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Corn, Cotton and Chocolate: How the Maya Changed the World
No civilization in the history of our planet existed longer than the ancient Maya. The historical period in which they were at the forefront lasted for 3500 years. This is an unheard of figure and arguably, one that will never be beaten. This civilization ruled from approximately 2500 BC to 900 AD However, much of what they accomplished remains largely overlooked. There was no written or oral news to travel the world to describe their exploits and the effects they had on the planet and the rest of mankind. In short, they were ‘ghosts of history’.
Corn, Cotton, and Chocolate: How the Maya Changed the World looks like a textbook you should buy for your social studies class. It can also be a highly cited text to help with your term paper or thesis research. Sounds like some pretty dry stuff, huh? I’m happy to say that in the hands of author James O’Conn, this eye-opening work has never been short of awe-inspiring and will happily hold the interest of any intelligent person interested in learning more about perhaps the most influential civilization of all time. .
Instead of a straight chapter review I thought I’d make things more interesting.
10 things the world can thank the Mayans for
1. The Maya were cosmic philosophers. They always considered themselves sky watchers and their need to understand the universe above and around us makes them the earliest astronomers. He was able to acquire extraordinary knowledge of the harmonious design of the cosmos. Yes, before Carl Sagan!
2. He was the greatest agronomist in word history. He coined the term cultivar. Not just an amalgamation of plants or flowers but a natural process through careful cultivation. They can thank Columbus for spreading the word about the original ‘flower power’ people around his world travels.
3. Discovery of zero number. This is no laughing matter (no pun intended). Mathematicians have declared that one of the singular achievements of the human age and the greatest intellectual feat of Maya is the number zero. It was a culture that was so introspective and intelligent that they were able to actually understand the concept of nothing of value—but it still forms the starting point for numerical sequences!
4. Maize. A Native American invention, corn, or as we commonly refer to it — corn — has long been considered a result of sophisticated cultivation of the high-yielding grain. Some have called it Maya’s greatest invention. It was far ahead of the trend of genetic manipulation in food products — in particular, in which people today can’t watch a movie without enjoying a ‘hot air-popped’ version of corn.
5. Avocado. The fruit known as Persea Americana has become popular in recent years due to its health benefits. This tropical delight is the central ingredient in the beloved guacamole dip. The Mayans cultivated avocado trees that may date back to the Cenozoic era.
6. Cassava and how it changed the way we feed the world. Cassava root was also widely cultivated by the Mayans and became the origin of the ‘bread of the tropics’ in various cultures around the world. This great source of carbohydrates stands behind only sugar cane and sugar beets in that category.
7. Bubble gum. O’Conn talks about the mass-produced sticks of hard gum that were used with every package of baseball cards (a practice derided by collectors as devaluing them some days ago). We can thank the Mayans who took the sap of the chicle or sapodilla tree and turned it into something to chew and enjoy. Not sure if they actually blew up the balloons…
8. Chocolate/Cocoa. Many of us, especially women, have a very personal relationship with chocolate. Can you imagine Valentine’s Day or Easter without it? Four millennia ago, the Maya had a love affair with chocolate and cacao in general, which favored this choice. Yes, they even made a warm, frothy drink out of it!
9. Cotton. This has been attributed to the large cotton plantations of the southern United States. However, once again the expert cultivation of the wild cotton plant made it the most valuable and productive vegetable fiber in the world. It also makes for some really smooth and breathable fabric for clothing.
10. Tobacco. Cigarette and cigar smoking, along with the secondhand smoke they produce, may be prohibited in recent years due to adverse health conditions. That being said, it’s impossible to know how each culture has been touched by tobacco—from Native American peace pipes to the Marlboro man. Again, the Mayan cultivation of Nicotiana paved the way for the vice enjoyed by every civilization that succeeded them.
This only scratches the surface of all the excellent research James O’Conn applied to this text. A fun and interesting read. Most importantly, you can feel O’Conn’s enthusiasm for the subject in every paragraph, and it’s far above your average textbook.
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