Secret Power – Plants That Have Changed the World

The gods formed the first human beings from clay. But they were soft and weak and crumbled easily. Then the gods tried it with wood. The wooden puppets could speak and walk, but they had no soul, no intelligence. They just wandered around aimlessly. Then the gods kneaded the flesh of human beings from white and yellow maize and made the arms and legs from maize meal porridge.

The “maize people” could think and reason – and with one glance they grasped the entire world. The gods then breathed on the eyelids of their creation and veiled their sight for ever more. The gods did not want human beings to see or understand too much. This is what the May myth tells us. This film is about the history of the maize plant, which though it has conquered the world, has been given too little attention by “short-sighted” human beings.

300,000 people lived in Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire, when the Spanish conquerors first arrived around 1500. Their staple food was maize. The farmers of Central America planted fields stretching from the sea to the mountains. Tomatoes, avocados, peanuts, pineapples, cocoa and potatoes flourished.

They planted maize together with beans and squash. A perfect combination, since maize depletes the soil of nutrients, while bean and squash roots enrich it with nitrogen. The water creates a balanced micro-climate and protects against overnight frost. The floating fields with their fertile sludge yielded harvests three to four times the size of those brought about by today’s modern methods. It was maize that made possible the advanced civilizations of Central America. The high yields allowed large populations to be fed by relatively few farmers, leaving plenty of time for crafts, architecture, and astrology. Maize has been cultivated on the Mexican plateau for close on 8,000 years. The oldest finds are about 7,200 years old. The Mayan priests once had the most accurate calendar of all ancient civilisations. They used it to set planting and harvesting times. All their agriculture was closely bound up with religion. Maize is extremely nutritious and can be eaten by both humans and animals at all stages of growth. Its yield is higher per unit area than other grains, it is safe from birds, and it can be stored easily. Yet maize cannot reproduce on its own – the maize kernels must be stripped from the cob. And so the history of maize has been entwined with that of mankind for thousands of years. The kernels contain starch, protein, and fat. Many different kinds of food can be made from them: porridge, bread, cakes, tortillas, polenta – even alcoholic beverages. Maize can be used fresh, ground, crushed, roasted, dried, cooked or fermented. It is still the most important staple food of Central America, the land of its origin.

Here tamales – ground meat rolled in cornmeal dough and wrapped in maize husks – are being prepared for a festival. The name “maize” comes from the Arawak language and means “that which contains life”. In other languages the word for maize often means “mother” or “life”. Gifted Indian planters have cultivated maize for thousands of years, and still today it is essential to the lives of the people. Maize spread far into the north of the American continent – into the prairies or the “great plains”. Today the Corn Belt forms the largest continuous cultivated maize region in the world. Artist and researcher Professor Walton Galinat has devoted his life to maize. He thinks the genetic ancestor of maize is teosinte, a species of Mexican grass that is 60,000 to 80,000 years old.

It’s about the first of November here in Massachusetts. We had several killing frosts and the harvest is already in. But some of the plants that weren’t harvested are still in the field and this is teosinte the ancestor corn and is has little clusters of ears that are all shattered. There is only one husk leaf around each of the little ears and I’m opening it up it just falls to the ground. There’s a cluster here with about a dozen of little ears and they are all shattering to pieces as open up the single husk leaf around each ear. This little segments are called fruit cases, and each one has one little kernel inside.

Professor Galinat thinks it was probably women who first cultivated maize from the seeds of wild plants. The careful selection of the best seeds le to a wide variety of maize types adapted to particular climates and soil conditions: those with short stalks to resist the wind, those with tall stalks to grow in swampy areas, and those with small cobs to ripen within three months. Maize requires sunlight and is particularly effective at utilizing the sun’s energy. Maize can grow from knee-high to more than two metres in less than a week. These are the original areas of maize cultivation in the Americas.

The Mexican plateau…

then the valleys of the Andes…

and later the desert-like regions of what are today Arizona and New Mexico.

One can also find centuries-old traces of cultic maize worship here. The Hopi Indians cultivated a maize plant whose roots pushed one-and-a-half metres down into the desert ground to get at the last drop of water. Perhaps the maize plant was also worshipped because it was seen to unite male and female parts – the cob is female, the silky tuft male. Via the silk strands the pollen is able to reach and fertilize the eggs. The kernels of the cob grow from here. Maize is much more than a food plant, as Professor Richard Ford explains. The example that I show you comes from the Hopi people in North-East Arizona. Here is an example of the yellow corn. Now the yellow corn represents the northern direction in terms of the cardinal directions.

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