Although the Maya and Inca were as distinct culturally as they were geographically, the two civilizations shared an appreciation for and celebration of their staple crop, corn. Corn played a vital role in Inca cuisine and spiritual activities. The Maya went even further, as both their cosmogony and religious lives centered around corn.
Surplus and Storage
Although they were more reliant on sweet potatoes, the Inca developed a number of ways to grow corn on arable land and to store it for long periods of time. The empire built as many as 2,000 warehouses, called "quollqa" in the Inca language of Quechua, to store enough corn and other preserved food sourced from around their empire. Not only did quollqa provide villages with a reliable source of food; Inca forces could also travel throughout the empire without fear of famine.
The Sacred Beer
The Incas learned how to ferment corn into a preservable beer known as chicha. This beverage was so popular that it gave the farmers increased incentive to work the fields. Part of their salaries was composed of chicha, which they drank during and after work. Chicha also played a role in their spiritual lives. In Cuzco, citizens honored their ancestors with chicha, while the Inca king would pour chicha into a round, golden bowl as an offering to the sun god. Likewise, human sacrifices were plied with chicha before priests offered them to the gods.
As a relatively high-yield, high-calorie food that allows for easy storage even in tropical climates, corn provided for political and social stability. The Maya pantheon and ceremonies reflect this stability by centering around corn and agriculture. The youthful maize god served as the god of all vegetation, yet Mayans offered corn to most of their deities, including Chac, god of rain. Before each offering to Chac, Mayans would prepare corn products like tortillas. The deity would consume the spiritual aspect of the food, allowing humans to divide the physical components among themselves.
Modern Children of the Corn
The ancient Maya believed that the gods created modern humans out of white corn and yellow corn, so rituals surrounding corn carried deep connotations of the gratitude the Maya felt toward the gods and the sacred crop. Farming families still offer the gods a boiled, mashed corn dish called "atole" in the Maya language of K'iche'. Several times each year, farmers will mix atole in water and light torches in sacred spaces to thank the gods for generous growing conditions. These ceremonies, called "Sac Ha'," are spaced throughout the sacred Mayan haab, or "calendar," of 260 days.
- Inside Peru: Inca Food
- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Corn and Maya Time
- University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: Chicha
- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Creation Story of the Maya
- The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization; J. Eric Thompson
- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Corn and Calendar Traditions
- David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images