Show number 1209

Peggy explores how the ancient Maya culture used corn. Segment length: 8:39


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Corn has always played an important role in the lives and culture of the Maya people. In fact, the Maya creation story states that the flesh of humans came from sacred ears of maiz. According to this story, the Creators saw people as a milpa, or cornfield, ready to serve them.

But apart from information we can gather through Maya legends and traditions, how do we know that corn was indeed an integral part of this culture and made up 80% of the Maya diet thousands of years ago? To answer questions like this, many scientists, including anthropologists, archaeologists, chemists, biologists, botanists, and ethnobotanists, must work together.

Ethnobotanists are scientists who study the role of plants in a society. To better understand how a particular culture interacted with plants in the past, ethnobotanists look for clues in many places. They can learn a lot by finding out how an area's current society uses plants.

When you visit the areas of Mexico and Central America populated by five million Maya descendants, it's easy to see that corn continues to be the most important food in the Maya diet. Maya cooks soak kernels of dried field corn in water and lime and then grind the mixture with a mano and metate to make the thick zacan, just as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. They pat the zacan into tortillas or fill it with meat, fruit, or chiles, and then wrap it with corn husks or banana leaves and steam it to make tamales. They even use ground corn to thicken atole, a drink often sweetened with fruit or chocolate.

But ethnobotanists need to examine information from sources other than present-day society. Paintings, carvings, figurines, and other art discovered at ancient Maya temple ruins reveal that corn played an important role in religion as well as diet, confirming that the Maya revered the maize god.

Since plants exposed to the elements decompose quickly, ethnobotanists also analyze soil samples taken from archaeological sites. They look for pollen, charred seeds, or food remains stuck in the bottom of broken pots. Then they study these fragile remains to analyze the plant's DNA and to compare it with that of the plant's contemporary descendants.

Ethnobotanists contribute much to our understanding of how the Maya have interacted with the plants in their environment for thousands of years. These scientists can show us how ancient customs translate into modern life and suggest methods to conserve the traditional ways of a proud culture such as the Maya.


chocolate a Mexican discovery, made from ground roasted cacao beans. Originally used to make religious ritual drink offerings and as money.

ethnobotany study of human relationship to plants, often involving study of ancient plant remains, oral history, written records, and myths

maiz Spanish word for maize, or corn

mano small, hand-held cylinder carved out of basaltic rock, used to grind corn in a metate

metate container carved out of basaltic rock, used with a mano to grind corn for dough

tamale ground corn dough filled with meat, fruit, or chiles, then wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and cooked by steaming

tortilla flat, pancakelike food made from ground corn and baked on a griddle over an open fire or on a stove

zacan thick dough used to make tortillas and tamales


Community resources

Local natural history museum

Local Maya studies group

Mexican restaurants


Ethnobotanists make many discoveries by studying soil samples. As you work through several rounds of soil and water separation, try to imagine that you are working at an archaeological site and that your findings could reveal the way people lived and ate thousands of years ago.


  1. Work in teams to create at least six different mixtures to analyze. They might include combinations of soil and grains, sand and glitter, pepper and grains, grass seeds and soil, etc. Try to include different weights.
  2. Place each mixture in a different container and secure the lid. Label each mixture with a letter or number that doesn't reveal the contents. Keep track of the contents of each mixture in your notebook. 3. Trade mixtures with another team. Your goal will be to determine the contents of the mixture in each jar.
  3. Shake each container well. Remove the lid and check the mixture. Has anything moved to the bottom or top of container? Record your observations.
  4. Add enough water to make a soup the consistency of broth. Secure the lid and shake well.
  5. Pour each mixture into a paint pan. Heavier matter in the mixture should filter out of the liquid and remain at the higher level in the pan. Liquids should flow to the deeper end of the pan and lighter matter should float on top of the liquid. Use paper towels, cheesecloth, or a screen to filter the liquid into another container. What's left in the filter? What's left in the liquid? Record your observations.
  6. After you have repeated this process of separation for each mixture prepared by the other team, draw conclusions about the contents of each mixture. Ask the other team to check your findings.
  7. Now that you've tried this activity indoors with mixtures you created, take your ethnobotany skills outside and collect real soil samples. Determine what methods of soil separation to use and record your findings.


  1. How does soil and water separation work? Can you think of substances that could not be separated using water?
  2. Ethnobotanists use soil separation in their research. What other scientists use this process as well?


Look at pictures of Maya art. Look for representations of corn and other plants. Create a clay figure or a drawing that represents foods most important in your own culture.


How much do you know about the ethnic groups that live in your community? Visit a large grocery store and list as many products as possible that come from other countries. Visit local ethnic markets and note which plant foods seem to be most prevalent. Talk to the store owner about how the foods are prepared. You may need to ask someone in the store to translate the labels for you.


The ancient Maya numeration system used base 20, unlike the Hindu-Arabic system which uses base 10. Research the Maya numeration system, as well as other systems, and compare them with the system you use. Two good references are Multicultural Math Posters from Kay Curriculum Press [(800) 338-7638] and Multicultural Mathematics Posters and Activities from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [(800) 235-7566].
Newton's Apple is a production of KTCA Twin Cities Public Television. Made possible by a grant from 3M. Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.