New Study Finds Migrants Brought Maize to the Maya

DNA analysis of skeletal remains in Belize helps piece together how corn cultivation came to thrive in Central America

five cobs of yellow corn hanging by their leaves off of a wire hung on a tree
New research shows that mass migration of ancient peoples from the south were essential to bringing maize cultivation to Maya communities in Central America. Scientists previously thought knowledge of farming techniques were shared by word of mouth between neighboring communities.  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

A new study reveals that a mass migration of people may have been responsible for introducing the dietary staple maize to the Maya region in southeastern Mexico and northern Central America more than 5,600 years ago, according to the New York TimesSabrina Imbler. Published in Nature Communications last week, the finding is contrary to previously held beliefs, which purported that the crop spread as neighboring peoples swapped knowledge on farming techniques, reports the Times.

Led by Keith Prufer, an environmental archaeologist at the University of New Mexico, and Douglas Kennett, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a group of scientists excavated 25 skeletons from inside two cave sites located in the Maya Mountains of Belize, Central America, reports Science Daily. The remains, ranging from 3,700 to 10,000 years old, underwent DNA analysis.

The researchers compared the well-preserved DNA to both ancient peoples and people living in the Americas today. They found that the DNA from those people buried at the sites between 9,600 and 7,300 years ago most closely resembled that of hunter-gatherers who migrated from North to South America, writes Science’s Ann Gibbons. However, remains 5,600 years old and younger were markedly different—their DNA most closely resembled that of Chibchan-speaking Indigenous people, who today live between northern Colombia and Costa Rica. Now, some 7 million Maya live in Central America, and the team reports more than half of their DNA comes from these Chibchan speakers.

“It’s clearly a major movement into the Maya region of people related to Chibchan speakers,” Harvard University population geneticist David Reich, who led the DNA extraction that revealed the previously unknown migration, told Science.

In earlier research, Prufer and Kennett had found a steady increase in maize consumption by the Maya over time, with a notable surge between 5,600 and 4,000 years ago. The bump in their data, from maize accounting for 10 percent of the Maya diet to 50 percent, happened, they now know, right around the arrival of the southern Chibchan speakers. Evidence of fully domesticated maize crops appeared around 6,500 years ago in Peru and Bolivia, where farmers developed larger, more robust cobs, according to Science. Additionally, David Mora-Marín, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of the new paper, found a Chibchan term for maize had been adopted into a Maya language. All this suggests southern migrants brought fully-domesticated maize plants with them to the Maya region.

Maize was a Mayan diet staple akin to wheat for Europeans, reports Mary Beth King of Phys.org. Providing sugar and protein and easily stored in a dry place, maize was a key part of every Native American group’s diet by the time the Spanish arrived to the Americas in 1500 C.E. Its reliability allowed former foragers to stay in one place and focus on agriculture, which led to the formation of communities and later empires, explains Phys.org.