1973. The cultural ecology of the lowland Maya: A reevaluation.In T. P. Culbert (ed.). The Classic Maya collapse. U. New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
  42. Shimkin, D. B. 1973. Models for the downfall: some ecological and culture-historical considerations.In T. P. Culbert (ed.). The Classic Maya collapse. U. New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
  43. Siemens, A. H. & D. E. Puleston. 1972. Ridged fields and associated features in southern Campeche: new perspectives on the lowland Maya. Amer. Antiquity 37: 228–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Turner, B. L., II. 1974. Prehistoric intensive agriculture in the Maya lowlands. Science 185: 118–124.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wellhausen, E. J., L. M. Roberts, E. Hernandez X. & P. C. Mangelsdorf. 1952. Races of maize in Mexico. Bussey Inst., Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.Google Scholar
  46. —, A. Fuentes O., E. Hernandez X. & P. C. Mangelsdorf. 1957. Races of maize in Central America. Publ. 511, Natl. Acad. Sci., Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  47. Wilkes, H. G. 1967. Teosinte; the closest relative of maize. Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.Google Scholar
  48. Willey, G. R. & D. B. Shimkin. 1973. The Maya collapse: a summary view.In T. P. Culbert (ed.). The Classic Maya collapse. U. New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
  49. Woodson, R. E., Jr. 1940. The apocynaceous flora of the Yucatán peninsula.In Botany of the Maya area: miscellaneous papers, Public 522, Carnegie Inst., Washington, D.C.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY 10458 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • James L. Brewbaker
    • 1
  1. 1.University of HawaiiHonolulu

Personalised recommendations