The ancestors of the Maya were always on the gatherer side of the hunter-gatherer spectrum, leading them to be the probable first culture to begin cultivation - horticulture. The Maya began horticulture by first learning cultivation of tobacco on Isla Tigre, Honduras in about 8300 BCE. Tobacco led to the darkest time in Maya history, resulting in the escape of the Miskito and Chibcha people. The Maya soon risked moving off the protected island to the mainland in order to pursue their destiny - horticulture, the cultivation of plants for food and other human use. The risk was that their enemy Xibalba would challenge their living on the mainland - El Salvador. But since the Xibalba were generally afraid of water, the Maya moved to four islands to have a greater level of protection from their enemy, approximately 8207 BCE. They immediately began to search for plants to cultivate.
El Salvador: Four Island Homes and Agriculture Origins (click to enlarge)
This blog post will look at the origin points for the domestication of squash, cotton, cacao, and corn. Corn was probably the earliest of the four, around 8200 BCE, with squash quickly following. The research for this is based on place names, keeping in mind the places of habitation and meetings at the time.
Squash were important to the Mesoamerican diet. They provided starch and were a major source of anti-oxidants. Squash would have helped the Maya to live longer and prevent memory loss. The first squash to be cultivated was a striped squash, perhaps the cucurbita sororia, which was hybridized into cucurbita argyrosperma (below).
By Shaun Case (nl:Afbeelding:Hindu2.jpg) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
The first squash used for domestication was found near Sesori, El Salvador, based on an examination of place names. Sesori is a municipal seat located in the northern part of San Miguel department, in the eastern part of El Salvador. It is 200 meters above sea level and about 60 kilometers north of the Pacific Ocean. It's curious how close the sound of the name c. sosoria is to Sesori. Sesori in Ch'orti' is: tze' tzori or "squatted in rows." The term "squatted" or "squat" was used to describe the way that the squash plant grows very close to the ground. The fact that the Sesori name also includes "in rows" shows that squash was planted there, most likely the first place it was planted, although surely the seeds were soon planted at the four island habitations.
(click to enlarge map) The place names around Sesori point toward the municipality being the origin of squash. About five kilometers to the northeast is Charlaca, which would be ch'a'ar lahch kah in Ch'orti' and "start of the horizontal striped one" in English. This indicates that the first squash was striped, like the cucurbita sororia and its domesticated offspring, above. The hill above Charlaca is called Chequere or tze' kere, "open up the squat one" - the place the wild squash was split open. About a kilometer to the southeast is a village (and creek) call Caulote. Caulote is k'a ur lo' te' or "explain the desirable dangling plant." It was likely the lineage which found the squash which explained how to grow and use the
squash to the other three lineages. Finally, south of Sesori is a touri-center called Chagüite. It is possible this name came from elsewhere in the municipality. Chagüite is ch'a' wih te' or "source of the horizontal plant" - one more indication that Sesori is the source of the first squash to be cultivated.
The Maya used the seeds from a very early time, mashing up the toasted seeds into a paste. That paste is called alguashte, which is ahr wax te' or "time of the round gourd plant." It is possible the round gourd is referring to c. sosoria or its offspring c. argyrosperma.
Up until now, the earliest known location for domesticated squash is Guila' Naquitch cave in the Oaxaca Valley. Domesticated squash dates from no later than 6000 BCE there. This is about 2000 years after the squash domestication in El Salvador. The Zapotec ancestors likely took squash seeds and the know-how to grow squash when they migrated from the San Vicente region of El Salvador to Oaxaca/Puebla in about 7000 BCE.
In BC or Before Cotton, people had to wear animal hides no matter the weather. That may not seem like a big deal in a temperate climate, but in a tropical climate, a jaguar or puma skin must have been nearly unbearable. From a translation of place names in El Salvador, the second home of the earliest ancestors of the Maya, it is possible to determine that the origin of cotton is from Intipucá, El Salvador.
Intipucá is a municipal seat in La Unión department that is 10 kilometers north of the Pacific shore - in those days it may have been even closer to the shore. It is 101 meters above sea level and is in the very hot part of eastern El Salvador. Intipucá in Ch'orti' is in tih buhk k'a = "first desirable clinging clothing".
The place names around Intipucá fill in more details of the story of cotton. Chichipate, about 7 kilometers north of Intipucá, is ch'i' chih bah te' = "growing body fiber plant." This might be the first place of planting the wild cotton. "Body fiber" describes a fiber placed over the body (clothing). Chirilagua, west of Intipucá (click to enlarge map), may have been the first place to weave cotton. It is chir ir ak' wa' - "see covering being woven." This might have been named by a visiting member of another community since it uses the verb "see".
Where did the Maya learn to weave? Either they figured it out on their own or they learned in South America. Woven containers from plant fibers, dating from before 8000 BCE, were found in Guitarrero Cave in Peru. But place names indicate that the Maya might have learned in Chile rather than Peru. The first clue is the name Chile, which just as likely may have been Chili, which in Ch'orti' is "to weave." While it may seem presumptuous that the Maya would name Chile, the Maya appear to have named many countries in South America. The village in Chile where the Maya may have gone to learn weaving is Pichilemu, on the coast about 200 kilometers southwest of Santiago. Pichilemu is pi chil ehm uh or "companions' sacred descending weaving."
By ArtProf (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Other place names in the region of Intipucá hint about cotton and how much people liked cotton compared to their previous skins. The beach just south of Intipuca is Icacal or ik' ak' ahr - "time of the breathable coverings". Ik' means air or wind but I think breathable is a good translation here. A creek several kilometers to the west is Icaco or ik' ak' ho(y) - "pleasurable breathable covering." Cotton clothing in the tropics was a big deal. Both of these names use the noun ak' which is "skins" or "covering" - they didn't seem to have a word yet for clothes or shirts.
The oldest archeological record of Mesoamerican cotton is at Guila' Naquitch cave in the Oaxaca Valley and at Tehuacan in Puebla. Both of these are Zapotec-ancestor sites and the Zapotecs migrated from El Salvador to Mexico in about 7000 BCE. This is a strong indicator that cotton was discovered and domesticated prior to 7000 BCE in El Salvador. The short distance from Olomega to Intipucá - less than 15 kilometers - should indicate that cotton was first found closer to 8200 BCE, when Olomega was settled, than to 7000 BCE. It also indicates that it was the Olmeka-Lenca lineage which found cotton, since they were based at Lago Olomega.
Next to corn, cacao may be the most important food product in Mesoamerica. Cacao in Ch'orti' is k'ahk' ka ho or "beginning of heated pleasure" - cacao was usually consumed hot. The first cacao was found by the Miskito people, originally Maya, they escaped the heart sacrifice period in about 8250 BCE to Nicaragua. Because the words describing the discovery of cacao are still in Ch'orti', it is likely that cacao was discovered within 1000 years of the Miskito arriving in Nicaragua, or by 7250 BCE.
Cacao was first found in or near Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Matagalpa is mat ak' k'ar bah or "retain the brown one from wrap-around skin." This describes the process of shelling or de-skinning the cacao beans. Matagalpa is about 700 meters above sea level. The hill just south of Matagalpa is Cerro Apante, ap ban te', "good swinging plant." Swinging is the word used for fruit or any seed that hung from a tree. The Miskito also found cacao at Jinotega, now a city 25 kilometers to the north. Jinotega is hin ot te' k'a or "picking the satisfactory sheltered tree." Cacao trees are somewhat delicate and often sheltered from the wind or sun by larger trees. Nearby at Apanas the Miskito planted the cacao. Apanas is ap ban as or "practice the good swinging one."
The Miskito also discovered chocolate, grinding the toasted cacao beans and mixing with hot water. Chocolate is choh kor ha' te' and means "freeing the esteemed plant in water." "Freeing" could also be translated "loosening" and describes the process of mixing up the crushed cacao with hot water. They found a word chocolate that sounds like cacao but shares none of the same syllables. Just west of Matagalpa is the town of Waswali. In Ch'orti', it is wax wahr ri or "blow air beside the gourd cup." This could be from making the first cups of hot chocolate.
The small village of Yasica is about 15 kilometers northeast of Matagalpa. In Ch'orti', Yasica is yatz' tzik ka or "beginning of counting the squeezed ones." This most likely refers to cacao beans and their use as currency, which was common in the pre-Classic and Classic eras. Yasica gives an indication that cacao may have been used as a currency very early and that this practice may have begun by the Miskito in Nicaragua. Because Yasica is translatable in Ch'orti', this practice likely began before 7000 BCE, that is, before the Miskito language diverged from its parent tongue. The Miskito who lived in Matagalpa - the cacao growers - became known as the Matagalpa people.
At some later point the Maya appear to have invited a group of the Matagalpa-Miskito cacao growers to El Salvador to grow cacao there. This group settled alongside the Torola River and named their village Cacaopera, cacao ber ha' - "cultivate cacao at the river." Interestingly, the land that the Maya gave them is very close to the Corinto cave and likely not desirable to the Maya given the history of Xibalba at the cave. It is difficult to determine the date of the arrival of the Cacaopera-Matagalpa. They had to have arrived before 2000 BCE, though, when the Ulua separated from the El Salvador-based Cacaopera and went to the Atlantic coast of Honduras. The Cacaopera can say that they are half-Maya and half-Miskito.
Another community settled at the same time by the Cacaopera is Joateca, about 15 kilometers to the northeast. Joateca is wat te' k'a and means "return home with desired trees." Even if they spoke a different language by then, they still used Ch'orti' as the naming language. The Joateca name is also interesting in that it makes it clear that they considered El Salvador to be home even after hundreds of years in Nicaragua. And it makes it clear that they came with the cacao trees.
The Maya were born from corn - it was their key cultural crop. Corn was hybridized from teosinte. There wasn't one hybrid moment - it took repeated hybridizing over thousands of years. Earlier I mapped the teosinte place names which tell us at least some of the sources of teosinte that the Maya used to continue to hybridize corn. Aside from two in western Mexico, the "Teosinte" place names are clustered near where Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador come together, that is, around Lago Güija and Teotipa, the site of the senior Maya lineage. This is not inconsistent with the Balsas teosinte theory since the range of Balsas teosinte could have drifted northwest in the several thousands of years of warming temperatures following the Ice Age.
The most likely of the Teosinte sites for early Maya activity is Arcatao, in the mountains of eastern Chalatenango, El Salvador. This is because Arcatao was the location of the get-togethers of the four Maya sites, probably on an annual basis. This is known from the meaning of Arcatao: "the beginning of the gathering times." In addition, the Lempa River near Arcatao is nearly the mid-point, from a water travel point of view, for the four Maya sites. The annual Maya get-togethers at Arcatao probably started as soon as the Maya moved from Isla Tigre in about 8207 BCE.
The place names surrounding Arcatao leave almost no doubt that Arcatao was the place that teosinte, the predecessor to corn, was found. The first clue connecting Arcatao to teosinte is the name of the village Teosinte there. Teosinte means "plants in a row on an island" and refers to the rows on Teotipa island, where hybridization first took place. Just a mile west of Teosinte is Sicahuite, si k'a wih te', which means "origin of the desirable row plant." This is an indication that Sicahuite is likely the place that teosinte was first found.
The river just next to Sicahuite is Gualsinga. It also forms the boundary with Honduras here. Gualsinga is wa'ar sin k'a or "desirable rows rising/standing." The Gualsinga River area may have been the first place where teosinte was planted. The nearest town in Honduras is Zazalapa, which is tzatz ahr lab pa' or "time of pounding hardness to masa." Teosinte may have first been pounded into water and meal - masa - near Zazalapa.
The Guayampoke River goes through present-day Arcatao before it flows to the Sumpul. Guayampoke is wa' yam bohk ker, which means "pull wild vegetation from circle being broken open." After the circle was cleared they would have planted teosinte. This was probably the first step before it was later put in rows. Plant circles were also made at Teotipa (left, in photo) dating to about the same time as the one(s) at Arcatao (~8200 BCE).
In addition to the initial corn hybridization, I wish to discuss two innovations: grain storage and large-size corn cobs. The grain storage moves us back to Nicaragua. Several place names are based on a trip of the Maya from El Salvador to the former Maya, the Chibcha, in southern Nicaragua, to investigate grain storage. Sometime previously the Maya had shared corn seeds with the Chibcha.
Perhaps the first place they visited was Tipitapa, not far from Lake Managua (see map above). Tipitapa is ti' pi t'a'b pa' or "companions' storage of mouth food." "Mouth food" means corn, from the syllables ti' and pa' and is found in the name Teotipa as well. Next stop was the department of Chontales to the southeast. It is choh on tal ehtz or "arrive to observe the previously reputed thing." When combined with the department seat of Chontales, Juigalpa, we understand what the reputed thing is. Juigalpa or wih k'ar pa', "the origin of the retention of food."
Three other towns around Juigalpa fill in more details on the food storage, with the best description provided by Tecolostote: te' k'or os t'ot' te' or "tap the plant matter to fit into wooden carrying box." This makes it clear that the storage unit was mobile. Likely it was strapped on the back - they didn't have any pack animals. Supporting the idea of flattening the corn, Rodeo is lo'ht' te' ho - "flatten liked plant matter." Further north is Teustepe, in Boaco, which may have been the source of the wood to make the corn carrying boxes. It is te' us tep or "useful hardwood."
It took thousands of years for corn ears to reach a large size. In fact the ears stayed quite small until about 1100 BCE, at least in Mexico. It is likely that the larger ears pre-date that by several hundred years in El Salvador. Place names in El Salvador indicate where the large corn ears first appeared: Copinalapa, Cabañas. Copinalapa is the name of the primary river in central Cabañas, flowing north into the Lempa, as well as a village about 15 kilometers north of present-day San Isidro. Copinolapa is k'op in nol lab pa' or "gathering the first large rubbing masa (corn)."
El Salvador and Nicaragua were key for many of the plant products that were so important to Mesoamerican cultures - squash, cotton, cacao, and corn. With the place-name research highlighted here we are able to know much more about how these plants developed.