The importance of maize to Mayan cultures is well represented in the Popol Wuj. Below we provide insights from other primary and secondary sources so that readers may appreciate the profound technological and sociohistorical implications of maize cultivation in daily life and spiritual paths, including the creation of the first human beings -- "las primeras gentes creadas y formadas," Balam Ki'tze', Balam Aq'ab, Majuk'utaj, e Ik'i Balam (Colop 2011: 130).
Although the exact date of the beginning of corn cultivation in Mesoamerica is still uncertain, scholars have estimated that it was widely cultivated in northern Belize by 3400 B.C.; however, this date leaves some 2400 years between the first traces of nomadic agriculture in the region and the appearance of early sedentary Maya cultures founded on the systematic cultivation of maize (García Marín 102-103). In his study of the use of plants in Classic Mayan cave rituals, Christopher T. Morehart highlights the correlation between the intense population growths seen during the Late Classic period and the expanded distribution of Chapalote-Nal Tel, a group of maize varietals featuring short ears and eight to twelve rows of kernels. Specifically, as Morehart proposes, the shorter maturation period of those varietals would have allowed the potential for multiple harvests per year and a higher annual yield of maize (7).
Technology plays a crucial if often overlooked role in the development and expansion of Mayan civilizations. Of specific interest here are two separate but related technological discoveries that most significantly impacted the successful growth of Mayan societies: the production of lime and the development of nixtamalization, the process through which limewater is used to remove mycotoxins from maize. Scholars such as Michael D. Coe have convincingly argued that without the development of the nixtamal process, the establishment of settled civilizations in Mesoamerica would have been difficult, if not impossible (13). As Michael Blake points out, the routine consumption of non-nixtamalized maize can result in severe protein and vitamin B deficiency; however, “ancient Americans must have solved this problem…because otherwise they would not have been able to rely on maize” as the primary nutritional source of their diet” (184). Lori E. Wright also notes that the process substantially increases the calcium content in maize, which remains the primary source of calcium in many modern Mayan communities (206). Thus, the transformation of maize was an essential discovery that allowed for the sustained nourishment of Mayan peoples and ultimately enabled permanent communities to be established. In addition, as Isabel Villaseñor Alonso and Luis Barba Pingarrón point out, the production of lime used in the nixtamalization process was no minor accomplishment, as:
“La producción de cal requiere del entendimiento empírico de las transformaciones que sufre el material calcáreo durante su producción, así como también del dominio del fuego y de la obtención y control de altas temperaturas para lograr alta eficiencia en los cambios químicos que se llevan a cabo durante la calcinación. Debido al tiempo de exposición y a las altas temperaturas que requiere este material, la producción de cal es una actividad demandante de combustible y fuerza laboral” (12).
Thus, the notion of hombres de maíz at the center of the Popol Wuj is not only indicative of the spiritual significance and respect that the Maya have for maize; it also speaks to the importance of the technological advancements perfected by early Mayan communities to ensure the development and subsequent expansion of their civilization.