The staple of ancient Maya life

In the pre-dawn darkness, Gucumatz and Heart Of Heaven call on Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow to bring yellow and white maize from Paxil and Cayala, a mountain filled with seeds and fruits. Old Xmucane grinds the maize and, from the meal, the first four men are fashioned. Unlike the previous wooden race, these people of maize possess great knowledge and understanding and correctly give thanks to their creators. However, Gucumatz and Heart of Heaven are troubled; these corn men can see everywhere—through earth and sky to the limits of the universe. The creators decide that these people are too much like themselves and that their powers must be diminished. As though they were breathing mist on a mirror, the gods blurd the vision of the first people so that they can see clearly only what is near. In place of omniscience, the creators give the first men happiness by providing them with four beautiful wives to be their companions. With these four women, the first lineages of the Quiche’ are begun.              

Popol Vuh (Sacred book of the Quiché Maya)

The word “maize” was adopted by the Spanish conquistadors because it’s the word the natives used to describe what we refer to as “corn,” the western European term for this grain. Maize was native to Mesoamerica, a staple by the Middle Preclassic (1000—400 BC). As early as Olmec times (1200-1500 BCE) the grains were “nixtamalized,” a word derived from the Aztec Nahuatl word nextli or “ashes” and tamalli meaning “wrapped,” to describe the process of boiling the kernels in crushed limestone to soften them for grinding, remove the clear husk and improve the flavor. Nixtamalizing maize enhances amino acids and niacin, making derivative foods such as tortillas and gruels more nutritious. Combined with beans it provides most of the proteins necessary for an average adult—and was capable of sustaining large populations throughout Mesoamerica for centuries.

Every kernel has a silk, which is the female part of the plant. The tassel is the male part that contains tiny grains of pollen, which in the wind, falls on the silk of neighboring plants. Each pollen grain pollinates the strand of silk it sticks to. After fertilization, a kernel grows at the end of each strand. And at the end of each silk is an egg. When the pollen reaches the egg it pollinates it and the egg becomes a kernel of maize. Inside the husk, hundreds of kernels grow into what we refer to as an “ear.” The ideal time to harvest is just before the silk turns brown. Growers leave some maize on the stalk until the brown silk dries. The kernels harden, and that becomes seed for the next crop. 

In ancient Mesoamerica the ears of maize were much shorter than they are now, evolving from two inches to four, then six. White and yellow maize were used for everyday meals. Black maize was often prepared for ritual meals. Maize today has to be planted in quantity and close together because the stalks would break without the support of neighboring plants. Considering the dietary cornucopia of today, it’s hard to imagine a society where food “diversity” meant the different ways that one food could be prepared. But that’s how it was for the ancient Maya, and vestiges of it carry on today. 

Ul (Atoli in Nahuatl)

Solid balls of white ground maize are mixed with water then cooked to reduce it into a liquid like a porridge or thick jelly depending upon the proportions. The gruel was drunk warm as the morning meal and consumed cold at mid-day. The ancients buried the dead with it for sustenance during their trip through the underworld. By adding whole grains of maize to it there was something to chew on. Today whole turkeys are cooked in atoli.

Keehel Uah (Tamalli in Nahuatl)

Nixtamalized maize dough is wrapped in leaves, then steamed or baked on or under the coals of the hearth. They were often smoked, sometimes for weeks, sprinkled with lime powder. Fillings included: beans mixed in with the dough, ground and toasted squash seeds, turkey, iguana, deer, turtle, fish and greens, especially chaya and chipilin. After filling, they are cooked with a little water and a framework of sticks so the tamales are steamed, not boiled.

In ancient times the dough, plain or with a filling, was wrapped in plantain or avocado or maize husks before cooking and tied with strands of the same material or cords. The white and yellow objects depicted on Maya vases may be firm tamales, made of white and yellow maize dough.


Tortillas originated in Central Mexico. They were introduced to the Maya in the Post Classic Period. The Maya shaped them on leaves and toasted them on a stone brushed with lime-water so they would puff up briefly. “Young Maize Tortillas” are shaped by the two-handed method of slapping the dough. The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas coated their cooked tortillas with a bean paste and then more maize dough, which was toasted again. Tortillas were made for travel by drying them in the sun until they become crisp. Spaniards reported that they needed teeth of steel to eat them. As with tamalles, there was/is a long (and similar) list of accompaniments.  

Making tortillas. Tecpan, Guatemala 2008

Maize Made For Traveling


Maize dough was made into kind of bread by adding it to water to make a gruel.

Keyem (Posolli in Nahuatl)

Normally, maize is ground three times using a metate. To make keyem, after the first grinding the dough was mixed with water to form one of several maize beverages. Balls of the dough were carried by travelers. They were kept in a special ceramic container and wrapped in leaves from previous bundles of keyem to provide a culture so bacteria, yeasts and molds could work on the dough. They lasted months until they became sour. The sour dough was mixed with water and drunk. It was reported to have a “sharp pleasant taste.” After the 2nd grinding, the dough is suitable for tortillas. After the third, it’s smooth enough to be made into atolli. When entertaining guests, they added honey.

Maatz (Pinole in Nahuatl)

To make this beverage, toasted maize powder was stirred into water. Chile powder was added to spice it up. And elites would substitute cacao powder. The Spaniards reported that water was seldom taken in its pure state.

Zahina (Posolli in Nahuatl)

Uncooked ground maize balls are formed into a solid. These are carried by travelers and mixed with water to make a gruel.

Sacul (Atole in Nahuatl)

Maize that has not been nixtamalized is ground with water until it’s grainy. It’s sweetened with honey and served in bowls. It’s reported to be “rather sandy in texture,” but it keeps well.


Twelve kinds of beer were reported, most of them maize-based. They were drunk before going to sleep and they were considered “the drinks of chiefs.”

Maize Dough
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 26)

THE NEXT MORNING I AWOKE EARLY AND TOLD MY MOTHER I was going for a walk and wanted to be alone. She didn’t even question me while wrapping maize dough nuggets for me to take along. While I waited, Butterfly passed the doorway with a tall jar on her head. Mother untied the leaves and was sprinkling chili powder onto the balls of maize dough when she glanced at me with watery eyes. I took it to mean that she was sorry for my being burdened with the truth that she’d kept from me. 

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 73)

I got my chance when he took me to an old quarry down by the New River. With the ensouling rites just two days away, he needed hearthstones to establish the heart of the house, the place where a spirit would enter. The three stones had to be a certain size and shape for cooking, so we used long-handled axes with wide flats to pull back the weeds, dig out the soil and expose a long section of white stone. The day was hot. Before we began to chop the stone itself, we sat on a ledge, wiped the sweat off our faces and took our keyem—a gruel made by stirring balls of maize dough in water. Mother spiced the dough with honey and chili powder, so I was eager for it. 

Maize and Other Foods
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 125)

My muscles ached, my eyes burned and I was very thirsty. Women followed behind the warriors carrying blankets and clothing on their heads. Others had back-baskets, probably filled with maize, beans and avocados. One woman had live iguanas dangling from her belt. Another had a turkey hen tucked under her arm. White Grandfather patted me on the shoulder and pointed to Hummingbird coming with a bundle. Food. Although my legs were wobbly going down the steps, we met her at the long bench that faced the temple.

Father’s sister had brought kox-stuffed tamales, fried plantains, roasted squash seeds and persimmons. All I could manage were the seeds and some cold maize water spiced with chili. My hands seemed not to belong to me and I could barely feel my mouth, so I spilled some of the maize water down the front of me. (Kox is a small black bird).

Reference to humans being made of maize
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 254)

My brother went across the courtyard and stood on the steps above Red Paw and Pech. Dragonfly continued to translate. “What did the Makers do? They invoked Grandmother of Glory! And their thoughts came clear. Fox, Coyote, Parrot and Crow brought ears of yellow maize and white maize from the split place, from First True Mountain, Flowering Mountain Earth where Grandmother Of Glory ground the maize nine times. The water she used in rinsing her hands made fat—human fat. And with it Sovereign Plumed Serpent made the first humans, our Mother-Fathers.” With a swish of his robe, Comb Pace came down the steps and went to center. “The humans made from fat were different,” he said. “They made words! They praised the directions and they listened. They walked and they used their muscles. They offered their sweat, blood and smoke to the Makers and Modelers. Such was the making by First Grandfather and First Grandmother.” 


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller  

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