>> Monday, August 31, 2009
From an article by Christine Delsol in the San Francisco Chronicle:
The ancient Maya civilization — which ranged from the Yucatán Peninsula to Chiapas and Tabasco states, part of Veracruz state and as far south as Honduras — is well known for perfecting architectural techniques that produced towering cities, and for developing an advanced written language and creating books centuries before anything comparable appeared in Europe. The Maya also were gifted mathematicians who developed the concept of zero. And their astronomers, through centuries of patient observation, created a 365-day solar calendar that varies by less than 2 seconds from the one we use today — more accurate than what Cortés was using when he landed in 1519.
Lost among the laurels heaped upon the Maya, though, is credit for their agricultural wizardry. When the conquering Spanish started carrying Maya food staples back to Europe and to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, it changed the world's eating habits. We're not talking about the Yucatán's deliciously exotic lime-and-achiote concoctions but food you buy every day in Safeway's produce aisles. Just try to get through a day without:
Legions of chocoholics would argue that the Maya's "food of the gods," made from the toasted, fermented seeds of the cacao tree, is the New World's greatest gift to civilization. Though Cortés learned of chocolate from the Aztecs, they had acquired it through trade with the Maya, who first cultivated it about 3,000 years ago. Maya and Aztec aficionados drank their chocolate bitter and spicy; sugar was unknown before the conquest. Even today, chocolate in the Yucatán may be flavored with paprika, annatto or even pepper. But it was more than a drink to the Maya, who believed it came from the gods and formed a bridge between heaven and earth. Cacao seeds were an early form of money, and archaeologists have uncovered counterfeit seeds made of clay. . . .