For those familiar with my writing, up to now it had been unclear how the Maya and Olmec went from being concentrated in El Salvador for thousands of years, from 8200 BCE to 2400 BCE, to spread out over thousands of kilometers from the northwest coast of Mexico to the Yucatan to the Pacific Coast of Chiapas and Guatemala by 1600 BCE. This dispersion happened in less than a thousand years. Such a dispersion is not natural, it takes an outside force like war, famine, or a life-changing invention. In Mesoamerica the dispersal force was disease: pellagra.
Pellagra - a Disease of the Monoculture of Corn
Pellagra is a non-hereditary disease caused from a deficiency of niacin in the diet. Corn, in its natural state, blocks tryptophan and niacin from being released. Before corn became large and tastier, the Maya would have had a more balanced diet, so sufficient niacin was consumed. High-niacin foods in Mesamerica would have included fish, peanuts, and avocado. Tryptophan would have been present in fish, peanuts, and squash seeds. But corn became more desirable around 2500 BCE. And perhaps a large part of the population was moving away from the traditional lake-side homes (Güija, Coatepeque, Olomega) and thus eating less fish.
Pellagra has a number of symptoms including red skin lesions, diarrhea, weakness, lack of coordination, nerve damage, paralysis, aggression, confusion, dementia, and death. It seems that the Maya learned early on that it was caused by corn. We see this in one of the names for corn, maix, which became maize in English. Maix means "bad movements" - bad runs and a clear reference to the diarrhea caused by pellagra.
Earlier I wrote about how parts of the Popol Vuh were written through the lens of having a diseased leadership due to pellagra. All Maya lineages suffered pellagra, including the Quiches who wrote down the Popol Vuh in the colonial era. The frequent use of the jaguar skin, matching the lesions of pellagra, are one example.
Maya Response: Banishment of the Diseased
The policy of the Maya elite, the leaders of the Chol-Ch'orti' lineage based at Igualtepeque, El Salvador, was to force any portion of a lineage with high incidence of pellagra to evacuate to outside of the traditional area of the Maya (El Salvador). Over the course of several hundred years, there were at least nine mass banishments involving most of the Maya population, resulting in only a small population of Maya left in the traditional homeland of El Salvador. The banished groups were sent north or west, usually by sea, either on the Atlantic or Pacific coast of Central America or Mexico.
Based on the meaning of their name, the Huasteca were the first group to be banished - Huasteca is was tech ka or "beginning of opening up from tortillas." The opening up refers to the lesions associated with pellagra. The reference to tortillas indicates that the Maya were aware quite early that pellagra was caused by corn. The Huasteca were probably from the Ch'orti' lineage and were banished north on foot to Copan where they took boats down the Copan River to the Motagua River to the Gulf of Honduras. Copan means "catch the current." From there they followed the coast of the Yucatan peninsula until they reached northeast Mexico. There they probably landed near Tuxpan or Naranjos and went inland.
By Juanmendiola (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Near Tuxpan is a lagoon called Tampamachoco or tam pa' mah choh ko(y) or "eating the corn with center with a bad reputation." This clear reference to non-treated corn, may have been the first landing place of the Huasteca.
The Quiche were probably the next banished group of Maya, leaving from Teopan and the Lago Coatepeque area. Before they left the leaders of the Quiche met with the leaders of the Ch'orti' at a place now called El Congo, to decide what to do. El Congo is kon k'o or "plan for the cliffs," referring to the cliffs surrounding Lago Coatepeque. The Quiche went the furthest north on the Pacific Coast side, indicating their early banishment. In contrast to the Ch'orti', nearly the entire Quiche community went together in spite that probably only a portion was suffering from pellagra. This would include the Quiche language groups Cakchiquel, Tzutuhil, Sipacapa, and Sacapultec. It likely also included language groups more distantly related to the Quiche, including Kekchi, Uspantec, and Pocomam. Some of these names reflect directly on the pellagra crisis. Kekchi is k'ek' ch'i' or "growing stronger," reflecting improvement following pellagra. Pocomam is pok ohom mam or "rinse dark spots in the ocean," referring to rinsing off the pellagra lesions in the ocean where the Quiche were banished to, which is the island of Teacapan in northwest Mexico. It appears that nearly the entire Quiche community left even those who were not suffering from pellagra.
The exception would be the ancestors of the people who now live in the town of Coatepeque, El Salvador. Their oral legend says that they were forced from living along the lakeshore of Lago Coatepeque but were allowed to take the name Coatepeque with them. Coatepeque means "bath in the hard, cracked cliff stones." Viewed from the inside, Coatepeque's stone cliffs look like a ringed serpent. It is easy to see how the phrase "Coate" became "coatl" in Nahuatl, a language that the Quiche helped to shape, meaning "serpent." The Quiche remained in Mexico for over 3,000 years, although some sub-lineages moved back to Central America much earlier, including the Kekchi, Uspantec, and Pocomam.
While the details are not quite as clear, another early banishment was the people who became the Purépecha in Michoacan state of Mexico. This is given by the meaning of Purépecha - pur lehp pech ch'a' or "orphans from the horizontal back and forth rubbing." "Horizontal back and forth rubbing" describes the motion of kneading the corn masa on a metate grinding stone. There are three clues why the Purépecha come from a banishment of the Olmec lineage. First, the Purépecha language is an isolate and the Olmec language became much more disintegrated than did the Maya languages. Second, the other two lineages in El Salvador - Chol-Ch'orti' and Quiche had early pellagra outbreaks - one would expect the Olmec to have had an early outbreak as well. The only other possible candidate for an early Olmec banishment would be the Totonacs. Third, the Purepecha have a somewhat elevated level of Mal'ta DNA that I associate with the Ainu, the Zuni, and the Xibalba. Mal'ta MA-1 is a 24,000 year old individual whose remains were found in south-central Siberia. According to the Popol Vuh, the Olmec lineage leader of the first generation to arrive in El Salvador, married a Xibalba woman. Thus, one would expect Olmec-related people to have a higher level of Mal'ta DNA than Maya-related people.
The Purépecha oral history says that they moved from the Pacific Coast up to the Michoacan highlands. The most likely route inland would have been by boat up the Rio Balsas and then on foot. The names of the coastal communities near the mouth of the Balsas River tell the story of arrival of the Purépecha. Southeast of Ciudad Lázaro Cárdenas, at the mouth of the Balsas River, is Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. This name in Ch'orti' is ix ta'p pa' si wa’ tan neh h’o, meaning "rows of desirable tassels being in interior, storing the runs corn." The key phrase here is "runs corn" or diarrhea corn, making it clear that this corn was growing before the nixtamal solution had been found and shared. It is possible that the Ixtapa name was given soon after arriving and Zihuatanejo added after nixtamal was learned.
One other name might be from the arrival time of the Purépecha from eastern El Salvador: Atoyac, about 200 kilometers southeast of the Balsas mouth. It is ah toy ak', meaning "the offering for the skin," referring to the lesions from pellagra.
The deities of the Purépecha are mostly translatable using Ch'orti' indicating the Purépecha spoke a language relatively close to Ch'orti' when they arrived to present-day Michoacan. The first deity is Kurikaweri and is the sky god, the god of war and the sun. It is k'ur ik' ha' [wer] ri and means "points in the air beside the water," referring to the triple star event of 8208 BCE on Isla Tigre. The second deity is Kwerawaperi and she is the creator and mother earth goddess. In Ch'orti' it is kah [wer] lah ha' ber ri and means "beginning of planting beside slack water," referring to first cultivation on Isla Tigre in about 8300 BCE. [Note: I'm not able to translate the syllable wer.] This makes it clear that the Purépecha share the Isla Tigre origin with all the other Mesoamerican people. A third deity, Xaratenga, is the offspring of the first two and represents the west. This indicates that it is specific to the Purépecha and was gained upon going west from El Salvador. Xaratenga is the goddess of the sea and the moon and is ch'a'r aht ten k'a in Ch'orti'. This means "happy flattening (clearing) at horizontal (calm) lake" and most likely refers to Lake Patzcuaro, an early Purépecha settlement.
The Totonacs were perhaps the fourth banishment from El Salvador. They could have roots in either the Olmec or Chol-Ch'orti lineages, but two Olmec banishments were sent along the Pacific while the other two early Chol-Ch'orti' banishments (Huasteca and Yucatec) were sent along the Atlantic coast, thereby favoring a Chol/Ch'orti' origin for the Totonac. The name Totonac speaks to their pellagra banishment origin: t'oht' on ak' or "previous skin from tapping," referring to formerly having bad skin due to corn - tapping tortillas.
They seem to have landed at present day Veracruz Heróica on Mexico's east Gulf coast. While most names were later Nahuatalized or replaced by Spanish names, a few original names remain like Laguna Tarimoya in the city of Veracruz. Tarimoya is tar ri moy ha' or "arrive beside the constricted water." Just south of Tarimoya is a neighborhood called Pochota or poch ot tah, which means "forest covering for shelter," likely describing their first few nights in Veracruz.
Just south of Veracruz is the Jamapa River, which is ha' ma pa' or "bad corn river," linking the area to the bad (non-nixtamalized) corn that the Totonacs brought with them. But the Totonacs learned a new diversified agriculture that included large squash or pumpkins. On the north side of Veracura is Colonia Chalchihuecan, a name that is unmistakably Ch'orti'. It is ch'a'ar ch'i' weh kan in Ch'orti' or "learn to grow the fleshy horizontal one (squash)."
The Totonac seem to have struck out on a new path compared to many of the other banishments. They seem not to have made a conscious attempt to maintain the Maya language as their language is considered a language isolate, while the Huasteca, who were further from Central America and left before the Totonac, still speak a language considered Maya. The Totonac also cultivated little corn - understandable given pellagra, but even after nixtamal corn remained only a minor part of the diet.
By Michael Doss from Santa Ana, CA, USA (Vanilla planifolia 160102) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Totonac were the discoverers of vanilla and this most likely took place at Papantla de Olarte - the vanilla orchid is also called the Papantla orchid. Papantal de Olarte would be pa' ban tal te' hor ahr te' in Ch'orti' or "time of arrival to crested plant, valuable food plant." [Note: A better view of the crested nature of the flower.] In colonial times the Ch'orti'-speaking Putun traders gave the name vainilla to the Spanish. The Ch'orti' name was binilha' or "companions' curing liquid."
Given their distance from El Salvador perhaps the next group to be banished were those that became the Yucatec. It is likely that, like the Huasteca and Totonac, they were part of the Chol-Ch'orti' lineage. Their departure may have been around 2000 BCE, given settlement patterns in northern Belize and the Peten. Yucatec is yuk' k'at tech' and means "trembling, crossing the expanse." One of the symptoms of pellagra is lack of balance and shaking. Crossing the expanse may refer to the walk from Guija to Copan, where they caught boats. Alternately, the expanse may refer to the boat ride on the Caribbean Sea from the Bay of Honduras to northern Belize. The Maya had likely already named the Yucatan and the soon-to-be Yucatec lineage picked a name that was similar to Yucatan. Yucatan peninsula is yuk k'at ahn or "crossing the joining of currents" or "joining the currents across."
Santa Rita By Elelicht (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The early site of Santa Rita, in northern Belize, settled as early as 2000 BCE, suggests that the Yukatec went by boat from Copan to Belize. The nearby town of Corozal is k'or lo tz'a' and means "transport on slack wetness," referring to the gentle waters inside Belize's barrier reef. West a few kilometers of Corozal is Patchakan. In Ch'orti' it is pa' ch'ak k'an or "clear for yellow corn." Chetumal, just across the border in Mexico, is che tum mal and means "handle the narrow sea" and most likely indicates the path in the barrier reef that the Yucatek took along the coast to reach Corozal/Chetumal.
Reasons for the Banishments
Before looking at the last four banishments, it is good to discuss why the Maya elite decided it was necessary to take this action. At first, it is likely that they did not understand the disease. They may have thought it was contagious or hereditary. That could explain the first, Huasteca, banishment. But they had a lot of intelligence in health and soon would have known that it was not contagious or hereditary.
It was probably the symptoms themselves at a mass scale that made pellagra a threat. A large number of people with aggression, confusion, and dementia could tear away at the seams of society, threatening the way of life of the Maya. This was probably the case of those who were banished. Of course life must have been hell for the first and second generation of people in the banished groups - the Huasteca, the Quiche, the Yucatec, and the others.
The Last Four Banishments: Olmec, Mam, Kanjobal, and Ulua
Another group banished from the Olomega region, in eastern El Salvador, was the Olmec. This story starts with an important oral history of the Lenca, a people from the same lineage as the Olmec. This story was recounted by Lenca Jaime Núñez.
Once upon a time, many years after one part of our kingdom slipped into the sea, the Manauele Lords wanted to send an expedition to search the sea and locate the 'lost part' of our land. They knew that the earth was a giant turtle. Ixo-Kelkele, his wife Ulul, and Chief Aranuka sailed out and never returned. Warriors, priests, servants, artisans, doctors, magicians, dancers, and navigators, and experts in reading the stars went with. They aided their direction by placing guiding lights inside bowls, floating on the water. Sailors believed the guiding bowls would float over the back of the sacred eels of the ocean (sea currents) & show them the way.
The Lenca interpret the slipping away of the kingdom as part of the land mass of southeast El Salvador sliding into the ocean. I interpret it as a large part of the humans in the kingdom sailing away - and eventually becoming the Olmec. The oral history seems to have Ixo-Kelkele and company sailing out to look for the departed portion of the kingdom when it is they themselves who are the departed portion of the kingdom. This is made even clearer by all the specialized people who left, including doctors, magicians and dancers - people who would not normally be on a search party.
Let's look at the names of the leaders. Ixo-Kelkele is ix tzo k'er kere means "separating the nest, motion to divide in two." Ulul is ul lul and means "explain the spots." Ulul is key in understanding that this dividing of the Olmec and leaving the Lenca was caused by pellagra, since spots are the first and most common symptom of pellagra. Finally, Aranuke is ahr la'an nuk ker, which means "the time of dividing due to fatigued necks." Fatigued necks come from the lack of coordination due to pellagra.
Several place names in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico fill in more of the story of the Olmec. First, it appears that their center of population in El Salvador was in the eastern part of San Miguel department. Uluazapa is ur was sahb pa' or "explain about patted masa tortillas." This name seems to have come when the Ch'orti' lineage came to visit to explain about pellagra. The neighboring village is Comacaran, which is k'om ak' ahr ahn in Ch'orti' or in English "time of running due to spliced skin." Spliced skin is one way of describing the skin lesions of pellagra. The big meeting between the Ch'orti' and the Olmec/Lenca seems to have taken place at Conchagua, 30 kilometers southeast of Comacaran and near the Gulf of Fonseca. Conchagua is kon cha' wa' and means "plan for two beings," referring to how the Olmec and Lenca would separate and become two peoples.
Twenty kilometers west of Uluazapa is Quelepa and this is where the remaining Olmec settled when the elite Olmec were forced to take to the seas. Eventually this Olmec remnant became known as the Lenca and Quelepa became their ceremonial center. They likely spoke proto-Lenca rather than Ch'orti' at the time but most were probably fluent in Ch'orti' and they used Ch'orti' as their naming/protocol language. Quelepa is ker leb pa' in Ch'orti' and means "divided by the patted masa." "Patted masa" means tortilla or corn. This clearly indicates the separation of the Olmec. Moncagua is a village five kilometers from Quelepa. It is mo on ka wa' and means "beginning of being restricted from the previous." The "previous" would mean the Olmec who were forced to leave, although this meaning might suggest that the two Olmec groups - those with pellagra and those without - were separated for some time before the sea departure.
The Olmec were sent by the Ch'orti' by boat west along the Pacific Coast, most likely departing near Las Tunas beach where the Lenca legend says their kingdom was ripped in two. By the time the Olmec were past the present-day border of El Salvador and Guatemala, it appears that small groups began to break off (or were forced) and went to shore. The Xinca may have been the first group. Xinca is chin kah or "shaking at the beginning" - a reference to pellagra. Lenca leader Leonel Chavez believes that the Xinca are related to the Lenca by language and lineage, supporting the idea that they were a break-off from the Olmec banishment.
The same - or a second - break-off group seems to have stopped at the shore near the site of Monte Alto in eastern Guatemala. The lack of inhibition due to pellagra may help explain some of the stone heads and potbellies made at Monte Alto starting in 1800 BCE (right). Many of the stones have magnetic properties.
The main group of Olmec immigrants probably settled at the Izapa site in southeast Mexico. Izapa has a meaning directly related to pellagra, ix sahb pa' or "movement from the patted masa." This indicates that Izapa was settled at the same time as Monte Alto, at the time of the Olmec banishment in about 1800 BCE. Izapa reached its peak in about 600 BCE. It has been debated whether it was a Maya or Olmec site. It was both and there was no difference in 1800 BCE.
Izapa. By Lorena Gutiérrez G (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
About a kilometer from Izapa is the town of Tuxtla. It is tutz' tal ha' in Ch'orti' or "arriving by water and extending out." This name describes arriving by sea from El Salvador and then extending or spreading out once arriving at Izapa. The Olmec likely carried the Tuxtla name with them from Izapa to Veracruz and its famous Tuxtlas. The name Tuxtla also sees the collapsing of the tal sound to tl, something the Olmec may have contributed to the Nahuatl language later developed at Teotihuacan.
About ten kilometers east of Izapa in Guatemala is the town of Malacatan. In Ch'orti' it is mar lah k'at ahn or "crossing the sea from the fatigued current." The "fatigued current" is an expression for the Gulf of Fonseca. This expression was used repeatedly by the Chibcha when they left the Gulf several thousand years earlier. Technically, the Olmec may have left from the Pacific Ocean rather than the Gulf, but it would have been in the region of the Gulf of Fonseca. Malacatan helps to confirm the relationship between Olomega and Izapa and the relationship between the Olmec and the Lenca.
Pajón, 100 kilometers up the coast from Izapa, is another pre-Classic site. In Ch'orti' it is pa' on or "previous corn." The Olmec continued to grow corn that was untreated and continued to contribute to pellagra.
Two or three hundred years later, after nixtamal was invented, part of the Olmec community in the Izapa area moved to Veracruz, on the opposite side of Mexico, and became the famous Olmec civilization. If they walked northeast into Guatemala they would have reached small navigable rivers that drain into the Usumacinta River, thus minimizing time spent walking. Earlier I wrote about the links in place names between Veracruz and eastern El Salvador.
The Olmec (and Purepacha) were not the only banishment from eastern El Salvador. Earlier I wrote about the Cacaopera, a group of Miskito-Matagalpa who came (back) to El Salvador to grow cacao along the Torola River. Part (or possibly all) of the Cacaopera community became infected with pellagra and they had to follow the instructions of the Ch'orti' too. The group that left went north to the Honduran Atlantic Coast and became the Ulua along the Ulua River. In Ch'orti', Ulua is ur lur and means "explain the spots." The spots are from pellagra. The Cacaopera-Ulua probably first settled at Ticamaya in the lower Ulua valley and not far from present-day Cholola. They also named their villages in Ch'orti', the language of protocol even beyond the Maya. Ticamaya is ti' ka ma yah and means "beginning of bad openings illness."
There was a third Olmeca/Lenca banishment, most likely a very small one just before nixtamal was invented. A group of Lenca with pellagra were sent from southeast El Salvador to northern Morazan, across the Torola River. The name Meanguera, a municipal seat just across the river is mah ahn k'er ha' in Ch'orti' and means "dividing those by the weak current water," a reference to the split in the Lenca who lived near the Gulf of Fonseca. Naming this place Meanguera (or Maanguera) was a bit of a faux pas, given that there is an island of the same name in the Gulf. This demonstrates that it was likely not an elite group that moved to Morazan.
Besides the Huasteca and Yucatec, there were two more internal Ch'orti' banishments from the "bad openings illness." It is hard to tell which came first or if they came before or after the Olmec. But since they landed on the coast slightly to the southeast of Izapa - closer to El Salvador - they likely came after the Olmec. These two Ch'orti' banishments became the Mam and the Panjobal people. From the place names it appears that these two banishments happened at about the same time and went to the same place - Takalik Abaj.
By Simon Burchell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Takalik Abaj, in western Guatemala, is located 400 kilometers west-northwest of the mouth of the Lempa River. It is north of the regional center Retalhuleu. They likely came up the Samala River to the Ok River to Retalhuleu. Ok is "walk" or "walk from river" and the first two syllables of Retalhuleu mean "arrive with load." The two groups likely stopped first at Asintal, about a 16 kilometer walk from the Ok River. Asintal is ah sin tal and means "the series of arrivals." This name makes it clear that there was more than one migration but that the migrations happened at about the same time. The nearby river Ixchaya River, also close to Takalik Abaj, tells a similar story, it is ix cha' yah and means the "movement of two infected." This refers to two groups infected with pellagra and confirms that there were two migrations.
The names of the Mam and Kanjobal lineages and sub-lineages tell more about their starts during the pellagra crisis. Mam means "dark spots," a reference to the pellagra lesions. Of the sub-lineages of the Mam, Ixil and Tektitek appear to have initiated after the pellagra. The Awakatek, though, seem to speak of the move to Guatemala. It is ah wa' k'at tech and "the crossers while being open." The crossers refer to those who made the ocean passage from El Salvador to Guatemala. "Being open" refers to the pellagra lesions.
Kanjobal is kan ch'op par and means "learn of expulsion by boat." This makes it clear that the pellagra dispersion was not voluntary. The Güija lineage with pellagra, who would become the Kanjobal, were forced by the Güija lineage without pellagra, who would be the Chol-Ch'orti', to leave El Salvador. A sub-lineage is the Mocho, which is moch tzo or "fold up the nest" - leaving El Salvador. Another sub-lineage is the Tojolabal, which is toh hol ha' pal and means "offering on the boat on the head water." The "head water" likely means at the beginning of the trip on the head waters, such as at Lago Güija. The Chuj sub-lineage may be ch'uhch' which is "jerked" and would refer to being jerked away from their community in El Salvador. Even sub-languages that diverged much later from the Kanjobal appear to have acquired their name at the banishment time when they were already distinct family lineages. Similar to Awakatec, the Acatec is ah k'at tech and means "the opened crossers." The Jacaltec would be hak' ahr tech and would mean "diminishing of the opening up," referring to the time of getting better.
Not only were there banishment to the coasts of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico, there were further movements from these new population centers to the Gulf Coast and Pacific Coast of the present-day U.S. Several names of Native American nations indicate that they were founded out of the Maya pellagra crisis. Whether they were banished or left voluntarily is not clear. This will be covered in more detail in a separate post.
Discovering Lime and the Nixtamal Solution
It seems that soon after the last banishment, whether Mam or Kanjobal, the Chol-Ch'orti' lineage discovered the cure to pellagra. This discovery happened in present-day southern La Libertad department of El Salvador, with Huizucar and Jicalapa being key. Jicalapa was a long-time Maya community since about 7800 BCE, when the Güija flood refugees resettled there and Teotepeque. Much later, in about 1600 BCE, it seems that the Maya were gunpowder blasting at Huizucar, most likely improving the downflow of the Huizucar River. The Maya discovered gunpowder by 7600 BCE and used it mainly for public works projects. They must have blasted through limestone, creating a new substance which we call lime. Lime, or calcium oxide, does not occur naturally in nature. Limestone must be baked or blasted in order for lime to occur.
They took the lime to Jicalapa to test it out. The name Huizucar has a double meaning. The first is wih suk kar and means "origin of lime while cutting." Cutting refers to the blasting work. The second meaning is wis uh kar and means "sacred lime protector." Tilapa, a village close to Huizucar is tihr lab pa' or "breaking down the patting masa (corn)", linking the discovery of lime to pellagra. Lime breaks down the corn so that niacin is released.
Several place names around Jicapala, 35 kilometers to the west of Huizucar, provide more details. Jicalapa itself is hix kal lab pa' or "lime to loosen patted masa (corn)." The river just east of Jicalapa is the Sensipa. This is xe'en sib pa', meaning "producing the swollen corn." Corn soaked in lime puffs out much more than corn that isn't. Ten kilometers west of Jicalapa is Sihuapilapa, which is si wa' pi lab pa' or "number of companions are patting masa." Soaking the corn in lime and water is called nixtamal. This is ni ix tam al or "the time of no more moving inside." "Moving inside" is a reference to the runs caused by the untreated corn and is the same ix as in maix, which became maiz or maize.
Once the Chol-Ch'orti' Maya discovered the nixtamal solution to pellagra, it appears that they sent out emissaries to all the Mexico-Central American peoples, including the banished Maya. There are place names with many groups that reflect this time. One of the more obvious is El Baul, which became a pre-Classic Maya site of either the Mam or Kanjobal in coastal Guatemala. Baul is pa' ur or "explain the masa." While earlier it was necessary to explain the pellagra masa, now it was necessary to explain the nixtamal masa. One of the Kanjobal sub-lineages is the Jacaltec or hak' ahr tech, which means "diminishing of the opening up," explaining the impact as people began using the nixtamal process. And the river west of Takalik Abaj is the Nima which is ni mah or "no more badness," referring to nixtamal.
The process happened among the Olmec communities centered at Izapa. One other community where they likely settled was El Mesak, southeast several kilometers in Guatemala. Mesak is mes ak' and means "clean the skin." Mesak refers to skin being cleared up either because their diet became more diversified or the nixtamal process was shared with them. Even more obvious is the community of Petacalapa, about 10 km east of Izapa in Guatemala. Petacalapa is pet ha' kar la pa' and means "pour water with lime over patting masa (corn)."
The Chol-Ch'orti' also sent the nixtamal formula to the Purépecha, along the Guerrero/Michoacan coast. Petacalco, a town near the mouth of the Rio Balsas River, is very clear. It is: pet ha' kal k'o(y), which means "pour water over lime without vigor." The precise instructions let people know it wasn't necessary to shake or do much stirring. Sixty kilometers west, up the Pacific Coast, is Caleta de Campos, which is kal eht ha' k'am pos, or "in water tested the lime from useful black magic." The syllable pos or "black magic" is usually reserved for working with gunpowder. This town further links lime to the gunpowder usage at Huizucar, El Salvador. One gets a sense from Caleta de Campos, the re-telling of the story of how lime was discovered.
It appears that the Purépecha had already migrated partially inland at the time of nixtamal. Huetamo is a village about 120 kilometers inland from Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo. In Ch'orti it is weh tam h'o or "desirable pulp in the center," likely reference to nixtamaled corn. And about 80 kilometers west of Huetamo is Churumuco. While the name doesn't directly relate to pellagra or nixtamal, one gets the sense it may have been named at this time. In Ch'orti' it is ch'ur rum muk ho and means "good guardian spirit buried underground."
The Chol-Ch'orti' also sent people to the Ulua in northern Honduras and Belize. This is seen in the name Despoloncal in the lower Ulua River valley of Honduras. Despoloncal is tech bol on kal or "beads of lime open up the old corn." This name is interesting because it shows that there was an understanding that the corn was the same -the same "old" corn, but the process, the nixtamal, was different. In Belize, the village of Calcutta is near what may have been the original settlement of the Yucatek of Santa Rita. Calcutta is kal kut ha' or "patting with lime in the water." Thirty kilometers north is Bacalar, Mexico, which is pa' kal ahr, "time of the lime in corn."
Word of the nixtamal solution also reached the Totonac along the Veracruz coast. The clearest indication is the town of Calnali, in Hidalgo state, 140 kilometers west of Tuxpan. Calnali is kal nar ri in Ch'orti' and means "beside the lime for the corn," which seems to indicate that a source of limestone, and hence, lime was located near Calnali. The city of Xalapa might have been named after nixtamal. It is ha lahb pa' and means "water over rubbing masa (corn)." Colipa, about 120 kilometers north of Veracruz and 25 kilometers inland seems to be another location of limestone. Colipa is kor ri pa' and means "beside what frees the corn."
The Chol-Ch'orti's also explained to the Lenca in eastern El Salvador about the nixtamal process. The Lenca royal dynasties are called Taulepa, which is a Ch'orti' word t'a' ul lehp pa' and means "explain about flesh of patting corn." The Lenca date their royal lineage back to when the Ch'orti' explained the nixtamal process to them in about 1600 BCE.
Once the communities of the Chiapas-Guatemala coast learned the nixtamal process, they quickly became a center of cacao production which helped to fuel the pre-Classic development. The name Chiapas comes from this time period. It is ch'i' ap as or "practice growing the swinging (one)," referring to the cacao. To the northwest of Izapa along the coast is Pijijiapan or pi ch'i' ch'ih ap ban, which means "companions growing the good large swinging fruit (cacao)." Because the name uses the subject pi or "companions," it is clear that it was the Ch'orti' visiting the Chiapas coast who named this Olmec village.
Cacao also was grown along the Guatemala coast. Ujuxte is a pre-Classic site on the western coast of Guatemala. It is uh hux te' or "picking the sacred tree," referring to the cacao. Takalik Abaj is a pre-Classic site and seems to have been near the first settlement of the Mam and Kanjobal. It is tak k'ar ik' ap pach' which means "dry in air, crush the swinging one, store." Again, the "swinging one" refers to the cacao. The name Takalik Abaj describes the processing of the cacao.
Questions and Conclusions
Two questions raised by the pellagra crisis related to the diet and to the long-term political relationships among the various Maya groups and states. Related to the diet, if the Maya knew that a diet heavy in corn was the cause of pellagra, why did they continue to eat a corn-heavy diet causing new pellagra outbreaks? Were they able to identify other sources of niacin like fish?
The second question is to what extent did the pellagra crisis cause long-term instability, resentments and aggression between the Chol-Ch'orti' and all the other Maya? Did it cause any role in the break-down of Maya unity during the Classic period when many city-states were warring with each other?
There are several conclusions about the pellagra crisis.
First, the pellagra crisis delayed the flowering of the Maya civilization by 500 to 1000 years. The delay was caused by energy devoted to the crisis rather than development from about 2400 BCE to 1700 BCE and by confusion, difficulty in maintaining cultural memory, and perhaps lack of succession due to the more serious effects of pellagra such as aggression, dementia, and death.
On the other hand, the development delay was mitigated partially by the new-found independence of the various lineages as they were banished by the Chol-Ch'orti' lineage. The earliest Maya-Olmec structures near Monte Alto and Izapa are an expression of independence and perhaps rebellion from the control of the Chol-Ch'orti' lineage, in addition to being expressions of beauty and spirituality.
A third conclusion is that the pellagra crisis was the primary cause of the dispersion of the Maya, including the Huasteca in northeast Mexico, the Quiche in northwest Mexico before they returned to Guatemala, the Yucatec to Yucatan and Belice, the Olmec, first to the Chiapas-Guatemala coast and then Veracruz, and the Mam and Kanjobal to Guatemala, along with related lineages. At the same time it left few Maya in El Salvador. This is the reason that El Salvador is generally seen on the periphery of the Maya world (if even that), when it was the center of Maya development for more than 6,000 years, from 8200 BCE to 1800 BCE. It is likely that the Chol-Ch'orti' lineage that remained in El Salvador, i.e. at Chalchuapa, retained, at least among some, a senior status until at least 500 BCE.
Relatedly, the pellagra crisis explains why the Maya languages split into six major groups between 3500 and 4500 years ago (Huasteca, Quiche, Yucatec, Mam, Kanjobal, Chol-Ch'orti'). A more normal evolution of languages would suggest a tree structure of the languages rather than so many breaks within several hundred years.
Finally, through the pellagra crisis, the Maya learned the hard way about the dangers of mono-cropping and a mono-diet. Corn was being grown as the major crop of every community and was the major part of most families' diets. This caused the pellagra crisis. It is possible that once the Maya learned nixtamal they continued mono-cropping corn. However, it could be that the Maya responded to the crisis with a bigger emphasis on beans and squash and began the practice of the three sisters: corn, beans and squash, and more sustainable agricultural practices in general.