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Copán - Some Foods of the Maya

Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.

When the Maya first migrated into the Copán River Valley, they found an untouched fertile land teeming with game, deer, capybara, turkeys and wild jungle fowl, and plants and trees hanging with fruits. They were familiar with rudimentary agriculture and brought seeds for planting their subsistence crops. All the plant foods eaten by the Maya of Copán were indigenous to the Americas, but many are now known worldwide. Some, however, are rather rare outside Central America and are remarkable.

Staple Foods of the Copán Maya

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Corn

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Modern non-hybrid corn from Honduras.  Ancient DNA evident by colored grains.

Modern non-hybrid corn from Honduras. Ancient DNA evident by colored grains.

The Maya people had several staple crops, the principal of which was corn, or maiz. Corn was cultivated in the Americas for at least 10,000 years. It began as a tall grass bearing large seeds, much like Lagrimas de San Pedro found growing wild today. By the time of Classic Copán, corn was in its familiar cob form, multicolored.

Native multicolored corn, Honduras

Native multicolored corn, Honduras

The methods of corn cultivation were simple. The farmer walked across his intended field with a long stick. Every foot or two he punched a hole in the dirt and dropped two or three corn kernels, stepped on the hole to cover them, and moved on. Many times beans or squash seeds were planted in the same hole. Bean vines would trail around the corn stalks, and squash leaves would shelter the ground from the sun and prevent undue evaporation of moisture. Farmers did not understand about legumes and their nitrogen benefits, but they knew by experience that when they planted beans with corn they got better crops of both.


Farmers of Copán had no plows or ground irrigation equipment, so the planting started at the beginning of the rainy season when the ground was soft. Plants grew in a haphazard manner. Today all over the Lenca territories one can see small hill-top corn fields planted in the old Mayan traditional way..


Lenca corn field, near Copán

Lenca corn field, near Copán

Dry Beans

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Beans were the second most important staple food of the Mayas. Then as today, red and black beans were the most common. There are half a dozen other native bean varieties sometimes grown, but red and black are the most important.

Red Honduran-grown beans.

Red Honduran-grown beans.

Black Honduran-grown beans.

Black Honduran-grown beans.

Squash

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Squash in its many forms was another common food. Every small pueblo and homestead grew squash.

Honduran Butternut squash.

Honduran Butternut squash.

Honduran Ayote squash.

Honduran Ayote squash.

Yuca

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Yuca, Manioc, Cassava, it’s all the same plant. Bearing large tubers and roots, the starchy but nutritious crop was a mainstay among these self-sufficient people. It still is today. It can be eaten fresh, fried, dried, sweet, salted, with chile picante, and is the primary ingredient in tapioca pudding.

Other Planted Crops

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Izote

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Izote is a medium-height species of Yucca with a very soft trunk unusable for lumber or wood crafts. At the top it bears a large spike of white succulent flowers, edible with a slight cabbage flavor. These are prized by rural Hondurans. The leaves also provide an excellent fiber much like jute.

Izote flower spike.

Izote flower spike.

Chiles

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The Mayas of Copán loved chiles, and many recipes included them. All chiles, green, yellow and red, Bell peppers, Poblanos, Habaneros, Jalapeños, even the infamous “Thai” chiles originated in the Americas.

Chiles

Chiles

Tomatoes

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Tomatoes grow wild all over Central America, though they are not the large slicing varieties but little bright red cherry types. The Mayas knew tomatoes and used them in some traditional dishes.

Wild Honduran cherry tomatoes.

Wild Honduran cherry tomatoes.

Gathered Jungle Fruits

Not all agricultural foods of the Mayas were intentionally planted. The surrounding jungles provided a huge variety of foodstuffs. This is only a sample, there are many others.

Coyoles

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Coyoles are small round semi-hard-shelled fruits, the interior of which resemble lychees.

Coyoles in Honduras

Coyoles in Honduras

Nances

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A small cherry-like fruit relished by locals throughout Central America. I find the flavor rather insipid, but it’s a matter of taste.

Nances on the tree after a rain.

Nances on the tree after a rain.

Ripe nances in a market in Intibucá.

Ripe nances in a market in Intibucá.

Moras

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Moras should have an award for natures best. These are like large Blackberries but with a more intense flavor. They are an invasive plant that grows everywhere in western Honduras, and I’m sure the Mayas of Copán knew them well. They have made several attempts to domesticate these plants and grow them in the US. None have succeeded. They refuse to grow outside their native area.

Moras, near Copán.

Moras, near Copán.

Marañon

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Marañon is the fruit of the cashew tree. The fruit is edible and makes a fine jam. One fruit makes one cashew, so they waste thousands of tons of Marañón fruit every year to bring the nuts to export. The gray curl at the bottom of the fruit contains its one nut, and it is protected by a caustic sticky juice, very damaging to skin and eyes. As with coffee, I can’t imagine why cashews aren’t $100 per pound!

Marañon with cashew nuts.

Marañon with cashew nuts.

Zincuya

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Zincuya is the local name for this strange fruit. It is better known outside Central America as Soncoya. The fruit is soft and fibrous inside with lots of seeds, a flavor somewhat like mango.

Zincuya fruit, Ojojona.

Zincuya fruit, Ojojona.

Zapote

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A large fruit well known among the Maya of Copán. Salmon or orange colored inside, with a very agreeable fruity flavor.

Zapote fruit.

Zapote fruit.

Another variety of Zapote.

Another variety of Zapote.

Cacao

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Chocolate! The food of the gods among the Maya. Cacao seeds were precious in Classic Copán, second only to jade, used even as currency for trading. At times only kings and royalty consumed it, being too valuable for mere mortals. Unprocessed cacao seeds, “cocoa beans”, have a semi-sweet nutty chocolate flavor and are not unpleasant to eat raw.

Cacao pods growing among the ruins of Copán.

Cacao pods growing among the ruins of Copán.

Raw Cacao beans from Copán.

Raw Cacao beans from Copán.

Honey

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Contrary to what we commonly see on the Internet, there were bees in Pre-Columbian Central America. They are small, only 1/4 inch, and stingless. They don’t make a honeycomb with hexagonal cells like old-world honey bees, instead producing round honey-filled wax balls, much like those of Bumble Bees. The honey is of fine quality with a higher sugar content than regular honey. Their hives are found by the wax cones they build at the hive entrances. These bees are common in Copán and are known as the “Royal Mayan Bees” because of their importance to the ancient rulers. They make their hives in hollow trees or hollows in stone rubble. They have a decided preference for the buried ruins of Copán, and a few new Mayan archaeological sites were discovered by the wax cones of these bees.

"Royal Mayan" honey bees in the ruins of Copán.

"Royal Mayan" honey bees in the ruins of Copán.

Mayan Nutrition

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The Mayas of Copán had a very nutritious diet, but a couple things of great importance were missing.


Salt was scarce and valuable, but it is essential for human health and survival. Classic era Copán had control of the Motagua and Ulua rivers to the Atlantic, so it is probable that they sent traders to the north coast to exchange cacao beans or even pieces of jade for bags of salt. A man with a bag of salt was as wealthy as a man with a bag of jade.


Corn was the primary staple for these ancient people and was plentiful most of the time. Even though they had plenty to eat, malnutrition was common on the corn diet. No one knew the cause of the hideous malnutrition disease Pellagra, so the common attempt for a cure was to move the tribe to a new location, but the disease seemed to follow them. Someone discovered, probably by accident, that corn boiled in water and wood ashes removed the corn husk and the kernels swelled and become much easier to grind. What they didn’t know was that this alkaline process, later called “nixtamalization”, released niacin bound in the raw corn for nutritional use. It also released an essential amino acid which, in combination with the nutrients in beans, turned beans into a complete protein. Pellagra and malnutrition disappeared! Someone lazy and looking for an easier way to grind corn saved an entire people.

Conclusion

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Though of ancient times and primitive by modern standards the Mayan people of Copán were hardly lacking in food nutrition nor variety. Even though they had to wait until long after their city was in ruins for the Spanish to bring wheat, beef, chicken, pork, coffee, bananas, cooking oil and a host of other items which become common to their descendants, the Classic Maya did very well on their own

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