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Early Maize in the Maya Area

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 August 2022

Jon C. Lohse*
Terracon Consultants and Department of Anthropology, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA
Molly Morgan
Department of Anthropology, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA
John G. Jones
Commonwealth Heritage Group, Tempe, AZ, USA
Mark Brenner
Department of Geological Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA
Jason Curtis
Department of Geological Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA
W. Derek Hamilton
Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, University of Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
Karla Cardona
Department of Anthropology, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
(, corresponding author)


The history of maize in Central America and surrounding areas has implications for the slow transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The spread of early forms of domesticated maize from southern Mexico across Mesoamerica and into South America has been dated to about 8,700–6,500 years ago on the basis of a handful of studies relying primarily on the analysis of pollen, phytoliths, or starch grains. Recent genomic data from southern Belize have been used to identify Archaic period south-to-north population movements from lower Central America, suggesting this migration pattern as a mechanism that introduced genetically improved maize races from South America. Gradually, maize productivity increased to the point that it was suitable for use as a staple crop. Here we present a summary of paleoecological data that support the late and uneven entry of maize into the Maya area relative to other regions of Central America and identify the Pacific coastal margin as the probable route by which maize spread southward into Panama and South America. We consider some implications of the early appearance of maize for Late Archaic populations in these areas; for example, with respect to the establishment of sedentary village life.

La historia del maíz en Centroamérica y áreas adyacentes tiene implicaciones en la lenta transición de la caza y recolección hacia la agricultura. La dispersión de las formas tempranas de maíz domesticado del sur de México, través de Mesoamérica hacia Suramérica es fechada entre hace 8.700 a 6.500 años, con base en estudios que dependen del análisis de polen, fitolitos, o de granos de almidón. Datos genómicos recientes del sur de Belice identifican los movimientos poblacionales de sur a norte del período Arcaico en el sur de Centroamérica, sugiriendo a este patrón migratorio como un mecanismo de introducción de razas de maíz genéticamente mejoradas desde Suramérica. Gradualmente, la productividad del maíz incrementó a un punto que su uso era adecuado como un cultivo básico. Aquí presentamos un resumen de los datos paleoecológicos que apoyan la entrada tardía y desigual del maíz en el área Maya, en relación con otras regiones de Centroamérica, e identifican la margen de la Costa Pacífica como posible ruta para la dispersión del maíz hacia Panamá y Suramérica. Consideramos algunas implicaciones de la aparición temprana del maíz en poblaciones del Arcaico Tardío en estas áreas, por ejemplo, con respecto al establecimiento de la vida sedentaria.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for American Archaeology

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