The year was 2014, and many Guatemalans were incensed. With a population of 14 million, approximately 120,000 took to the streets. Protesters blocked traffic along the Pan American Highway and other major roadways to voice their opposition to the “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties,” or, as it was popularly known, the “Monsanto Law.” The law “outlawed the replanting, transportation, or selling of privatized seeds without permission, and made these actions punishable by one to four years in jail and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 quetzals (US$130 to $1,300).”1

While the law sought to regulate the use of particular maize seeds engineered by Monsanto to withstand the company’s glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup, the Guatemalan public saw several problems with this protection for privatized seeds, or genetically modified seeds subject to a patent or copyright. This included anticipating that the law would increase farmer dependence on big agribusiness. Opposition to the law swelled, bringing together, according to cultural anthropologist Liza Grandia, a motley crew of protestors, including “peasant federations, health workers, biologists, Maya spiritual leaders, environmentalists, Pentecostals who regard Monsanto as an anti-Christ, opportunistic politicians, college students, and even Guatemala City foodies.”2


Why did this new policy about maize inspire such strong reactions? Since its domestication over 9,000 years ago, achieved through the ingenuity and acumen of Mesoamerican communities, maize has provided necessary sustenance. In turn, these communities constructed their societies, cosmologies, and cultures around the plant. The Monsanto Law would dissolve this sacred symbiosis between local communities and maize. The history of maize thus demonstrates the complexities of human relationships to plants, which resist categorization solely as units to be bought, sold, or patented under capitalism.


A Kernel of Science

What is maize? How did it develop? These questions may seem simple, particularly given the ubiquity of corn-based products, but the large body of scholarship on the crop shows the answers to be anything but straightforward. Maize, in taxonomic parlance Zea mays L., is a cereal grain consisting of a stalk, tassels of pollen, and ears filled with cobs of kernels (averaging 800 kernels spread across 16 rows).


The reliance of many human societies on maize, the “most dominant and productive crop” for their survival, is well known. Less understood is the plant’s reliance on humans for its survival. Maize most likely was domesticated from teosinte, a grass with tassels and several small-clustered ears. However, there are clear differences between modern-day maize and teosinte: while tesonite is made up of 6–12 kernels held in two rows surrounded by a protective shell, maize proffers a cob with approximately 20 rows of kernels without a hard outer shell.3 These differences are so profound that, as one article in PNAS notes, “19th-century botanists failed to recognize the close relationship between these plants, placing teosinte in its own genus, Euchlaena.” Present-day scholars have shown that maize was domesticated from teosinte through humans selecting for a larger ear size and more kernels.


Indigenous groups in what is now southwestern Mexico played a major role in the domestication process and subsequent plant transfer. Recent phylogenetic analysis has shown that maize most likely arose from a single domestication event, which probably occurred in the Rio Balsas (Balsas River) Valley around 9,000 years ago.4 Agrobiodiversity researchers have noted that “much of the evolution of maize during domestication may have been gradual, and there is evidence of increases in cob size over the first 2,000 years of selection.”5 An incredible diversity in terms of types of maize occurred after its initial domestication. Many scholars describe maize as a “mirror” to its cultivators, and different Indigenous groups domesticated and cultivated various types of maize depending on “environmental and also [on] social and cultural factors,” suggesting the role communities played in developing different types of maize most suited to their needs.6


By 7,000 years BP, humans had dispersed maize from the Rio Balsas region into South America as a partial domesticate, though, as scholars have noted, there were “multiple waves of dispersal” of maize into South America. There, the crop underwent “secondary improvement in the southwestern Amazon before diversifying across the continent. Humans then dispersed this domesticated variety back into Central America and to the north, demonstrating the “clear evidence of two-way movements of plants and people lasting millennia between Central and South America.”7 Maize is therefore a notable example of the mobility of plants in relation to humans.


In addition to domesticating maize and dispersing it throughout South America and back toward Central America, humans worked to cultivate maize, which could not have survived if left to its own devices. Wild teosinte is very fragile and its pod can be shattered by the wind. By contrast, maize relies on humans to disperse its seeds. The scientific history of maize thus reveals the central and active role early Mesoamericans played in its domestication through making conscious decisions about the cultivation process.


Milpa and Mesoamerica

After its domestication, maize quickly became an important crop for Mesoamerican people, both nutritionally and culturally. Scholars and food policy experts have noted that maize is one of the most productive and nutritious crops in terms of calories per acre and extol the Maya peoples’ practice of milpa agriculture, an agroecosystem that relies on extensive intercropping as a means to promote biodiversity and address food insecurity. Under this system, maize was intercropped with plants including beans, squash, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes, allowing for greater soil and landscape regeneration when compared to monocrops. This practice was incredibly productive: scientists have shown that in a milpa “the maize stalk supports the climbing bean, increasing the latter’s access to light, while the bean plant fixes additional nitrogen in the soil.”8 Maize thus not only represented an important source of nutrition in and of itself, but also enabled the growth of other nutritionally significant crops. Using carbon isotope analysis of human bones and teeth, archeologists have shown how “maize was an important dietary component throughout life” for populations throughout the Maya area.9


To obtain the utmost nutrients from maize, Mesoamericans practiced a process called nixtamalization, a word derived from the Nahuatl terms for lime and maize dough. While, as scholars have noted, the “origin and development [of the nixtamalization process] remain archeologically unclear,” the lime treatment of maize has been used in Mesoamerica for at least the past 3,000 years to produce a “reduction of the labor required to grind maize, by breaking down the kernel’s durable external pericarp or shell; and enhanced nutrition, by releasing niacin and amino acids inherent in the maize and contributing additional calcium from the lime.”10 While nixtamalization reduces the effort of grinding maize, it was still very labor intensive for Mesoamerican women, who traditionally grind maize kernels into masa, or dough, over a metate or grinding stone. Further, maize is not only used to produce masa; Mesoamerican peoples make use of the maize stalks to produce maize beer, referred to as tesqüino, in certain parts of Mesoamerica and chicha in others.


The nutritional importance of maize cannot be separated from its cultural significance. In the Popol Vuh, which recounts the Maya creation story, humans were quite literally molded out of maize by the deities. Scholars have long recognized motifs of maize in Olmec and Maya iconography. However, in the past four decades, scholars have begun to identify a specific “Maize God” that has an “elongated, tonsured head [that] mimics the long tasseled cob,” and often has “maize grain … infixed into his head,” among other qualities.11 While there is much about the Maize God that remains to be explained in the scholarly literature, it is clear “that the corn cycle was the central metaphor of life and death for the Maya and the nucleus around which much of their religiosity was formed.”12


For the Maya, maize was and is more than simply a metaphor and powerful image in the Mesoamerican visual lexicon. Seventeenth-century records reveal how in highland Guatemala, upon the birth of a son, the Maya community would burn the blood of the umbilical cord. Then, they would “pas[s] an ear of maize through the smoke,” which would subsequently be planted in the maize field. Ethnographers have recorded that “parents used the maize from this small patch of land to feed the child ‘until he reached the age when he could plant for himself, saying that thus he not only ate by the sweat of his brow, but of his own blood as well.’”13 In certain regions, mothers “place an ear of maize into the palm of their newborns, and eat only dishes made from maize while breast-feeding to ensure that the child grows ‘true flesh.’”14 Maize, for Maya people, thus represents more than both calories or symbol: it is a sacred plant from which all life grows.


Colonial and Postcolonial Eras

During the colonial era, Maya beliefs in maize as a sacred plant clashed with European understandings of the crop. Spanish colonizers often publicly denigrated foods like maize as “dangerous to the European constitution.”15 But even as the Spanish publicly disdained maize, there is ample evidence that they recognized the utility—and scrumptiousness—of the crop. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616) recounted how one group of conquistadors inhaled maize “as if it were sugared almonds.”16 Indeed, there are records of conquistadors enjoying atole, a maize beverage, and eating puddings made of maize.17


From the nineteenth century onward, the crop began to attract the attention of scientists from Europe and the United States due to its productivity and economic potential as a domestic and export crop. In the early twentieth century, scientists from the United States and Europe traveled to regions in Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala, among others, to identify unique “landraces,” or locally adapted domesticates, of maize. Historian of science Helen Curry has detailed how scientists attempted to transpose putative science of the human race onto maize taxonomies: “At the most fundamental level, the raw material and motivation for classification arose directly from the imperative of ‘improvement’ in both crops and people.”18 These scientists presented a vision of “early, stable indigenous races, transformed by racial mixing with newly arriving populations from other geographical regions, giving rise to valuable new ‘incipient’ but still-unstable racial types.”19


Bolstered in part by this racialized understanding of maize, scientists around the world began to breed maize for preferred traits, namely, quick growth and high productivity. In the 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation began to partner with the Mexican government to increase production rates of staple crops, including maize. These attempts to turn maize into a scientific commodity attracted both local and global concern: one American geographer noted that this endeavor proffered the potential “disastrous destruction of local genes…. Mexican agriculture cannot be pointed toward standardization on a few commercial types without upsetting native economy and culture hopelessly.”20 As one Mexican scientist detailed, some communities refused to sell types of maize used in rituals, no matter what price was offered.21


These examples illuminate the resistance of communities in Central and South America to the commodification of maize. Maize became a symbol of Central American cultural and political independence in the 1980s, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan prohibited trade with Nicaragua in an attempt to erode the power of the Sandinistas, a left-wing political group. What this meant in practical terms was that Nicaragua was unable to obtain a sufficient supply of wheat, usually imported from the United States. In response, Nicaraguan artist Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy released a song titled “Somos Hijos Del Maiz” (“We Are the Children of Corn”) to rally support for the Sandinistas and resist American political influence. The song begins with the lyrics (in English), “If they take away our bread/We will see ourselves in the obligation/to survive as our grandparents did/with fermented corn/in the blood of the heroes.” The sanctity of maize became a way to express independence from colonial and neo-colonial powers.


Maize’s cultural, political, and economic significance persists in Central American communities today. Maya farmers continued to practice Milpa agriculture and it has been hailed as “central” to the preservation of Mexico’s biodiversity. However, this is not to say that the symbiotic relationship between Indigenous communities and the plant has remained unchanged—scholars have noted the immense out-migration of farmers in maize-growing communities, which can lead to a “narrowing of the agroecological conditions under which maize is farmed.”22 Further, multinational corporations have industrialized and commodified traditional beverages like atole.


Monsanto: Rise and Resistance

As a result of the forces of globalization and industrialization, threats to maize diversity are more acute than ever. Since the 1940s, scientists have warned that “the whole genetic pattern of Zea mays… has been catastrophically overhauled.”23 The reduction of maize’s genetic diversity has been exacerbated since the 1990s, when Monsanto began to produce its transgenic maize products. Further, the passage of NAFTA in 1994 meant that U.S. maize could be sold at incredibly cheap prices in Mexico. “The sheer amount of contamination from a very homogenous source drives diverse populations into narrow genetic backgrounds,” argued Ignacio Chapela, an ecologist at University of California, Berkeley.24


This contamination has alarmed scientists, farmers, and activists around the world for a variety of reasons. Zapatistas fighting for autonomy in Mexico argued that transgenic industrial maize threatened to overwhelm local varieties and thereby make Central American economies reliant on U.S. corporations. Since the 1970s, agronomists have been concerned about the potential loss of crop diversity and the catastrophic consequences for global food security. And local farmers and community members worry about relying on global agribusiness for their main source of sustenance, as well as the potential disruption to their moral economies and local cosmologies.25


The 2014 protests in Guatemala are not the only example of dissent over transgenic maize. Historian Helen Anne Curry describes local movements in Mexico that, in the early 2000s, declared “sin maíz no hay país” (“without maize there is no country”).26 According to Curry, Zapatista rebels “took matters into their own hands” by “developing locally managed preservation measures …that connected Indigenous peoples with scientists and activists.”27 And, as reported by Timothy Wise, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to gradually eliminate the use of glyphosate and the production of GMO maize.28


While some protests against Monsanto’s promotion of transgenic maize have been successful, Liza Grandia has observed that it is “hard to predict whether [events like] the victory over Monsanto in Guatemala [were] a once- or twice-in-a-generation occurrence or a signal of expanded democratic unrest.”29 What is clear, however, are the perils of detaching maize, a complex crop of global significance, from the rich cultural and biological context of its original domestication and the sophisticated practices of Indigenous agriculture and land management. Maize, as a sacred crop, is more than mere fodder for scientific development: rather, it is the lifeblood of many communities.30


Additional images used in this essay: Banner image by Gustave Baumann, Study for Hopi Corn, c.1938, Indianapolis Museum of Art. Image of a young corn god via Wikimedia Commons, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979. Specimen via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Rebecca Griest, “Guatemalan Protests against Monsanto Law (2014),” Database, Global Nonviolent Action Database, February 10, 2015. See also: Liza Grandia, “Sacred Maize against a Legal Maze: The Diversity of Resistance to Guatemala’s ‘Monsanto Law,’” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 11, no. 1 (July 4, 2017): 57. 

  2. Grandia, “Sacred Maize against a Legal Maze,” 59. 

  3. Feng Tian, Natalie M. Stevens, and Edward S. Buckler, “Tracking Footprints of Maize Domestication and Evidence for a Massive Selective Sweep on Chromosome 10,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. Supplement 1 (June 16, 2009): 9979–86. 

  4. Yoshihiro Matsuoka et al., “A Single Domestication for Maize Shown by Multilocus Microsatellite Genotyping,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99, no. 9 (2002): 6080–84. See also: Christine A. Hastorf, “Rio Balsas Most Likely Region for Maize Domestication,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 13 (March 31, 2009): 4957–58. 

  5. Adele Woodmansee, “It Is Pure Criollo Maize: Subsistence Agriculture and Ideas of Locality and Contamination in San Miguel Del Valle, Oaxaca” (Thesis, Cambridge, Harvard University, 2020), 3. See also: Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal et al., “Genome Sequence of a 5,310-Year-Old Maize Cob Provides Insights into the Early Stages of Maize Domestication,” Current Biology 26, no. 23 (December 5, 2016): 3195–3201; V. Jaenicke-Despres et al., “Early Allelic Selection in Maize as Revealed by Ancient DNA,” Science 302, no. 5648 (2003): 1206–8. 

  6. Hugo Perales and Duncan Golicher, “Mapping the Diversity of Maize Races in Mexico,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 12 (December 8, 2014): 3. 

  7. Logan Kistler et al., “Archaeological Central American Maize Genomes Suggest Ancient Gene Flow from South America,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 52 (December 29, 2020): 33124–29. 

  8. Santiago Lopmdp-Ridaura et al., “Maize Intercropping in the Milpa System. Diversity, Extent and Importance for Nutritional Security in the Western Highlands of Guatemala,” Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (February 12, 2021): 3696. 

  9. Asta J. Rand et al., “Prehispanic Maya Diet and Mobility at Nakum, Guatemala: A Multi-Isotopic Approach,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 32 (August 1, 2020): 102374. 

  10. Nicholas Carter and Mallory E. Matsumoto, “The Epigraphy of Ancient Maya Food and Drink,” in Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society, ed. Traci Ardren (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020), 99. 

  11. Karl Andreas Taube, “The Classic Maya Maize God: A Reappraisal,” in Studies in Ancient Mesoamerican Art and Architecture: Selected Works by Karl Andreas Taube (San Francisco: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, 2018), 93. 

  12. Simon Martin, “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron McNeil (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009), 156. 

  13. Allen J. Christenson, “Maize Was Their Flesh: Ritual Feasting in the Maya Highlands,” in Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica, ed. John Edward Staller and Michael Carrasco (Berlin: Springer, 2010), 580. 

  14. Christenson, “Maize Was Their Flesh: Ritual Feasting in the Maya Highlands,” 580. 

  15. Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 143. 

  16. Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries, book 9, chap. 24 (vol. I, p. 594). Quoted in Earle, The Body of the Conquistador, 143. 

  17. Earle, The Body of the Conquistador, 143–144. 

  18. Helen Anne Curry, “Taxonomy, Race Science, and Mexican Maize,” Isis 112, no. 1 (March 1, 2021): 10. See also: Helen Anne Curry, Endangered Maize: Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022). 

  19. Curry, “Taxonomy, Race Science, and Mexican Maize,” 11. 

  20. Curry, Endangered Maize, 57. 

  21. Curry, Endangered Maize, 59. 

  22. A. Keleman, J. Hellin, and M. R. Bellont, “Maize Diversity, Rural Development Policy, and Farmers’ Practices: Lessons from Chiapas, Mexico,” The Geographical Journal 175, no. 1 (2009): 52–70. 

  23. Edgar Anderson, “The Sources of Effective Germ-Plasm in Hybrid Maize,” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 31, no. 4 (1944): 355. See also: Helen Anne Curry, “Op-Ed: Saving Heirloom Seeds Can Protect Crop Diversity,” Civil Eats, January 27, 2022. 

  24. Danny Bradbury, “Saving Maize,” Alternatives Journal 31, no. 2 (2005): 19. 

  25. For more see Curry, Endangered Maize

  26. Rebecca Griest, “Guatemalan Protests against Monsanto Law (2014),” Database, Global Nonviolent Action Database, February 10, 2015. 

  27. Curry, Endangered Maize, 191. 

  28. Curry, Endangered Maize, 191. 

  29. Timothy Wise, “Mexico to Ban Glyphosate, GM Corn: Presidential Decree Comes despite Intense Pressure from Industry, US Authorities,” Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (blog), February 24, 2021. 

  30. Grandia, “Sacred Maize Against a Legal Maize,” 80.