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Episode 9 - Maya maize god statue

Maya maize god (made around 1,300 years ago). Stone statue, found in Honduras

The sound of worship coming from a Christian Church in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, indicates where the local Indian population are offering their god, not just their devotion, but also their food - it's a practice they've been following for thousands of years. Nowadays we like to say 'we are what we eat', but for generations among the faithful, it's been equally true to say 'we worship what we eat'.

This willingness to venerate the food on our plate seems to arrive at a particular moment in human development - and it tells us much more about a society than its favourite supper dish.

'It's always present in one way or another - either to be eaten, or to be looked at, or to be worshipped. It is part of the cultural identity.' (Restaurateur Santiago Calva)

Some archaeologists argue that food must always have had a divine role even for our earliest ancestors; just think of the cow goddess of Egypt, or Bacchus and Ceres of classical mythology, or Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food. But there's a particular time, after the end of the Ice Age, so between ten and five thousand years ago roughly, when a range of new foods seems to be accompanied by a range of new gods. Across the world, people began to identify particular plants that would provide them with food. In the Middle East - as we saw in the last programme - it was wheat and barley; in China millet and rice; in Papua New Guinea taro; and in Africa sorghum. And, as they did so, everywhere stories about gods emerged; gods of death and of rebirth, gods who would guarantee the cycle of the seasons and ensure the return of the crops, and gods - more importantly - that represent food itself. Today's object is myth-made material; a food god from Central America.

Here, in the heart of the British Museum, we have a god of maize. He's a bust, carved of limestone using a stone chisel and a basalt hammer, and the features are large, symmetrical, the eyes closed, the lips parted - as though this god is in communion with a different world, quietly meditating. The arms are bent, the palms of the hands face outwards - one raised, one lower - giving an impression of serene power. The head of the god is covered with an enormous headdress in the shape of a stylised corn cob, and his hair is like the silky strands that line the inside of a cob of corn, inside the wrapping leaves.

Originally this statue would have sat with many other similar gods high up on a stepped pyramid-style temple in western Honduras. He was found in Copán, a major Mayan city and religious centre, whose monumental ruins you can still visit today. All of the temple's statues were commissioned by the Mayan ruler of the day, to adorn the magnificent temple that he built at Copán around AD 700. Between the head and the body you can very clearly see the join, and indeed the head looks rather too big for the body, because when the temple in Copán (in western Honduras, from which this came) was destroyed, all the statues fell, and heads and bodies were pieced together, but whether this head and this body precisely belong together is actually not the key thing - because all these gods are about the central power, the central role, of maize to the local people. Our statue of the maize god is obviously a comparative new boy; he's made as late as AD 700. But he comes at the end of a very long tradition; Central Americans had been worshipping him and his predecessors for thousands of years, and his mythic story mirrors the annual planting and harvesting of the corn on which all Central American civilisation depended. Like the maize plant, the maize god is decapitated at harvest time, and is then reborn - fresh, young, and beautiful at the beginning of each new growing season. John Staller, anthropologist and author of the book 'Histories of Maize' explains why the maize god was a common choice for rich and powerful patrons:

'The elite from ancient societies focussed upon corn as having sacred kinds of properties which they then associated with themselves. And this is pretty obvious in the young maize god - the sculpture was apparently a manifestation of mythological beings resulting from the third Maya creation. There were eight mythological beings, four women and four men, who are the ancestors of all the Maya people. The Maya believed that their ancestors essentially came from corn, and they were formed of yellow and white maize dough. Maize was certainly a primary focus of ritual and religious veneration by ancient Meso-American people, going back all the way before the Maya and even into the Olmec civilisation.'

So our maize god is not just a hauntingly beautiful statue, he gives us a real insight into the way ancient American society thought about itself and its environment. The maize god represents both the fact of the agricultural cycle of planting, harvesting and replanting, and the faith in a parallel human cycle of birth, death and rebirth - but more, he is the very stuff of which the Central Americans are made. Where the Hebrew god made Adam out of dust, the Mayan gods used maize to make their humans. The mythical story is told in the most famous epic in the whole of the Americas, the 'Popol Vuh'. For generations, this was passed on through oral traditions before finally being written down in the seventeenth century. Here's a taste of it:

'And here is the beginning of the conception of humans and of the search for the ingredients of the human body ... So they spoke; the bearer, begetter, the makers, modellers - and a sovereign plumed serpent - they sought and discovered what was needed for human flesh. It was only a short while before the sun, moon and stars were to appear above the makers and modellers. Split place, bitter water place, is the name, the yellow corn, white corn, came from there. And this was when they found the staple foods, and then the yellow corn and white corn were ground. After that they put into words the making, the modelling of our first mother-father, with yellow corn, white corn alone for the flesh, food alone for the human legs and arms for our first fathers, the four human works.'

But why did maize become the favoured food and the revered grain of the Americas? Why not wheat or a certain type of meat? The answer lies not in maize's divine connections, but in the environment that Central America offered. In this part of the world at this time around nine thousand years ago, other food resources were very thin on the ground. There were no easily domesticated animals - as you would find pigs, sheep or cattle elsewhere - and the staples were a trinity of plants that were slowly cultivated and tamed: squashes, beans and maize. But beans and squashes don't become gods - why does maize?

Well, the plant from which maize derives, the teosinte, is wonderfully adaptable. It's able to grow in both the lush wet lowlands and the dry mountainous regions, which means that farmers can plant crops in any of their seasonal dwellings. On top of that, constant harvesting of the grain encourages the plants to grow larger and more abundantly, so maize quickly became plentiful - farmers got a healthy return for investing their labour. But crucially, maize is a rich carbohydrate that gives you a rapid energy hit. But it is, let's face it, pretty stodgy, and so from very early on, farmers also cultivated an ingenious - and tasty - accompaniment; the indigenous chilli. It has virtually no nutritional value but, as we all know, it's uniquely able to liven up dull carbohydrates - and it shows that we've been foodies for as long as we've been farmers.

By AD 1000, maize had spread north and south, virtually through the whole length of the Americas; which is perhaps surprising - because, in its earliest form, not only did maize have little taste, it was practically inedible. It couldn't just be boiled and eaten straight away as it is today. Nine thousand years ago, the maize cob was very hard, and eating it raw would have made you very ill. It needed to be cooked in a mixture of water and white lime. This elaborate process of boiling the raw kernel in lime and water was essential. Without it, the two key nutrients in the vegetable - the amino acids and vitamin B - would not be released. After all that, it had to be ground into a paste and then made into an unleavened dough. The god of maize expected his disciples to work hard for their supper. Even today, maize still dominates much of Mexican cuisine, and it still carries a surprisingly powerful religious and metaphorical charge, as restaurateur Santiago Calva knows only too well:

'The continuous spin-offs of maize into daily life is vast and complex. At some stage there will always be maize around, and it jumps any class barrier or identity. Everybody eats it and drinks it, from the richest to the poorest, from the most indigenous to the least indigenous, and that's one thing that unites more than anything else.

'Maize culture faces two new problems, one being the use of maize as a bio-fuel and the increment of prices, where it directly affects the Mexican population. The other problem being the genetically-modified maize, it's almost personally offensive - and religiously - that you are playing God, as it were ... it's just very sensitive. Especially when you take corn to be used for other purposes other than to be eaten or be worshipped, but rather to be put into a car - it becomes a highly controversial issue.'

So even today for some people it's unthinkable that maize, the divine food, should end up in a petrol tank. Well beyond Mexico, the idea of genetic modification of crops still causes deep unease, as much religious as scientific - a sense that the natural order is being disturbed, that humans are trespassing on territory that's properly reserved for the gods. In a very real sense, the Mexican maize god is still alive, and he's not to be trifled with.

In our next programme, we'll be turning from the food of the gods to the vessels that it's cooked in. We'll be in Japan, with some of the oldest pottery in the world, and the birth of the stew.

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