All Maize Is Not Equal: Maize Variety Choices and Mayan Foodways in Rural Yucatan, Mexico

  • John Tuxill
  • Luis Arias Reyes
  • Luis Latournerie Moreno
  • Vidal Cob Uicab
  • Devra I. Jarvis


Foodways have changed substantially over the past several centuries in the Yucatan Peninsula and other areas of Mesoamerica, but one constant is the presence of maize (Zea mays) at the heart of rural economy, ecology, and culture. The domestication and diversification of maize – the world’s most productive grain crop – by indigenous farmers ranks as one of the greatest accomplishments of plant breeding. Remains of ancient maize cobs in the archeological record suggest that maize was first brought into cultivation roughly 7,000 years ago in the highlands of central Mexico, where its closest wild relative, teosinte (Zea mays ssp. parviglumis), also grows (Wilkes 1977; McClung de Tapia 1997; Smith 2001; Piperno and Flannery 2001; Matsuoka et al. 2002.). From that starting point, maize was gradually selected and diversified over time by farmers into an impressive array of different forms, sizes, and colors. Maize appears to spread out of central Mexico rapidly in the context of regional trade and exchange networks, and farmers selected and adapted maize populations to thrive in new environments. Archeobotanical evidence from northern Belize suggests maize arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula by about 5,000 years B.P. (Colunga-García Marín and Zizumbo-Villarreal 2004).

As maize spread and evolved in the Yucatan at the hands of Mayan farmers, it achieved a symbolic, ceremonial, ecological, and economic importance surpassing that of any other plant or natural resource in the Mayan world. Maize’s importance endures today. The Yucatan peninsula and much of Mesoamerica are still landscapes shaped by milpa, a traditional swidden or rotational model of maize cultivation. Making milpa continues to be an important economic activity for millions of rural residents in the region, and also represents a wellspring of agricultural biodiversity, since maize is frequently grown in consort with beans (Phaseolus spp.), squash (Cucurbita spp.), and chile peppers (Capsicum spp.). While yields in milpa agriculture may be less than those of more intensive production systems under ideal conditions, milpa offers the advantages of a low level of monetary investment and a relatively reliable harvest (and household food security) in an unpredictable agroenvironment with highly variable soils and rainfall.


Color Morph Maturation Time Yucatan Peninsula Household Food Security Kernel Color 
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This research was supported by the International Development Research Centre (IRDC) through funding provided to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity) and the Mérida Unit of the Centro de Investigaciones y de Estudios Avanzados--Instituto Politécnico Nacional (CINVESTAV-IPN) under the auspices of the IPGRI project “Strengthening the Scientific Basis of In Situ Conservation of Agricultural Biodiversity.” Principal funding for J. Tuxill was provided by the Scientific Cooperation Research Program of the United States Department of Agriculture, by a Fulbright-Hays fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, and by Yale University’s Center for International and Area Studies. The 1999 survey data were collected by Jose Vidal Cob Uicab, Jaime Canul Ku, Luis Burgos May, and Teresa Quinones; we also thank them for their many insights into Yucatec Maya farming and culture. Finally, we are grateful for the support of the Ejido Commission of Yaxcabá and the many Yaxcabá farmers without whom this work would not have been possible.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Tuxill
    • 1
  • Luis Arias Reyes
  • Luis Latournerie Moreno
  • Vidal Cob Uicab
  • Devra I. Jarvis
  1. 1.Western Washington UniversityBellinghamUSA

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