Archive for May, 2008

Teosinte vs. Maize: Scientific Debate


One question has perplexed scholars of plant domestication for decades: Is teosinte more or less delicious than maize (attributed to Sherouse 2008: Anthro 101 exam)? Teosinte is commonly held to be the wild ancestor of domesticated maize (Flannery 1986). It is genetically identical to maize, and was likely ground into flour by early agriculturalists in Mesoamerica (Smith 1998). However, some dissident scholars (for example MacNeish 1964, Manglesdorf 1947, 1974)* suggest that maize was instead domesticated from an ancient pod corn. I argue that, if teosinte was so delicious, to the extent that it was eaten as flour, why would agriculturalists go to the trouble of creating maize? Maize is a pain in the ass, quite frankly: it doesn’t seed itself (thus cannot survive in the wild), leaches nitrogen out of the soil (thus is frequently grown with nitrogen fixers such as beans; can you say “extra work?”), and now genetically modified maize is polluting wild teosinte populations (for example, outside of Oaxaca, Mexico). Why bother?? It would be likely that maize was domesticated from ancient pod corn, not teosinte, because teosinte was delicious enough as it was, and the pod corn was not at all delicious.


It follows that, if teosinte is in fact less delicious than maize, maize was likely domesticated as a way to improve the relative flavor of its wild relative (that being teosinte). If teosinte is more delicious than maize, maize was more likely domesticated from wild pod corn, now extinct, as a way to improve the pod corn’s flavor.


In order to test the relative deliciousness of teosinte and maize, I sampled both wild teosinte and domestic maize, found on a Guatemalan hillside (San Mateo Ixtatan, Huehuetenango, to be exact). Unfortunately, wild pod corn is now extinct, eliminating the possibility for empirically testing its deliciousness against that of domestic maize. We must therefore extrapolate the relative deliciousness of teosinte to maize and assume that a positive result (teosinte = way more delicious than maize) indicates that maize was domesticated from pod corn.


I present here empirical evidence of the relative deliciousness of teosinte and maize.

sampling teosinte

Sampling teosinte.

definitely not delicious

Definitely NOT delicious.

Sampling Maize

Sampling maize.




Maize is decidedly more delicious than wild teosinte. Thus, it is likely that maize was domesticated from teosinte, making teosinte it’s wild ancestor, in order to make teosinte more delicious and improve its flavor. As an added bonus, there are now hundreds of varieties of maize grown throughout the Americas, each with its own unique flavor and culinary attributes. Each, of course, is likely more delicious than teosinte (and some varieties may even be more delicious than other varieties!); there are so many varieties that it will take many more years of travel in Mesoamerica to sample them all. Bravo, early agriculturalists! Job well done!

Acknowledgments and Apologies:
Many thanks to Mr. Sherouse, for posing the guiding question of this paper as a multiple-choice option on an Anthropology 101 exam. You have lit the fires of curiosity in the brains of freshmen anthropology students everywhere!
Apologies to all others for my terrible sense of humor. The citations are (mostly) real, the debate over maize ancestry is/ was real, the exaggerations about relative deliciousness of ancient plants are not.
Flannery (1986) Guilá Naquitz: Archaic Foraging and Early Agriculture in Oaxaca, Mexico. Academic Press, Inc. Pp 3-28.
MacNeish, Richard S. (1964) “The Origins of New World Civilization.” Scientific American. 211: 29-37.
Smith, Bruce. (1998 ) The Emergence of Agriculture. Scientific American Press. Pp 144- 181.


Unedited pictures from Guate, so far… I’m just going to dump them all into this Flickr set to back them up (and so folks can see them): the good, the bad, and the ugly, and edit them when I get home in August and back to my own computer. The exposure is off on a lot of them, they need cropping, etc. That said… there they are:

Also updated the old pics, so they’re all arranged in a “Guatemala” collection (each individual set/album).


This is the title of the new sign posted in the bathroom, conveniently at eye level when you are sitting on the porcelain throne. I find it to be a vast improvement over the sign hung there by the boys when I was here last time (ask me if you’re really interested). The sign is just one of many improvements this year at the Foundation. As a preview to longer posts on my San Mateo visit, and for your own edification, I have assembled a list of Chuj’ words, of varying utility, that have been thrown around. In some cases, I learned only the Spanish translation, so I included it with the English.*


Quick [incomplete] pronunciation guide:

b’, k’, p’, j’, e’, etc. are glottal stops… it sounds abrupt, like you stopped the flow of air from leaving your mouth… because you did.

x = English “sh”

w = Spanish v/b

nh = nasal n

ch = English “ch”

j= English “h”


Tas xi ha k’o’ol?

Lit: What is your stomach saying?

Gloss: How are you? (An appropriate way to inquire as to one’s state of being, in my opinion, given widespread stomach/ intestinal discomfort among locals and gringos alike.)

chukla– bad; wach– good

ka’k– hot; sik– cold

Ay wejel? –> Tienes hambre? Are you hungry?

hi’i– yes; ma’ay– no

Manhxalaj–> Ya no hay. There isn’t any left/ There aren’t any left/ There isn’t any anymore. (Very commonly heard in restaurants, stores, etc.)

Yujwalyos–> Muchas gracias. Thanks a lot (It should be noted that “yos” is also “God” and “sun”)

Ob’iltak hun unin tik–> Pobrecito este niño. Poor little kid./ This poor little kid.

In ganna ach. –> I love you. (Borrowed gana from Spanish. In = I, gana = “love” in this context, ach = you.)


* It should be noted that, while all Mayan languages are theoretically related somewhere down the line, Chuj’ has pretty much nothing in common with K’iche’, which I’ll be spending part of June and all of July studying.

I’m contemplating sitting in the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala), which is right across the street, tomorrow and pestering the library director into teaching me more. As far as I know, each linguistic community in Guate has at least one of these Academies, which supply books and teaching materials in the language (all part of the “Pan-Mayan” movement and post-war cultural revitalization). I didn’t have much time to study Chuj’ last time I was here, which is really unfortunate. It is truly the primary language in these parts (though Spanish is used for “official” business and school).

My Vibe

I think that people assume that I’m a missionary. HA!

I mean, consider the clues:

1) Single female, American, Midwesterner. Bing!

2) Relatively conservative dresser. Bing!

3) Infrequent (as far as they’re concerned, non-) drinker/ smoker. Bing!

4) Studying an indigenous language for no clear, practical (i.e. monetary) reason. Perhaps in order to facilitate evangelization? BINGBINGBINGBING!!

I find it really difficult to explain just what I’m doing here. When I say “anthropological research” people assume I’m an archaeologist (I’m not.).  Plus, I think “research” raises a few eyebrows.

When I say “language study” people assume Spanish, but when I clarify they get even more confused. And if I say “student” they assume “undergrad” which then leads to confusion as to who is supervising me.

Perhaps I’ll just try to remain ambiguous.

[Old] Antigua Pictures

From last year, when the weather was better.

Sadly, I didn’t have the intelligence to post views of the colonial streets/ center. Sorry, mom. I will find some for you later, I promise!

Off- Roading in a School Bus

Damn right.

The preferred method of travel in much of Latin America is Blue Bird school bus, at varying levels of decay and gaudy redecoration.  The average quality of roads in the Western Highlands of Guatemala rivals that of Michigan for number of potholes and overall quality/ existence of pavement. Plus mountains. And off-camber switchbacks.  And inhuman grades. Sounds like funtimes to me.

On Saturday, I said goodbye to the gringos at Earthlodge (but not before enjoying a ginormous bowl of homemade granola, fruit, and yogurt) and hitched a ride to the bus station, where I caught the first bus I saw to Chimaltenango.  Perhaps “saw” isn’t the right verb– I heard the ayudante (helper) shouting “Chimal! Chimal! Chimalchimalchimal!” and flagged him down.

This, the first leg of my journey towards San Mateo Ixtatán, was a mere 45 minutes through mostly semiurban areas- thus, no crazy careening around curves at 50 mph, and mostly paved. Unfortunately, I forgot that there is no central bus terminal in Chimaltenango. You have to specify which connection you’re trying to catch in order to get off at the right place, since all the buses leave from different parts of the city. Duh. So I took the bus to the very end, where the connections to Escuintla leave.  Densely, I asked the ayudante where the buses to Huehue leave. He looked at me with incredulity and said “Just go back the way we came, straight back the way we came.” Um… right. There was nothing “straight” about the way we came.

So I started wandering vaguely back in the direction that I thought we had come, hoping to find someone else to ask. The roads all looked pretty much the same to me, and I could feel myself getting more lost in the market-day craziness of vendors crowding the streets.  I pulled over into a corner and dropped my pack, so I could check out the map in my guide book. No map. *&%$@.

Finally, in quasi-desperation, I hailed a tuk-tuk and asked the driver if he knew where the buses to Huehue left from. “Sure, hop on,” he said. Sensing an idiot gringa in his midst, he charged me 5Q for the ride (about 75 cents), thus doubling my bus fare to Chimal.

The next leg was about 3 hours, to a place called Cuatro Caminos (Four Roads), a crossroads for the Interamerican, the road to Huehue, and the road to Santa Cruz del Quiché. This leg was more like what I was expecting. Still paved, but that just allowed the driver to gun it even harder around the switchbacks. I got quite the upper-body workout from holding on to my seat, in an attempt to stay out of the aisle and the lap of the guy next to me.

About ten minutes into the trip, a gentleman selling [something] hopped on. He started his spiel in the standard form: “Ladies and gentlemen, a very good afternoon to you all.” Still unclear what he was selling, he wished everyone health and happiness, telling us that regardless of religion or socioeconomic status, health is always the most important thing one can hope for (hint at what he’s selling?). He told of an interview with American celebrities he saw on the Discovery Channel (I swear, this is what he said). What was the one thing each celebrity wished they had? Health, of course. Health is the most important thing, even the very rich and famous wish they had it.

And health can be yours, when you purchase some of his very fine vitamins! They are worth 80Q ($10-ish), but he will sell them to you for a mere Q40! Look, they include Vitamin E and Vitamin K, both essential for the health of your skin (really?) and eyes (yes, true).

I declined to purchase the vitamins, but my fellow passengers did in surprising numbers.

I did, however, indulge in a “fruit”-flavored helado (ice cream, of no fruit I could identify) and some pollito con tortillas (a tiny leg of chicken and two yellow-corn tortillas). Hit the spot, the spot being very warm and thirsty (thus the ice cream) and then very hungry (thus the pollito).

I still can’t get over the way people just shove trash out the windows of the bus– so I held on to mine until I could find a basurera (trash can).

The last leg to Huehue[tenango] was another 3.5 hours, still paved. I was eager to get to the $10-a-night hotel (with private bathroom and TV!) that I called and reserved the night before. At the bus terminal, I was determined not to take a taxi (having been finagled into one the last time I arrived– since it was after dark and the micros had stopped running). So I waited on the side of the road until I saw an urban bus trundle by, and then ran after it.

I was the only person on said bus. Odd… Humoring me, the driver and ayudante took me to the urban bus terminal at no charge, and then pointed out the bus I should take to the center.

My hotel room was clean enough, and indeed had a private bathroom. Nevermind that the toilet had no seat– it was a toilet, and I would be the only one using it for the evening. WOO HOO! The shower was cold, but much needed after my 7-ish dusty hours on the bus.  I took full advantage of the cable TV, enjoying a “Legalmente Rubia” (Legally Blonde) marathon.

In the morning, I had serious second thoughts about going all the way up to San Mateo. Why the hell did I want to go back there? I had been miserable in my living situation (which included two other gringos that delighted in tormenting me every chance they got, which ended in hysterical tears and threats of castration on several occasions), and had spent a lot of my time doubled over the porcelain throne. Gee, what a great idea, going back there!

I got up my nerve to get out of bed, dress, and throw the last of my things in my pack. My goal was to be on a bus by 8 am, and so far I was on time. Getting back to the terminal was no problem, and I easily found the “office” where I bought a ticket.

The Huehue bus terminal is honestly one of my favorite places in Guatemala. I love sitting and watching all of the people coming and going to their various destinations.  In front of the bus company offices different food vendors set up, all selling pretty much the same thing. They put up their tables (with flowered, plastic-coated table cloths) and set out their plastic stools. On their portable grills they offer chicken, beef, sausages, and (my favorite) chuchitos (little tamale-type things filled with orange sauce and either pork or chicken, wrapped in a leaf I can’t recognize). To drink, you can either have weak, sweet coffee or hot, creamy rice drink spiked with sugar and cinnamon.

This is always a difficult decision for me.

A woman came right up to me (as they do) and asked if I wanted breakfast. She pulled out a plastic stool, and arranged some chicken, beans, rice, and tortillas on a plate. I opted for the rice drink “for there,” and the cafecito “to bring with.” Lacking the tops for her styrofoam cups, the lady poured some coffee into a plastic baggie and knotted the top. She included the cup.

My bus left more or less on time (8:15). The road to San Juan Ixcoy (the first town after the suburbs of Huehue) is paved, but after that the pavement is fairly intermittent.  I counted down the towns: San Juan, San Pedro Soloma (home of the drug runners and coyotes), and finally Santa Eulalia. Oh, Santa Eulalia. The sign that there is only one hour left!

After Santa, we made one last stop at Pett, where people could get off, use the servicios sanitarios (restrooms) and buy some snacks. One poor gentleman missed the ‘last-call”, and after we waited for about a half hour, my fellow passengers voted to leave him to his own devices. Who knows where he ended up?

No more pavement at this point, and the rocking bus made my stomach do serious flip-flops as we got a too-clear view of the valley below. Gulp.

The air started to change as we approached San Mateo. I swear. The smell of burning wood, mist, and mountains. Yes, I realize that mountains don’t have a smell. But I don’t know how else to describe it.

I got some interesting looks when I got off at San Mateo. Like “really? you’re getting off here??” But yes, I did, and made my way to the Foundation’s offices, where a crowd of my former students were using the internet cafe.  After a couple of beats of silence when I walked in, they remembered me! Awww.


The place I’m staying is quiet, peaceful, and not known for it’s all-day and -night crazy parties. This is unlike most places that draw thrifty gringos in Antigua.

That said, it does attract people that work at the hostels known for their crazy partying; apparently the weeklong benders get a bit much and they need a break. Last night one such a guy stayed at Earthlodge.

He talked loudly about how tough it is to be manager at this crazy backpackers’ hostel, where he’s expected to be drunk on his feet 24-7, mingle with the guests , and keep track of all finances. Yeah, I can see how that could get tiring*.

He also complained about the food.  So, when Lucy brought out the crêpes for dessert, he was pretty psyched.  So psyched, in fact, that he started making orgasm noises while chewing.

Before you start chastising me for having my head in the gutter, he was not simply expressing his enjoyment of the crêpes. He even shouted towards the kitchen,  <<Lucy, these crêpes are so good, I think I’m going to have an orgasm!>>

I was the only other person in the room at the time, and replied, <<Hey dude, get it where you can.>>

I don’t know if he just chose to ignore my comment (which, by the way, I found hilarious) or if he was stupid and didn’t get what I was implying, or decided to just act like I was laughing with him rather than at him… he decided to continue the joke.

<<Maybe I should get a room with my crêpes.>>

I glance at him and roll my eyes.

<<Gee, could I get some napkins with my crêpes? A lot of napkins?>>

I give him what I hope is a look of disgust. But funny disgust. I’m not completely without humor, c’mon.

<<I took it too far, didn’t I?>> He asks.  <<Um, yeah, a bit too far.>>

I don’t think this guy is the brightest bulb in the box.  Which makes him mostly just obnoxious, but in a way I can glean amusement from.   Oh, I’m mean. Heh.

He returned to his crazy party hostel today, so I suppose I’ll have to find entertainment elsewhere.


*It should be noted that I have nothing against paryting per say.  Nevermind that I actually dislike going to parties, and rarely do so at home. That’s a whole different story.  I think my problem in this case is more with the 24-7 partying that happens in places like Guatemala, strictly involving foreigners who come primarily for the cheap booze, that these people then pass off as <<traveling>>.  I mean, whatever. To each his/her own, I suppose. There is something to be said for meeting new people in a new place, even if those new people aren’t from the new place. Everyone has a story to tell, and you can always learn something new. 

There. See? Optimism.