The BBC is currently running a series of short programmes entitled ” A History of the World in 100 Objects”, which charts human development through artefacts to be found in the British Museum. The development of agriculture is unquestionably a key moment in human history, and influenced how people thought about themselves and their place in the universe. One programme uses a Mayan statue of a corn god to tell the story of the importance of maize in the Americas. So important was maize that it became a god, was incorporated into creation stories, such as the Popol Vuh, and it continues to be of key cultural importance today in the countries of Mesoamerica. The people and their food were indivisible – the Men of Maize have been there, from thousands of years in the past, to Miguel Angel Asturias and to today’s Mayans – even though some labour under the illusion that this culture is also just another archaeological artefact. Anyone who has spent any time in an indigenous Guatemalan community can tell you the importance of maize, especially the daily grind, and I use that word deliberately, of producing the tortillas for the family. While maize is culturally important, it is hard work to reap its benefits.
What always surprises me about the history of food is how it is that humans worked out what was good to eat and what bad. One can only assume that a lot of people made themselves very ill or worse on the way, eating undercooked kidney beans or the poisonous bits of the fugu fish, or overcame their revulsion trying the durian or the lamprey to find it was actually good. The history of the human diet must have included experimentation but it is not obvious that food choices went beyond what was immediately appreciated as good to what could prevent long term harm or promote health – our modern idea of the balanced diet.
One very interesting fact about maize, which is mentioned only in passing, is the need for its preparation to include lime. As is said, this releases amino acids and vitamin B. However, for a diet heavily dependent on maize, this is essential for human health as it prevents the development of the deficiency disease pellagra. One wonders how the ancient peoples of the Americas came to incorporate this into their cooking, since its omission does not lead
instant negative feedback, such as you would get from eating a poisonous mushroom.
Interestingly, the lack of appreciation of the importance of this ingredient in cooking maize did cause pellagra in Europe when it was first grown on a large scale and used as a dominant source of nutrition.
Just one thing about thisw programme, or rather the announcement at its start though – I get really fed up whenever I hear or read it stated that Mexico and countries like Guatemala are in South America. Please, no! Mexico is in North America and all the countries between it and Colombia are Central American. I expect the BBC to do better. Otherwise an interesting item!